A new exhibition reveals how families caught in the horror of the Holocaust exchanged heartbreaking letters that they feared would never be read. By Etan Smallman
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At first glance, the folded piece of paper crammed from margin to margin with immaculate black slanted handwriting looks like a love letter or an excited dispatch from a holiday. Two things give the darker truth away.
The red stamped letterhead makes clear the message, dated 22 December, 1938, hails from Konzentrationslager Lichtenburg – Lichtenburg concentration camp in eastern Germany. And the sign-off contains a coded exhortation to Hedwig Leibetseder’s family to save themselves, which she hoped might elude the hurried eyes of any Nazi guard who examined the text before it reached its destination, looking to censor any message within: “I love you, kiss you and hug you. Stay brave and healthy. Emigrate. And write.”
Dr Leibetseder, writing from inside the concentration camp, was right to be so cautious. Another of her notes indicates how closely they were being monitored – a surgical gap in the paper is where scissors excised a section lost to history, but which clearly gave too much away.
This letter is just one of the items in Holocaust Letters, a new exhibition at London’s Wiener Holocaust Library, which reveals how much Jews understood was happening to them as the genocide unfolded in Nazi Germany. Their personal correspondence shows how they exchanged messages across borders, in defiance and in the midst of chaos and destruction.
The mail was a vital way for families to share their fragments of knowledge, to plead for help, and to urge each other not to lose hope. In 1942, Frida Motulski sent a postcard from Berlin to a friend in Holland, in which she connected the systematic nature of the deportations, military priorities and the silence from missing loved ones, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
“People were actually quite well informed despite the lack of information,” says Dr Christine Schmidt, deputy director of the library, who curated the exhibition alongside Sandra Lipner, of the Holocaust Research Institute. “What they assumed was happening ends up being quite accurate.” Lipner was also struck by the power of a single communication – “how emotionally sustaining even just one postcard is”.
In the ghettos of Europe, Jewish councils took charge of the postal service. Early concentration camp prisoners were allowed a limited number of postcards, in line with pre-existing rules.
In Theresienstadt, a Czech labour and transit camp, inmates were restricted to 30 words per month, written in block letters. Gradually, complete bans were implemented, at the same time that the upheaval of war began to disrupt international communications.
That the letters have survived – to become precious symbols of what was lost – is almost its own miracle. Paper was in such short supply that one was reused as a list for packing a suitcase. Another has unexplained burn marks. A third is written around an unreferred-to sketch of a bearded man, thought to be the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Ilse Majer, a child who had come to London from Vienna on the Kindertransport, drew a picture of herself receiving flowers on the reverse of a letter she had been sent by her mother, and posted it onwards to her cousin, Alfinko.
Thousands of letters have been preserved thanks to their donation to the Wiener Library, which celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2023. The world’s oldest and Britain’s largest collection of original archival material on the Nazi era and the Holocaust was founded by Alfred Wiener, who began gathering information about the persecution of Jews in Germany after fleeing the country in 1933 – bringing the collection with him to London in 1939. It is still receiving about 70 family document collections a year.
The exhibition features postcards sent by Stella and Bernard Rechnic to their son, Michał, who had been deported by the Soviets from Poland to a place located between Moscow and Siberia.
Michał, who came to the UK in 1946 and worked as a cab driver, kept the cards in a cloth envelope until his death in 2021, aged 97. The edges of the paper have been worn away by the repeated touch of a last link between a son and his murdered parents.
Michał’s son, Grant Rechnic, says the letter he finds most moving “by a country mile”, and which “upset me quite deeply”, is the response from Stella and Bernard to the first message they had received in six months.
“They must have been in sheer despair at what had happened to their only son,” Rechnic tells i. “Then, all of a sudden, a postcard arrives out of the blue. They must have run their fingers along the print because it was their son’s handwriting. They must have smelled it. This is tangible proof that their only child was still alive.”
