The prodigal daughter: Esta Lefton

Polish-born Zionist pioneer who was seriously injured in Mandate era terrorist attack, served as nurse in several wars, finally returns to Israel.

Esta Lefton 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Esta Lefton 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Esta Lefton has lived a full life.
A former nurse for the Allied forces in Egypt and Italy during World War II, educator, businesswoman, poet and artist, Lefton moved to Jerusalem with her family as a child, spent her adult life in London, and has now returned a final time to remain with her loved ones.
Born Esta Gutman on November 12, 1920, in a small town in Poland called Zolkiewka, near Lublin, Lefton is one of six children, including four brothers and a sister. Her father worked as a leather merchant, while her mother cared for the children.
The town Lefton grew up in was half Jewish and half Christian, and according to her, devoid of significant anti-Semitism until the year 1935.
Lefton said her family’s religious life first changed significantly when she was nine and her eldest brother, Yitzhak, was studying as a rabbinical student in Warsaw.
There, she said, he developed a strong interest in Zionism that transformed her entire family.
“We realized that there was another group within the Jewish people who thought differently, not only about religion, but about Palestine,” Lefton said.
Upon discovering that many Jews within Warsaw embraced Zionism, her brother began studying the concept in secrecy because the rabbinical school he attended did not believe in Zionist ideology, considering it a Christian ideal.
“The rabbis believed that they must wait for ‘mashiach’ to come, not in creating a Jewish state in Israel,” Lefton said.
However, her brother’s enthusiasm for building a state in Palestine only grew. “My brother used to have to hide his books about Zionism when he was at rabbinical school for fear of being expelled,” she said.
His passion soon captured the imagination of their Orthodox father, who shortly thereafter became the leader of a Zionist movement in their town, and embraced secularism.
“It wasn’t easy for Orthodox families to do that, but we did,” Lefton said.
In 1933 Yitzhak moved to Palestine, where he served with the Jerusalem Police, and later became the Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce.
Meanwhile, back in Poland, Lefton said that in 1935 tensions began to mount against Jews, and in 1936, at the age of 16, along with the remainder of her immediate family, she moved to Jerusalem, under the British Mandate.
In Jerusalem her father was forced to take whatever manual-labor jobs he could muster to make ends meet. Meanwhile, Lefton and her siblings attended school, where the teenager developed a life-long love for poetry and painting that continues to this day.
However, it would not be long before world strife found its way to Lefton’s new life.
In August of 1939, while walking home, she said a student from a nearby German school who was influenced by Adolf Hitler’s rhetoric, detonated a bomb in central Jerusalem, seriously injuring Lefton and 13 others.
She sustained very serious shrapnel wounds and was immediately rushed to Hadassah Hospital, where she remained for several months.
The scars from her wounds remain visible to this day.
While convalescing in the hospital, Lefton wrote one of her first poems about the horrific experience:
My life just 18 years old
spent in happiness with my family and friends,
growing up, engaged in studying,
eager and happy for learning and working.

One August evening warm and calm
my life was shattered by a bomb.

I grew old.
I was on the way home
to see my dear mother
when fire struck me,
grilled my flesh.

There were not tears
but mother on my lips.

I sunk into oblivion
then to death.

For a time I was there
somewhere in a new land.

One day I was awake – old,
old. No more a child.
After concluding a grueling regimen of physical therapy to recover from her most serious injuries, Lefton joined the British Army in 1942 as a nurse in Palestine.
She subsequently worked at a British hospital in Suez for roughly one year, where she cared for soldiers in the Allied forces, and then was transferred to a hospital in a small town in Central Italy, where she worked with trauma patients. While there, she also assisted as an interpreter in Polish, German, Hebrew and English.
Lefton was stationed in Italy until the war’s conclusion, where she helped care for thousands of refugees, the multitude of whom she said were severely traumatized both physically and emotionally by the barbarity of the Nazis.
In August of 1946, Lefton concluded her service in Italy and returned to Palestine, where she worked at a psychiatric hospital, and later as a dental assistant.
Lefton, who longed to travel, soon moved to London, where she found work as a nurse at the London Jewish Hospital in the East End. A little over a year later she met her future husband, Alec Lefton, and married at age 26.
Over the years, Lefton raised her two daughters, worked in early childhood education, and later opened her own antique shop, which she ran into her 80s.
At the age of 90 she said she felt compelled to return to Israel.
Asked what prompted her to return, Lefton, who is still quite vibrant for her years, said she wanted to be buried with her parents, nearby her brothers and sister’s cemetery.
Among her impressive portfolio of poems, perhaps the most telling and moving of her sentiments is entitled “Jerusalem.”
My heart is in the East – Jerusalem.
I live across the sea in the West.
How can I fulfill my longings, emotions when my brain is in two parts.
I am a captive, a prisoner of my own body.
I seek you in North, West, South – my eyes and heart always turn East.
I weep, dream to taste you, hold you, Jerusalem.
I stand by my parents’ graves, bow in respect.
I carry pieces of a broken heart and place them on their graves.
I grieve for their love.
My heart is bound up with you, Jerusalem.
My feet treading foreign land
waiting for my heart and mind
to join as if in marriage
to rejoice with music in my heart
to live and die in
Lefton said she could not imagine concluding her life any place else.
“I have returned to my home,” she said.