Wartime forgiveness Knitting as therapy

An Israeli woman who fled Europe during the Holocaust knits sweaters for German children, inspired by the memory of the cold she felt as a child during the escape.
Ester Prishkolnik (r) and her little sister during the war.

Ester Prishkolnik is an 80-year-old Israeli, originally from Poland, now living in a retirement community north of Tel Aviv, with a view of the sea. There in her home, she knits -- from morning until night. Sweater by tiny sweater, she is knitting through her memories. The sweaters are to keep children warm, because the memories are of her as a child, growing up in Europe and enduring the bitter cold.

She was born in Krakow in 1936. When she was three, her Jewish family fled the Germans who came to kill them. At first, they went to Ukraine. One morning, her mother left to buy milk. Young Ester never saw her again. “I felt like I became a mother to my baby sister at the age of three,” she told Handelsblatt Global. The little family – Ester, her sister and their father, fled again, to Siberia, where her father worked until he was drafted by the Red Army. Separated from her sister, Ester was passed from one orphanage to another. She remembers it as being cold, very cold. But she survived, in part by deciding to learn a skill from each adult she met; this is how, at the age of seven, she started to knit.

The only tangible things left from that time today are three photos, a heavy coat and a small suitcase in which she carried all she had. But she never stopped knitting. And now the sweaters are piling up around her in “a circle of forgiveness,” as she calls it. They are little button-down cardigans with Mickey Mouse buttons and booties with miniature leather soles. At first, she meant the sweaters for Israeli children, like her granddaughter Lihi Koren. But Israel is hot, and children don’t need many sweaters.

So, when Ms. Koren was a teenager and visiting freezing Berlin, she had an idea. Why not bring her grandmother’s sweaters to cold Germany? Contemporary Berlin, to Ms. Koren, seemed hipster and cool, and her grandmother’s rather stripey and rather motley woolens might just match local parents’ taste. So Ms. Koren, now in her twenties, and her brother, currently serving in the Israeli army, dreamed up a logo and ran a Facebook campaign. They packed bags and bags of sweaters and flew to Berlin.

An artsy type, Ms. Koren transformed a real-estate agent’s office by ripping out the boring stuff and putting up old family photographs and laying out lots and lots of chestnuts – chestnuts are what Ester Prishkolnik remembered eating as a child to survive.

Here, in this shrine to her grandmother’s lost youth, on October 7, Ms. Koren and her brother sold the sweaters. The tiny room was filled with German and Israeli moms and children trying out cardigans and booties.

Ms. Koren had been thinking about this German-Israeli connection for a year, and her grandmother for much longer. The granddaughter told Handelsblatt Global that making sweaters worn by Germans is therapeutic for the grandmother, a way of giving something back to the little child inside her. Ms. Prishkolnik, who came into the conversation via What’s App from Tel Aviv, would only say that “I believe that my sweaters are more necessary for babies in this cold country and will warm up their little hearts.” Germans are “different people now,” she added. Then she went back to knitting.

Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]