In their response, dated November 1940, Bernard addresses his “dear Michasiek”, saying the “long-awaited postcard has filled our hearts with joy. You’ve saved us for what would our lives be worth without you? We didn’t know what to think as we hadn’t heard from you for over half a year.”
It was the great-nephew of Stella and Bernard, the author Michael Rosen, who had the cards translated. “We look at the terrible numbers and figures and then… there are two parents in despair over what was happening to their only child, with the added tragic irony of hindsight that it was them who perished and not the child,” says the former Children’s Laureate, quoted in one of the exhibition panels.
Stella and Bernard’s final postcard to Michał was stamped by the German post office on 26 May, 1941. “I wish you good health, and my sweetest son, be careful,” wrote Stella. Both his parents, five of his mother’s seven siblings and their families were all killed.
Seventy-six letters written in Czech by Arnošt Eckstein to his sister Marta were hidden away in his son Vic’s loft for decades. Their discovery – during a Covid lockdown clearout – “has been nothing short of a revelation”. For the first time, Vic had detailed knowledge of his father’s survival of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz camps, and of how he learnt of the loss of his parents, wife and two children.
Until his dying day, Arnošt tried to find his daughter, Jana – something Vic only discovered in 2020. He is now continuing the search for his half-sister, though does not know whether she is dead or alive.
Jewish correspondents came up with their own inventive use of language to communicate the scraps of information they had gleaned. Even though they did not know the details of the genocide taking place across Europe – six million European Jews were killed – by 1942, many had inferred from the waves of deportations heading east that “going to Poland” was synonymous with death. In October of that year, Gertrud Hammerstein wrote to her daughter and son-in-law: “If we go to Poland, we can be confident life will end.”
The Holocaust did not become a widely used term until the 70s. During and in the immediate aftermath of the war, the letters show, Jews came up with their own phrases to report a fate that defied description. One in 1942 referenced “the German conditions” and “the new era”. Another a year later talked of “these terrible times”. A missive from 1949 recalled “the gruesome years of the Ungeist (evil)”.
Euphemisms were also used to sidestep the censors. Friedel Jaffé shared with his brother, who had already emigrated, news of the deportation from Berlin of their father, by hiding it in an innocuous paragraph describing how “Papa was not at home” for six weeks. In another letter, Friedel’s sister sent a coded message from London urging him to be careful as it was “so easy to catch something” in “this autumnal weather”.
Letters were also used as a psychological weapon by the Nazis. Briefaktion, or Operation Mail, launched in 1942, forced Jews to write postcards home declaring that all was well with their “resettlement”. This was intended to deceive the world about the “Final Solution” – many of the senders describing their good health had already been sent to the gas chambers. Responses were processed centrally in Berlin and the exercise was also used to gather addresses of Jews hiding in Nazi-occupied territories.
Among the most moving exhibits are the last letters Jews sent before their deaths. Maria Wortmann and her husband Maximilian had been selected for deportation to Treblinka in occupied Poland. On 12 September, 1942, waiting in the Warsaw Ghetto at the Umschlagplatz – the railway siding from where the trains departed – Maria grabbed a scrap of paper, and scribbled a final message to her daughter.
“Dear Dziunius! Obviously this is our fate. Be brave and cope,” she wrote, before turning to more practical matters. These included the location of food, in rucksacks and in the oven, and the information that “butter is in the wardrobe” – using a codeword to reveal where their money had been hidden. It concluded: “Dziunius, farewell and go courageously into life! Regards for all.” Maximilian hastily signed his name on the reverse.
There was heartbreak too for the millions of loved ones waiting for envelopes that would never arrive. “My mother’s last letter from Ravensbrück was dated December 1944,” said Rolf Kralovitz, in his memoir, Ten Zero Ninety in Buchenwald: A Jewish Prisoner Tells His Story.
“In the months that followed, I waited eagerly for further news from her. Nothing. Also from my sister: nothing. Also from my father: nothing. In vain I awaited a signal of life. But dead people do not write.”
- Holocaust Letters is at The Wiener Holocaust Library from 22 February to 16 June