Esther Rosen Diegel
Birth: March 3, 1912 in Vienna, Austria
Death: August 7, 1993 (age 81) in Victoria, B.C.
Rabbi Victor Reinstein gave the following eulogy at her funeral on August 9, 1993. Yahrzeit 20 Av
In the Jewish caleder we are not in a period of time that is called “The seven weeks of comfort”. It is a fitting time in which to say good-by to Esther Diegel. Though we gather in sorrow, there is a measure of comfort to be found if we consider her own views of life and how she lived. Esther had a keep sense of the realities of life and little time or patience for bemoaning human fate. She knew well that death is a part of life and that for all of its pain life is worth living. As she lived with dignity so she died with dignity.
Esther died on Shabbos, early in the morning of the Jewish sabbath. In Jewish tradition, to die on Shabbos is to be kissed by God. Esther had a special relationship with God that reflected her own unique character. To anyone who only saw the external Esther Diegel, it may not have been apparent that she was a deeply spiritual person who drew from a deep well of personal faith that saw her thought a difficult life. Esther often felt the essence of life and of God, and the love of both, in her garden. She found peace in her garden. There life’s truths seemed to simple, things live and die. Nurturing plants she acknowledged the spirit of God in the universe. When already well on in years, she began to see through the veil of fear that had descended with the rise of Nazism and she began the journey of return to her own people and its faith, a journey that eventually brought her “home” to the Jewish community of Victoria.
Difficult to know in all of her facets, Esther was a complex woman, whose inner strength saw her through a life that was not easy. Fleeing Austria just before the Anschluss, some of her sorrows were those of the Jewish people. Some were personal tragedies. Gary and Ray, whose names she always placed on the Yom Kippur Yizkor memorial list, were 2 sons who died in early childhood soon after her arrival in Canada.
Having married a Canadian soldier in England, Esther came to Canada in 1945, settling in Calgary with some 6 years spent on a farm away from the city. She came to Victoria in 1965. Canada was a long way from life she might have assumed she would live in Vienna, had it not been for the Holocaust. She had 3 years of university before fleeing. She wanted to be a doctor, though her father, an architect, disapproved. To appease him she took a more traditionally female elective course in dressmaking. That skill, well-learned in spite of herself, became one of the survival skills that Esther would later draw on.
For you, Barbara and Jean, and for you Chris, she was a remarkable woman. You, her daughters, knew the depth of that “incredible internal fortitude” which you’ve described. She loved you with an unconditional love. Her door was always open to your friends, as it remained opened to others of all ages who would become her friends. Giving of herself, she allowed each of you to be yourself and she accepted you and the mistakes you made as part of growing. She didn’t give up on anything, even when times were hard. She found a way to do what needed to be done. Two things she didn’t want to hear from anyone were “I can’t” or “I told you so”. As you said, and as we all know, she never refrained from expressing her viewpoint. One said, you could accept or reject it. She had a genuine regard for people, and without phoniness, she was open to all. As the eldest grandchild Chris, you had a special relationship with her. You said of her, “She was the strongest woman I even knew and the smartest.” Down the road a bit, her grandmotherly love expanded to include the newcomers who made her so proud, Isaac and Elisse.
In the words of the “Book of Proverbs”, Esther we an “eyshet chayil” a term that you, Barbara and Jean, learned from Jerry and Miriam during the hospital vigil, a “Woman of alour” of whom the “Book of Proverbs” says, “Whenever people gather, her deeds speak her praise”. Her deeds were many, through, she spoke little about them. Soon after coming to Victoria, she began to run a house in Oak Bay for unwed mothers. This became much more than a job. She became a mother to those young women. On the wall in Esther’s living room are two framed citations recognizing her volunteer work, one from the city of Victoria, and the other from Ottawa. One of the great loves in Esther’s life was her work as a docent at the Royal Museum, which she did for the past 14 to 15 years. I want to acknowledge the presence of you, her colleagues and fiends from the museum, who are here to honor her today. From you we learn of the esteem in which Esther was held in that facet of her life, of the many ways in which she gave of herself as a museum docent. That work meant a tremendous amount to her, filling a gap in her life and providing a friendship with so many good and interesting people. This past June, Docent Esther lead a tour of the museum for elder members of the synagogue, our Chaverim group. She beamed with pride as she led us from one exhibit to another, tiring even me, the youngster of the group.
Among Esther’s deeds is her work as a dressmaker. Through it was for so long a livelihood, at the end, with arthritic fingers and bent back, she continued to sew for a select clientele in nursing homes and elsewhere who had trouble getting clothes. On the day that she was felled by a stroke there was still work to be completed in her home. Having hid her Jewishness for many years since the war, the Jewish community became a source of greater meaning in Esther’s life than many people might imagine. The synagogue seemed to represent a sense of renewed wholeness, a coming full circle to re-embrace who she had been. She gave of herself in many ways. For a number of years she organized the Community Passover Seder with her good friend, Harry Brown. They were an unbeatable team. In a very different expression of communal responsibility Esther participated for many years in the “Chevra Kadisha“, the “Holy Society” the “Burial Society” that lovingly washes and clothes the bodies of the dead. Esther’s acceptance of death and her love of life provided inspiration for those women who worked with er. Sharing a cup of coffee at her urging after completing their holy task, Esther’s wisdom as mentor helped all to make the transition from death back to life. With the same love that she gave to so many others have now given to her, helping her on the way of a new journey. Esther Digel was a presence who touched the lives of many. It is hard to believe that one so vital is gone. She could easily be misunderstood is we were quick to judge the brusqueness of her outer manner and not see her deep compassion and love of life and people. Esther cut through the nonsense we tend to get tangled up in that causes us to lose sight of priories. As you said, Barbara and Jean, her spirit will be in each and every one of us, and from times to be there will be a giggle as we remember her words and her ways.
For you Barbara and Jean, your mom seemed to orchestrate, even in these last days, the manner of her own dying from that place beyond words of understanding. She had taught you in life not to be afraid of death, and in her dying, even to her last breath to which you gave loving witness, she gave you a lasting gift of wholeness of completeness, of “shalom” with each other and with her. In living that gift, her memory shall be a blessing as you and we go on with life.
Gravesite Details: Row E – Plot 4
פּ״נ (Here lies)
her name in Hebrew: Ester b. Yisrael
A WOMAN OF VALOR
ת נ צ ב ה
abbreviation for Biblical quote: “May her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.”