Letters reveal pain, love of kids and parents separated by Holocaust

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More than a dozen years ago in Worcester, Massachusetts, historian Deborah Dwork received a letter from a man in Switzerland.

Ulrich Luz told her about something he’d discovered packed away in a suitcase among his late aunt’s belongings that might be of interest to Dwork.

Indeed it was — so much so that she is now writing a book about his aunt’s quiet heroism and the lasting treasure she managed to preserve.

It turns out the nephew, a retired professor of theology in Switzerland, had heard about both the work of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, which Dwork founded and directed, and Dwork’s book “Children with a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe” (Yale University Press, 1991).

One of 1,000 letters written by hidden children and their parents photo/courtesy deborah dwork

So when Ulrich Luz discovered more than 1,000 letters his aunt Elisabeth Luz had sent between hidden children and their parents during the Holocaust, he had a hunch Dwork might find the collection to be of value.

“He began sending packets of the letters … over 1,000 in all,” said Dwork, who is also the Rose Professor of Holocaust History at Clark. She was ready for the fragile old sheets of paper, having assembled white cotton gloves, archival paper, acid-free sleeves and tweezers.

“It was such a treasure, and an amazing thing to hold them,” she recalled.

Then began the long process of translating the letters, which had gone from parents in Germany to their children hidden in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and England.

In all, several hundred families are represented in the collection. Many of the letters were from parents and children reassuring each other that they were all right, as both sides walked gingerly across the land mine of loneliness and worry. 

The letters’ dates span from late 1938, when the Kristallnacht pogrom and the general anti-Semitism of the time mobilized the Jews throughout Germany to try to send as many children as possible to safety, through 1945.

When war broke out in 1939, civilian mail stopped moving freely but Luz managed to keep the letters going by taking a more central role as letter writer.

“Dear Tante Elisabeth,” a child might write to her. “Please tell my mother I am fine and doing well in math.” Or a father might ask, “Dear Elisabeth, please tell my son to dress warmly and that we send our love.”

Most of the families’ correspondences stopped by 1945, when the majority of the parents were presumed murdered; others continued into the 1960s. It is still unknown how many of the children survived.  

One of the enduring mysteries about the collection of letters is that they are all originals, written by these parents and children. No one knows for sure why, in the era before Xerox, Luz rewrote each of the 1,000 letters by hand and sent them out.

The prevailing theory? “Trying to fool the censors,” said Dwork.

Elisabeth Luz, known as “Tante Elisabeth” by hidden children photo/luz family

“This church-going Christian lady, who often spoke about the importance of giving aid and help, spent years doing this painstaking work and at no small risk to herself,” she said.

The Strassler Center at Clark University is still scanning, sorting, transcribing and translating the letters, and the public should be able to access them by early 2018. Before that, several of the letters will be used at the center’s Summer Holocaust Institute to help high school history and literature teachers integrate the Holocaust into their curriculum.

“The letters are a great opportunity to engage with this time period firsthand and understand some of the concerns these parents and children had,” said Sarah Cushman, who directs the summer institute. “With our 20-20 hindsight, we know all too well the outcome for most of these families, but the letter-writers of course could not. The number 6 million is an abstraction, but one document from a real person can make the Holocaust real for today’s teens.”

Dwork agrees. “These personal letters are a compelling way to teach aspects of the Holocaust because they relate how families dealt with the problems and pain they endured,” she said.

The letters may serve another function: as a healing force for any of the children who remain alive, said Janet Stein, president of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants of Greater Boston. Stein’s father survived Auschwitz to emerge as the only member of both his family and his community in Hungary to live on.

“So many of the kids grew up never even knowing they were Jewish, so these letters could be a reminder of who they really are. As all that is left behind of their parents, how precious these letters would be to their children,” Stein said.

Indeed, even the flimsiest paper letter can contain great power, said professor Amos Goldberg, who teaches Jewish history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“Especially in times of war, the mail could bring a warm message from a loved one very far away,” Goldberg said. “You watch for the mail and when the letter arrives you gather the family to hear it. It was so reassuring.”

It could also be tragic, of course, if the letter-writer was no longer alive.

Today’s reliance on emails and texting, along with the disappearance of the handwritten letter, is a loss, Goldberg said.

“The ritual of a letter, the sitting and thinking and writing down, then the excitement about an answer coming and reading it over and over again, it celebrated and cemented our relationships.”

Elisabeth Luz’s quiet actions had immense influence, said professor Alexandra Garbarini, who teaches modern European Jewish history at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

“Because she was willing to play the role as messenger between hidden children and their parents, they could maintain some semblance of a relationship,” Garbarini said. “And it was all done for the sake of the child whose life depended on maintaining the fiction they had all created — the parents, the child, and the adoptive family too. It reminds us that very small acts when done in such numbers means it’s no longer a very small act but a big one.”

“As they spiraled into different worlds, the children pined for their parents and the parents yearned for the children,” said Dwork. “This allowed them to keep close. It was a quiet but poignant example of resistance.”