Death of Eszti Votaw

Subotica skyline. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Estera (Eszti) Votaw, a Holocaust survivor  who was widowed by the 1983 Hezbollah terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, and who for years was a driving force in efforts to restore the Art Nouveau synagogue in her hometown Subotica (Serbia), passed away in Washignton DC on July 30 at the age of 83.

Eszti was smart, sassy, and opinionated, a uniquely dynamic force of nature who did not suffer fools, and a wonderful inspiration to those who knew her.

She was the great-niece of the Budapest Jewish architect Dezso Jakab, who along with Marcell Komor designed the Subotica synagogue. Komor and Jakab were two of the most important turn of the century Hungarian architects. They designed several other major buildings in Subotica, including the wonderful town hall and the extraordinary lakeside resort of Palic, outside town.

This family connection inspired her to work actively for many years toward the synagogue’s restoration — a process that has been going on, fitfully, for decades….and is still, alas, not complete.

The World Monuments Fund (WMF) has been an important funder of the restoration work, making it one of their key priorities in Jewish heritage preservation. According to Eszti’s obituary, donations can be made in her name to the World Monuments Fund, 350 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2412, New York, NY 10118 (wmf@wmf.org) or (www.wmf.org/donate).

May her memory be for a blessing!

Here is Eszti’s obituary as published on legacy.com

VOTAW ESTERA FENJVES VOTAW Estera Fenjves Votaw of Washington, D.C., survivor of the Holocaust, and widowed by the 1983 Iranian terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, died July 30, 2012, at age 83. Estera was born into a Hungarian Jewish family in Subotica, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), the city bordering Hungary. Her father, Louis Fenjves, was editor of a Hungarian-language newspaper and her mother, Claire Gereb Fenjves, was a well-known graphic artist.

The Hungarian occupation in 1941 pauperized the family, and the subsequent German occupation in 1944 resulted in their deportation, along with virtually the entire Jewish population of Hungary, to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where Estera’s mother perished along with many relatives.

Estera survived as a slave worker in a lightbulb factory, and was liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945. After the Liberation, she returned to Subotica where she was reunited with her younger brother, Steven (liberated from Buchenwald), and their father, who returned from a slave labor camp in Silesia. Their father died a few months later in 1946.

Estera and Steven escaped from Communist-dominated Yugoslavia in 1947, stopping in Paris, where they resumed their studies. In 1950, they immigrated to the U.S., settling in Chicago. In 1953, Estera married Albert Votaw, then a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times. Soon after, Albert began his career in public housing at the Uptown Chicago Commission. They moved to St. Louis in 1960, where Albert became Director of Land Clearance for the city Housing Authority. In 1966, Albert started his work in public housing with the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the family, including four daughters, moved to Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

As regional director for public housing for West Africa, Albert arranged for the financing and construction of rural housing. Estera accompanied Albert on trips to many rural villages in West Africa, and developed considerable expertise in African art. They began collecting native pieces, and the collection grew significantly during their 15 years in Abidjan. Interspersed in the 15 years in Abidjan were two years in the Washington, D.C. area, when the family lived in what is now the Lee-Fendall historic home in Alexandria, VA, and one year in Tunis. During the time in North Africa, Estera worked as a translator for the doctors on the American Hospital Ship SS Hope, docked in Tunis to educate local doctors and provide medical services. After Abidjan, Albert’s next USAID assignment was Bangkok, Thailand, where they visited many artistic and historic sites in Southeast Asia.

Albert’s last assignment as a USAID officer was in Beirut, Lebanon. He was in the Embassy cafeteria on his 12th day in Beirut, when on April 18, 1983, an Iranian-funded Hezbollah suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with explosives into the Embassy, destroying the building. Albert was killed in that attack, at age 57, along with other American and Lebanese citizens.

Estera returned to the U.S., settling in an apartment in Dupont Circle, where she lived until her death. She traveled widely, visiting family and friends throughout the world. She was always surrounded by her devoted family and numerous friends. Many of her friends had been Peace Corps volunteers during her years in West Africa, where she was considered their unofficial godmother. Everyone admired her extensive African art collection, her large library filled with art and history books, and her many talents in crafts, origami, and needlework.

She was acknowledged as unbeatable in Scrabble and mahjong. Estera loved attending the opera and visiting art museums. She donated parts of her African art collection to the Smithsonian’s Museum of African Art, and to the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, N.D.

Estera is survived by her brother, Steven Fenves of North Bethesda; daughters Claire-Louise Votaw of Fairfax, Catherine Votaw of the District, Susan West and son-in-law Jonathan West of Hobart, Tasmania, and Marianne Votaw of Charlottesville; grandchildren Lilian and Veronica Jarvinen, Nehemiah, Anna and Albert Eisenberg, Eliane West, William Brown and Timothy Votaw; and one great-grandchild, Ahuva Eisenberg. A memorial service is in the planning stage. Donations can be made in Estera’s name to the World Monuments Fund, 350 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2412, New York, NY 10118 (wmf@wmf.org) or (www.wmf.org/donate).