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Store owner, Auschwitz survivor Moses dies

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011, at 4:22 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Jan. 21, 2011, at 9:41 a.m.

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There were times when Mary Wright, who owns and operates the Old Mill Tasty Shop on East Douglas, would grow frustrated with the woman who ran the clothing store next door.

Esther Moses was strong-willed, stubborn and slow to trust people.

But then Wright would remember something said by her father — a longtime customer at Sam Zelman Clothing Store, the business Esther and Herbert Moses ran together for decades at Douglas and St. Francis.

"He always told me I should think about all the things Esther had been through in her life," Wright said. "We knew that she had gone through things in our lives we would never see."

Mrs. Moses died Tuesday night at the age of 90. She will be buried today at Hebrew Cemetery following a funeral.

"To have survived what they survived, you had to have a strong will to live," Wichita attorney David Moses said of his parents, both of whom survived Nazi concentration camps. "It obviously left a lasting memory, that you were being persecuted because you believed in something different. That does stick with you."

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1920, Esther Zelman was sent by the Nazis to Auschwitz during World War II — a concentration camp built in Poland to kill large numbers of Jews as efficiently as possible.

When the women were unloaded from the cattle cars inside the camp, Nazi guards would line them up and inspect their hands.

Those with large, callused hands were kept to perform labor. Those with small, soft hands were sent to the gas chambers.

Mrs. Moses was used to hard work, and her hands showed it. That, she would tell her daughter Molly Wisman decades later, is what saved her life.

She would endure Auschwitz for three years. Her mother and two sisters died in the Holocaust, however.

Eventually, she was freed and sent to a liberation camp, where she met a survivor of the Buchenwald camp named Herbert Moses.

She relocated to Wichita after the war, where her father had opened a clothing store. Herbert moved to New York in 1947, and she invited him to visit her in Wichita. They married a week after his arrival in 1948 and began running her father's store.

She rarely talked about Auschwitz, even to her children.

After watching part of "Shoah," a 9 1/2-hour documentary on the Holocaust, during a special Wichita screening in 1986, she spoke briefly to an Eagle reporter.

''The echoes, the screams: They are still in my head," she said. "There are some things you cannot put into words. It is impossible."

She taught her children to stand up for what was right, even if it wasn't popular with everyone.

"She was very firm and strict," David Moses said. "She was always teaching that you should do things the right way. Be respectful to everyone. Stick up for your beliefs. Be good to people."

Her tough exterior belied a big heart and generous spirit, her son said.

She was a strong supporter of Wichita Children's Theater and Washburn University, where her three children went to college.

She thought nothing of walking from her home near College Hill to the store downtown pretty much every day, even though it was a round trip of nearly six miles.

She loved to stand or sit at the front of the clothing store, keeping an eye on her street and the people who passed by.

"Esther would know everything that was going on," said Wright, who opened the Old Mill Tasty Shop in 1982. "She'd been here forever — this was her block. We always respected that."

Mrs. Moses donated two ambulances to Israel in the late 1990s, one of them specially outfitted for cardiac cases in memory of her beloved "Herbie," who died of heart failure in 1991.

She quietly helped many others, her son said.

"Most people don't realize that," he said. "She didn't do it for the attention."

The store finally closed in 2006, when Mrs. Moses was well into her 80s.

People still come by the Old Mill and ask how the woman from next door is doing.

"She was just kind of a fixture here forever," Wright said. "It seems really strange to walk by and not have her standing by the door."

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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