The Letter, Forgotten in a Box
I bet most people have a cardboard box in the basement or buried deep in the closet or pushed under the bed, full of old stuff. Stuff you looked at occasionally and decided to keep. Things you don’t need every day, but which define you in some meaningful way: black and white photographs, a teddy bear, a pressed flower, letters, an expired passport, your grandfather’s diploma of eighty-two years ago. And then, on a cold winter day when you have nothing better to do and feel a pang of nostalgia, or if you want to clean out that closet, or if something else happens that causes you to go to that box, you open it and stare at its contents in awe or in disbelief.
I have such a box, and my wife has one, too. Mine contains items — mostly old documents — that belonged to my parents who are no longer alive. My wife’s box goes back further, to her maternal grandparents and the turn of the previous century. They were a middle-class Jewish family who had relocated in 1908 from Galicia to Bukovina, both territories that belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to WWI. In 1920, Bukovina became part of Greater Romania, and later, after WWII it was divided between Romania and what is today the Ukraine. In that box she rediscovered documents and letters concerning her family’s horrific fate in fascist Romania during WWII.
How these documents were saved, collected and preserved by my mother-in-law and her brother and sisters, that might be a story in and of itself. The frayed, yellowed papers had made the long journey from Romania to Israel and then across the ocean, to the United States, by mail and suitcase. I assume they were brought or sent on different occasions and eventually ended up gathered in manila folders in that box.
A few weeks ago, my wife decided to break the cycle of passing them generation-to-generation, from parents to children to grandchildren. One reason for that is the potential lack of interest. The other reason is their language. The documents are in German and Romanian. Our children speak a rudimentary Romanian and no German at all. By the time it will be their turn to carry the torch, they might not understand what these papers mean, the weight they carry. There are letters and postcards handwritten in a small, slanted and hard to decipher script. The papers are old and they could easily disintegrate. Whatever is printed or written where the pages are bent is lost forever.
My wife selected the documents pertaining to her family’s deportation during the Nazi period and contacted the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. They were very interested in the documents for their archives. My wife carefully slid the documents into clear sheet protectors, created an inventory, wrote a short family history and provided biographical notes about each person whose name appears in the collection. She shipped them by FedEx and the Museum confirmed receiving them. Professionally preserved, they will be offered to the public and placed in a collection bearing our family’s names across three generations. We feel that we have done our small part in maintaining the memory of our loved ones who have suffered so terribly during the Holocaust. These faded, crumbly papers tell their story. Soon, the Museum will send us high quality copies of the originals.
The most heartbreaking and interesting document in the collection is a hand written letter from Aunt Elsa, addressed to her sister Tușca in 1941. At that time, Tușca and her husband Leo lived in Bucharest where Jews were relatively safe. Elsa, my wife’s future mother (Margit), grandmother (Bronia), great-grandmother (Babtzia), Aunt Franți and Uncle Dodo had been deported by the Nazis from their home in Suceava to Lucineț, a small Ukrainian town in Transnistria, an area occupied by the German and Romanian armies between the rivers Dniester and Bug.
Most people know quite a lot about the extermination camps in Western Europe, but very little about the fate of the Jewish people who lived in Northeastern Romania and were forcefully rounded up in 1941 and deported to Transnistria. They traveled stuffed in cattle cars for days and then walked the rest of the way, ending up in a vast, underdeveloped, extremely poor and primitive land and left to settle down as best they could in the homes of the local population and fend for themselves. There was no heat, no running water or electricity and the poverty was appalling. The purpose or destination of their journey was never stated. It was a way to persecute and control. Ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile, their homes in Northeastern Romania, where they had lived in relative prosperity and peace for generations, were looted and confiscated. Transnistria was not an extermination camp, but people died, felled by hunger, cold and disease. And that was according to plan.
When Elsa wrote her letter, 79 years ago, she was a young woman. She briefly describes Lucineț: “Even the most impoverished villages in Romania look better than this godforsaken little town.” Yet, in the same breath, she prays that her brother Dodo succeeds in convincing the authorities (by that she really means paying them off) to allow them to stay. Getting there on foot had been grueling. The war, she writes, left everything in ruins, ruins worse than one could imagine, “worse than I’ve seen in the movies.” She writes: “If we ever survive this and our life returns to normal, we will not believe ourselves what we have endured, may God help us and hold His right hand over our heads.”
Then the letter takes a practical turn. Elsa explains how finding a pen and paper is rare and difficult, and how expensive it is to pay a courier. I assume the letter was not mailed, but delivered by somebody. To reduce the cost of the courier, Elsa shares the precious paper with other refugees to whom she cedes the fourth page. She provides additional addresses for delivery in Bucharest.
She asks Tușca to contact a Mr. Picker, who has money, to intervene on their behalf. She had heard a rumor that about 60% of the Jews deported from Bukovina are being allowed to return to Romania, and Mr. Picker, for sure, could help. “Without such hope, we might as well hang ourselves,” she concludes. We know today that the rumor was false.
When they were forced to leave their homes, the deported Jews left all their belongings behind. The next part of the letter is an enumeration of the family possessions that they had left with a trusted neighbor and friend, who promised to send them to Tușca in Bucharest, but ended up stealing them or selling them: linens, china, jewelry. It struck me that under the appalling conditions in which they lived, Elsa would write about lost material possessions, and I understood that it wasn’t the value of those objects that mattered, as much as her hope that someday they would return to a life with some sense of normalcy and control of her destiny.
The letter goes on for three pages, in a small, nervous handwriting. At the bottom of the third page, my wife’s mother, the grandmother and the great-grandmother add a few words. “Dear Children, I love you and hope to see you again.” In 1944 they all return, except for the great-grandmother who had passed away.
The last page (4 of 4), half a page each, is written by two other people.
In the box there is also an official, notarized document from 1945, in which Elsa besieges a prosecutor to help the family recover the stolen property they have left behind with people they thought they could trust. If the facts weren’t so tragic, she seems naive in her dogged persistence and continued trust of the authorities.
My wife’s stepfather was summoned for forced labor during the war. That happened in Bucharest, and the documents we found reflect that. I am amazed that the perfect German war machine and its Romanian lackeys had allowed such variations in the manner in which its victims were treated. The Jews from Northwestern Romania were sent to Auschwitz and killed. Those from Northeastern Romania, less than 200 miles away, were sent to Transnistria, while those living in Bucharest escaped by reporting for forced manual labor, clearing snow and digging trenches and sewers.
To a large degree, I was familiar with my wife’s family story. In 1999 and 2000, I spent hours listening to my mother-in-law telling me about her childhood in Câmpulung and her deportation to Transnistria. I recorded her — fourteen hours of tapes. I am now making her story a part of my novel, The Ultimate Patient. You’ve read some excerpts here, on Medium, and you can find them here, should you want to reread them or maybe take a first look.
In 1975, I met Aunt Elsa in Israel. She was a nice old lady with a kind face, who didn’t say much. Reading her letter now, I understood why.
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