Frances Gersten, 92, survived Holocaust and embraced life in St. Louis

Frances and Abe Gersten 2012

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus 

Our Hebrew Bible teaches us that God has placed before us life and death, but commands us: Choose Life!  For Frances Gersten, who died Aug. 10 at 92, choosing life was more than a maxim. She and her late husband, Abraham (Abe), who died in 2016 at 93, were both Holocaust survivors. They proved in their 70 years of marriage just how to maximize meaningful lives after unspeakable tragedy.

Frances Eichner Gersten was born in Chrzanów, Poland (near Krakow) on March 1, 1928. She was born Fella Eichner, but changed her name to Frances when immigrating to the United States.

Both Abraham and Frances endured countless horrors during the Holocaust—losing loved ones, being shunted from one Nazi death camp to another, nearly starving to death before the war ended in 1945, the year they married in Konstanz, Germany. Together, during their seven-decade marriage, they raised a loving family, ran a popular business and were active in the St. Louis Jewish community.

During the Holocaust, Mrs. Gersten survived three concentration camps. She was a forced laborer in Freudenthal for close to two years, working six days a week. Freudenthal was a sub-camp of Auschwitz, according to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, and was located in Czech Silesia, at that time within the borders of Sudetenland. Mrs. Gersten and the other prisoners still living were then sent to the Grünberg concentration camp, and in March 1945 to Helmbrechts, a sub-camp of Flossenbürg, located near Hof, Germany. 

According to a family history provided to the Light, Mrs. Gersten and other prisoners were forced to leave on a death march for months, walking 12 to 18 hours a day with no food or water, sleeping in ditches and fields along the way. Prisoners who tried to run away were shot and killed. 

Along the way, someone stole Mrs. Gersten’s shoes, so she walked in poorly fitting wooden shoes. Towards the end of the march, Mrs. Gersten went to wake up a friend who had been with her through all three concentration camps. Her friend was dead. Mrs. Gersten knew her friend kept a piece of bread in her pocket, so she quickly ate the bread and drank snow. Mrs. Gersten credited the bread with keeping her going for the final three or four days of the march.

On May 3, 1945 in Volary, Czechoslovakia, the prisoners were liberated by American soldiers. Mrs. Gersten was transferred to a makeshift hospital run by the Americans in an old schoolhouse, where she was nursed back to health from malnutrition. At the time she was liberated, Mrs. Gersten weighed only 74 pounds. 

Mrs. Gersten lost all of her family in the Holocaust, except for a few cousins. Her mother and brother were killed at Auschwitz and her father was killed at a labor camp.

Mrs. Gersten met her future husband at a Displaced Persons camp after the war. They married three months later, on Oct. 20, 1945 in Konstanz, Germany. After living in Germany for three years, the Gerstens were supposed to travel to pre-state Israel, but an opening came in from Jewish Family Services (formerly Jewish Family & Children’s Services) for placement in St. Louis. 

After settling here, the Gerstens owned and operated the popular Abe Gersten Tailor Shop, originally in University City and later in Creve Coeur at Olive Boulevard and Interstate 270.

The couple’s daughter, Gay Gersten Guller, told the Jewish Light: “Everyone knew Abe Gersten as ‘the tailor.’  He was known for his generosity and helping those who could not afford his services.  Frances also helped with sewing, pressing and ironing in the shop.”

The Gerstens were also active with the local survivors community, the Habonim Society, the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, the Jewish Community Center and Traditional Congregation.

“They frequented the JCC to exercise and socialize with the Jewish community,” recalls daughter Gay Gersten Guller.

After all they endured in the Holocaust, one could have understood if they had given in to despair.  Instead by their 70-year marriage and embrace of the St. Louis Jewish community, Abe and Frances were shining examples of what choosing life is all about.

In addition to Gay Gersten Guller (Steve), survivors include three other children: Sarah Holtzman (Jim), Sam Gersten (Karen) and Mark Gersten (Laura Shapiro); 12 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

Contributions preferred to the St. Louis Holocaust Museum or the Alzheimer’s Association.

The Gerstens are buried at the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery on White Road in Chesterfield. Rabbi Seth Gordon of Traditional Congregation officiated at both services.