By Aaron Blevins, 9/13/2012
Holocaust survivor finds comfort in reaching out to others
When Estherleon Schwartz was 4 years old, her father, Leon, tossed her over a barbed wire fence at the Gurs detention camp on the French border to members of the Swiss Red Cross on the other side.
The family was trying to save their little girl from the hands of the Nazis, and she would inevitably be placed in the care of nuns. However, Schwartz has never forgotten the words her father uttered to God that day: “Save my daughter, and she will always serve you.”
“His eyes bulged out,” she said. “I’d never seen my father with tears coming down.”
While it took some time for her father’s words to ring true, they’ve been paramount in her efforts to become a cantor and bring harmony to all religions through music. Those efforts continue today, and will be on display during the upcoming High Holy Days.
Schwartz, the founder of Temple Beth Shirah, said she came to America in 1948 on the Queen Mary. Through she was initially ostracized, with the help of her brother she became a successful retailer, eventually opening 13 House of Cashmere stores, two of which were in Beverly Hills.
Yet, as she was enjoying professional success, the words of her father affectionately haunted her. She said began studying, reading literature and the Bible to get closer to God. Schwartz met cantor Allan Michaelson, who was one of the first to train women.
“I became like his protégé,” she said. “I studied every day — night and day.”
In her religious training, Schwartz became a lay prayer leader. She said she began to learn Hebrew, and mastered the language in her 50s. It wasn’t until the 1990s, though, that Schwartz reached her goal of becoming a cantor. She then founded Temple Beth Shirah.
In 2004, Schwartz teamed up with Ivor Pyres, a Catholic man from India who was captivated by her singing. She said they started a production company, Ive and Esty, and have been performing concerts since.
“You just feel a sense of a heavenly, divine presence,” Schwartz said of the music.
Through the concerts, the duo has sought to raise awareness and support for Los Angeles food banks, such as SOVA and the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. Schwartz said they collect canned goods during the High Holy Days annually, though they also donate items throughout the year.
“People are hungry every day,” she added.
During Temple Beth Shirah’s services the next two weeks at the Matrix Theatre, the temple will again benefit area food banks. Services will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Rosh Hashanah Eve, 9:30 a.m. on Rosh Hashanah Day, 7:30 p.m. on Yom Kippur Eve and 9:30 a.m. on Yom Kippur Day.
There is no cost to attend, though worshippers are asked to donate canned goods. Schwartz said all religions are welcome to attend and benefit those in need.
“It’s just a simple thing of making your mind up in the morning,” Schwartz said. “Within [serving others], you’re uplifted. It’s so simple.”
The Matrix Theatre,7657 Melrose Ave.