Perseverence led to publishing of family letters from the Nazi era

Until she discovered the file of old letters, Renata Polt never knew the full story about her grandmother during the Holocaust.

"My father was never able to talk about it," the Berkeley writer said. After her father's death in 1967, however, Polt learned the awful saga. The experience was "shattering."

In her parents' home, she came across a file containing dozens of letters written from 1939 to 1942 by her paternal grandmother from Nazi-occupied Prague. The correspondence paints a stark picture of the growing atrocities faced by Jews and shows an older woman's reluctance to leave her home before it was too late.

Polt's grandmother, Henriette Pollatschek, perished in the Treblinka death camp.

Three decades after stumbling across the letters, Polt has translated the correspondence, added historical notes and found a publisher for "A Thousand Kisses: A Grandmother's Holocaust Letters."

The book finally came out last month.

"I knew from the start that I wanted to do something with these," said Polt, a retired college instructor who has written for the Jewish Bulletin. "I knew it should be a book."

But it took perseverance and two separate tries to finally get her grandmother's letters into print.

In the early 1970s, Polt recalls, "I submitted it to 50 publishers or more." What followed was a steady stream of rejection slips from editors who asserted that enough had already been written about the Holocaust.

Busy with her teaching career at Oakland's Merritt College, Polt temporarily put the project aside. But she remained convinced of the book's worthiness. "It was this very personal, poignant story."

After retiring, Polt reworked the book and submitted it again to about six agents and 15 publishers. Six months later, she landed a contract.

"I just feel so happy that this has finally come to light after all these years," she said.

Polt was a small girl in 1938 when her parents, fearing the growing Nazi regime, took her and her older brother and fled their native Czechoslovakia. The family traveled first to Switzerland, then to Cuba before coming to the United States in 1940.

Polt's grandmother stayed behind, wondering at first if her son had lost his mind. Called "Mamina," Pollatschek wanted to remain with her daughter and, at age 69, was hesitant to start a new life in a foreign land.

But conditions quickly and steadily soured for Mamina. Shopping hours were restricted, her belongings were confiscated and she was evicted from one apartment after another. Even walks in the park were outlawed.

"What one calls `life' here is continuous agitation and anxiety with no resting place," Mamina wrote in August 1939. "I hope it will soon be different and better."

Mamina, who was "never religious or observant to begin with," converted to Catholicism in 1939 in a futile attempt to save herself, according to Polt.

Throughout her letters, Mamina tenderly asks about her grandchildren.

"I was very happy over the marvelous report cards and everything that you write about my two sweet little scamps," she writes in June 1941.

The title, "A Thousand Kisses," refers to the loving way Mamina ends her letters to her far-away family.

Mamina vacillates over whether to leave Prague, writing frequently about concerns over shipping her furni-ture and other belongings.

"If just breaks my heart to see all this stuff about the furniture," Polt said. Still, she points out that her grandmother and others who stayed behind had no way of knowing what lay ahead. "How could they imagine a Holocaust?" she writes in her introduction.

Polt's father, Frederick, tried desperately from Cuba and later the United States to get his mother out. But Polt learned that in 1941, only 535 Jews from the Bohemia-Moravia area of Czechoslovakia were able to escape.

Mamina's last letter was written on July 1, 1942.

In 1963, Polt's father learned from the Jewish Religious Communities in Bohemia that Mamina was transported to Treblinka on Oct. 19, 1942 and "did not return."

When Polt was growing up, the Holocaust was too painful for her father to discuss. "He never got over it," she said.

Reading Mamina's letters for the first time was "fascinating, but just mind-blowing because I really had no idea" of her grandmother's story.

Polt is heartened that a publisher saw fit to print that story at last.

"What's happened in the last decade is a whole new interest in the Holocaust," she said. "Now there is just a much more sympathetic ear for these tales and more of an appetite for them.

"I think it's a very important book and a very moving book and one that deserves the light of day."