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Books: Yizkor—Remembrance
by Bonny V. Fetterman

Rechja and Anna Rosenbluth in Krakow 1938When my niece asked me to visit Poland with her, I agreed enthusiastically, but after reading the last letters from my mother’s sisters, I wasn’t so sure….

I always knew they were there—the packet of letters from my mother’s family in Poland tucked in the bottom drawer of her bureau. The letters written in Yiddish were from her father in Dabrowa through 1939. Those written in Polish were from her three sisters in Krakow, then Mielec, up to 1941. When my mother died, I transferred them from her bureau to mine, knowing they were precious and fearing them at the same time.

I finally found the courage to have them translated when my niece Tammy, a young mother and wife, asked me to visit Poland with her. At first I agreed enthusiastically to join her, but after reading the letters from my mother’s sisters—Rechja, 17, Chaija, 14, and Anna, 28, with an infant daughter—I decided that Poland was the last place I wanted to go. I felt that I couldn’t bear to be in the place where they suffered so much. In the letters they pleaded for visas they knew would never reach them in time. Hearing their voices for the first time, I was deeply shaken, and my mother’s grief became my own.

My niece understood my hesitation, and in the most beautiful letter I’ve ever received, explained her reasons for going. “It is heartbreaking that there was no way to help them at the time,” she wrote. “I know it will be difficult to be in the place where they were and know that we are too late to save them. I wish I could have been here to help them when they needed help but there is nothing I can do about what is past. All I can do now is go and visit and not forget. In the letter Rechja says she had thought that they had been long forgotten. When I go it will show that even sixty years and two generations later, they have not been forgotten. It doesn’t change anything but it means something to me.”

Her words prompted me to reconsider the trip—and towards that end, I began to read the accounts of others who discovered their own packets of letters. Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum calls these letters, now emerging from attics and basements and drawers, “a new genre of original Jewish documentation,” reflecting the experience of individuals at that time, in that place, and in their own words.


The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million
by Daniel Mendelsohn

(Harper Perennial, 528 pp., paperback $15.95)

Growing up on Long Island, Daniel Mendelsohn took a strong interest in family history even as a child and listened attentively to the stories of his grandfather, Abraham Jaeger. But there was a dearth of stories about his grandfather’s eldest brother Shmiel, his wife Ester, and their four daughters, all of whom perished in the Holocaust. After his grandfather’s death, Daniel discovered the contents of the old wallet that Abraham always kept in the breast pocket of his jacket—Shmiel’s last letters.

Since he knew nothing about the circumstances of their deaths, Daniel was determined to learn more about these relatives who seemed more lost than dead. In August 2001, together with three of his siblings, he traveled to Bolechow in western Ukraine. Local Ukrainians told them there had been a massacre in 1941 and showed them the site. One recognized the family name. The house no longer existed.

The real discoveries came later, when they shared a video of the trip with relatives in Israel, who in turn put them in touch with Bolechow survivors around the world. The first call came from a man in Australia who had been the boyfriend of Ruchele, the third sister. Daniel and his brother Matt, a photographer, went to Sydney to meet him. Over the next five years, they traveled to Beersheva, Haifa, Stockholm, and Copenhagen to interview other Bolechowers who knew the family. Returning to Bolechow in 2005, Daniel knew the right questions to ask to verify some of the stories he had heard.

In piecing together this story, Daniel recovers some sense of who these six people were in their lives as well as their deaths—as in the story of the second daughter, beautiful, outgoing Frydka, the Polish boy who loved her, and the schoolteacher who hid Frydka and her father in her house until they were all betrayed, probably by a neighbor, in 1944. The trail of stories leads him to the actual hiding place.

“It had been to rescue my relatives from generalities, symbols, abbreviations, to restore to them their particularity and distinctiveness, that I had come on this strange and arduous trip,” Mendelsohn writes after the first of his many trips. Few of us have the resources to undertake such an exhaustive search, but I found this book very useful in contemplating the goals of my own trip. I’m not sure I want to know exactly where and how my young aunts died, but I can see already that the search generates its own momentum.

