Originally Published: September 8, 2010 9:56 p.m.
Tears rolling down a toddler's cheeks while she watched Fourth of July fireworks and listened to patriotic music brought about an incredible reunion between a Holocaust survivor and an American soldier who helped liberate the concentration camp where she was imprisoned in World War II.
The story of how Esther Basch, 82, and Max Liebers, 92, met after 60 years begins with Esther's daughter, Rachel (who prefers not to have her last name published), who took her little granddaughter, Jasmine, to the July 4 celebration in Chino Valley three years ago. "She was in such awe," Rachel said of the child's emotional reaction to the Independence Day observance.
Rachel then told her mother, Esther Basch, a Phoenix resident, about the little girl's response, and Esther told her daughter her "biggest dream" was to find the soldiers who had liberated her and hundreds of other Jewish women from Salzwedel, a German concentration camp.
With that, Rachel began her search. She called museums and veterans groups, and then got on the Internet, where she found a story about a photographer who had been in the battalion that liberated Salzwedel. The photographer had died, but she found valuable information on the site that led her to the 84th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army and news of an upcoming reunion. She mailed a letter to an address for the reunion, and it ended up in Max's hands.
Soon enough, Max was on the phone to Rachel, who "had to tell her mother 10 times before she could digest the news" that she had found an American soldier who had rescued the women in her camp. Not long after, on Oct. 6, 2007, Max drove to Phoenix to meet Esther.
"It was the most incredible feeling. I really can't describe it," Esther said this past weekend, when Max made the trip once again from his home in New Mexico to visit Esther at Rachel's Chino Valley home. "We have become friends," Esther said. "He became my family."
Esther was born in 1928 in what was then Czechoslovakia, the only daughter of Rabbi Morris (Moishe) and Fanny Roth. "She was a very protected, very sheltered only child," Rachel said.
In April 1944, the Jews in the town where the family lived were put into a ghetto where her parents were beaten and her father's beard pulled from his face. When the Roths were sent to Auschwitz, their captors ripped Esther from her parents' arms. She never saw them again.
Rachel credits her mother's strong upbringing in the Jewish faith - and her father's reassurance that the Messiah would come one day - for her survival of all that she endured as a prisoner.
A survivor of the ghetto, Auschwitz and a labor camp, Esther was finally sent to Salzwedel two weeks before the end of WWII. She was not quite 17 years old.
"The soldiers had to shoot the gates open," Rachel said of the camp's liberation on April 14, 1945. "The Jews thought they were there to kill them." But a Jewish American soldier was able to translate and help them understand they were in no danger - they were going to be set free.
That July, the American soldiers put on a Fourth of July fireworks show - a first for Esther.
Remembering that and hearing about Jasmine's excitement at her first fireworks show prompted Esther to mention the dream Rachel would fulfill.
Max was surprised that Rachel's letter had reached him.
"I couldn't believe it was possible," he said during his recent trip to Chino Valley. "She is like a sister to me. It seems as if we have known each other for years. It's a wonderful relationship."