 

Every Day Lasts a YearEvery Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family’s Correspondence from Poland
edited by Christopher R. Browning, Richard S. Hollander and Nechama Tec

(Cambridge University Press, 285 pp., $28)

Arriving in New York from Poland without a visa in December 1939, Joseph Hollander faced a double battle—trying to avoid deportation back to Poland while trying to obtain visas for the rest of his family in Krakow. His case dragged on for years and became something of a cause célèbre, engaging the support of Eleanor Roosevelt. Meanwhile, the Nazis cut off emigration from Poland. While Joseph was a lawyer with money and connections, his situation paralleled that of other Jewish immigrants with fewer resources who entered America illegally after 1924 and did not have the legal standing to help their relatives in Europe. Letters from Joseph’s three sisters and their spouses from November 1939 to December 1941 (mail stopped when America entered the war) attest to his efforts as well as their growing desperation. Joseph’s son, Richard, found these letters after his father’s death. His father had never mentioned them.

Two essays by historians Christopher Browning and Nechama Tec provide a context for this wartime correspondence. Browning offers a chronological account of the deteriorating situation of Jews in Krakow under Nazi occupation from the autumn of 1940, when the Nazis tried to expel Jews from Krakow, forcing many to flee as refugees to small nearby towns (like my mother’s sisters, who wound up in Mielec), to March 1941, when those who remained (including Hollander’s family) were restricted to the Krakow Ghetto. Tec comments on general features of the letters—the use of code words to get by the Nazi censors, guarded references to their difficulties, repeated appeals for help to obtain documents, expressions of family love and longing. At the same time, the voices of the individual letter writers come through clearly, reflecting their personalities and family dynamics: the tyrannical brother-in-law, Dawid, who hates not being in control of his family’s destiny; the youngest sister, Dola, who seeks Joseph’s approval for her decision to divorce and remarry. The political situation is never discussed directly but emerges “between the lines” in references to their move into the ghetto and acknowledgments of Joseph’s food parcels.

I related to Joseph Hollander’s story because my mother also entered the United States illegally, smuggled across the Canadian border. Eventually she was apprehended and deported; she left for Canada with my father, and returned with him to the United States legally two years later. Desperate to bring her family over in the 1930s, she had to deal with her own immigration problems instead.

Comparing the Hollander family’s correspondence with letters from my relatives in the same period and place, I am struck by a huge difference in tone and perception. Whereas the Hollanders are initially optimistic—allowed to remain in Krakow with family intact and protected for a time with Nicaraguan visas—my mother’s orphaned teenaged sisters wrote frantic pleas for rescue, realizing almost immediately that they had been robbed of their future.

 

Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto,
and the Oyneg Shabes Archive
by Samuel D. Kassow
(Indiana University Press, 523 pp., $34.95)

I would have ended this column in despair had I not encountered one of the most important books I’ve ever read—Samuel Kassow’s biography of Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes project in the Warsaw Ghetto. Ringelblum, together with a staff of 50–60 coworkers, endeavored to record Jewish life within the ghetto “from inside the event” so that its history could be written by future historians. Called “Oyneg Shabes” because the directors of this clandestine operation met on Saturday afternoons, the archive was buried in three caches—one in the summer of 1942, after the mass deportations to Treblinka had begun; a second in January 1943, after the first armed action of the ZOB (Jewish Fighting Organization) against the Germans; and a third on the eve of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19, 1943. The first two caches—hidden in tin boxes and aluminum milk cans—were uncovered in 1946 and 1950; the third was never found.

Using materials from the Oyneg Shabes Archive, Kassow has created a stunning and brilliant social history of Polish Jews in this period. Ringelblum, he points out, was uniquely suited to direct this effort: before the war, he was a trained historian, a political activist, and a professional relief worker. In the ghetto, he was one of the directors of Aleynhilf, a self-help agency that supported a number of relief efforts. He knew the life of the ghetto and assigned writers to cover it for the secret archive. In 1942, when the deportations began and Ringelblum realized that the entire Jewish community was slated for extinction, the materials collected for the archive changed from articles, interviews, and reports to hastily gathered documents and artifacts—among them the German posters ordering Jews to assemble for deportation.

“Had he survived, Ringelblum would have been the first to insist that Holocaust historiography consider not only the perpetrators and the bystanders but also the silenced voices of the victims,” Kassow writes. But he also wanted to record for posterity “that Jews were not just victims: they were people and part of a living and resilient nation.”

Kassow brings us a story from the archive that reflects both the personal and collective concerns of the Oyneg Shabes project. As 19-year-old Nahum Gryzwacz helped to bury the first cache in the midst of a roundup, he added his own note: “I am running to my parents and see if they are all right. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. Remember, my name is Nahum Gryzwacz [emphasis in original].” Even when facing their own likely deaths, Jews still believed that history matters and there would be future generations that would hear them.

I found this idea strangely uplifting because it means that there is still a role for us—to remember. The aunts I never knew, whose letters I inherited, will always be in my heart.

 

Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.

 




 


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