Wednesday, February 21, 2024

‘Farewell and go courageously into life!’ — Holocaust letters revealed

In September 1942, a Jewish couple, Maria and Maximilian Wortmann, reused a scrap of paper to write to their daughter from the railway siding in the Warsaw Ghetto where they were awaiting deportation. They told her where to find money, food, coats and rucksacks — essentials to escape the ghetto. “Be brave and cope,” they urged her. She was, and she did.

The Wortmanns’ last messages are among a selection of letters, cards and telegrams going on display for the first time at the Wiener Holocaust Library in London. The correspondence, which will be exhibited from February 23 to June 16, illustrates how, in spite of censorship and amid genocide and chaos, Jewish people in Nazi-controlled Europe found ways to communicate with loved ones.

They didn’t only maintain connections to relatives and friends they had been separated from but shared knowledge of what was happening and, sometimes, life-saving information or warnings.

Maximilian Wortmann’s message to his cousin Ludwig was written on the back of a printed list while he and his wife awaited deportation. Photo: Wiener Holocaust Library Collections

In that final message to their daughter Dziunia, Maria Wortmann used the code word “butter” for her money. After telling her the whereabouts of the various other items, she ended her message: “Butter is in the wardrobe. Dziunius, farewell and go courageously into life! Regards for all.”

Maximilian also wrote from the siding to a cousin, asking him to help them escape deportation or to look after their daughter in their absence. “I and Maria are on the official Judenrat list and have with us the official numbers,” he wrote. “We found ourselves here accidentally. Ludwik, please do what you can. Come out for a moment to see us! We are waiting! We have money. Ludwik, we beg you. If there is no return for us, take care of Dziunia. You are the only ones remaining.”

Soon afterwards, the couple were taken to the extermination camp of Treblinka. Somehow in the confusion of the moment, their messages were passed on. Their 20-year-old daughter Dziunia later escaped from the ghetto through the sewers and lived under a false identity before she was betrayed and sent to the concentration camp of Belsen. She nevertheless survived the war and came to England, where she died in 2015, leaving her parents’ words for posterity.

The Wortmann letters and other messages in the exhibition were chosen from among thousands of family collections held by the archive and date from 1938 to the postwar years. Most were written by Jewish people in Germany, Austria and Nazi-occupied lands, or after their escape to safety. None were from well-known historical figures and the exhibition’s curators said that, until now, they have been untapped as a body of evidence. Today, their words give precious insights into the experiences of individuals among the Holocaust’s six million victims.

Stella Rechnic attempted to send clothes from Nazi-occupied Poland to her only son, Michał, when he was in a Soviet labour camp. Photo: Wiener Holocaust Library Collections

The Wortmanns were far from the only Holocaust victims to be overwhelmingly preoccupied with their children’s safety. Bernard Rechnic wrote to his only son Michał from German-occupied Poland in December 1940 after a worrying prolonged period of silence. It turned out that Michał had been deported from Lwów, in the Soviet-occupied part of the country, to a labour camp east of Moscow.

Bernard wrote: “You cannot imagine how much it means to us. Your 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. We constantly think of you, my only child. Our heads are occupied with nothing but you and our thoughts are all in that direction.”

On May 26, 1941, Bernard’s wife Stella wrote to Michał expressing surprise that he hadn’t yet received a parcel of clothes and other essentials that she had sent via the Red Cross. She wrote: “I wish you good health, and my sweetest son, be careful.”

The card is the last one in the Rechnic collection. Michał went on to serve in the Polish Free Army at the Battle of Monte Cassino, and was later a London cab driver. Stella and Bernard Rechnic were murdered by the Nazis, along with many family members.

Michał Rechnic served in the Polish Free Army and survived to become a London cabbie. Photo: Wiener Holocaust Library Collections

Michał was the nephew of the grandfather of author and poet Michael Rosen, who had the cards translated into English. Quoted in the exhibition catalogue, he said: “It feels like a family saga that is very personal and powerful to us but also one that happened to millions of others. That of course is the hardest to grasp. 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.”

Just as Maria Wortmann understood her fate, the curators said that many of the letters revealed their senders’ knowledge of unfolding genocide. Sandra Lipner, co-curator, said: “There has often been an assumption that they didn’t know very much of what was going on. We use 20 collections to show the amount of knowledge that was there and that built up. In 1938, ’39 people were very aware that, if possible, they needed to get out of Nazi-occupied territories. And then, by ’41, ’42, there was this repeated sense that going to Poland meant death. People pieced together what was happening to their neighbours or people already selected for for deportation. It wasn’t localised to a small group in Eastern Europe who knew this.” 

If people had a sense of the enormity of what was occurring, they referred to it in all kinds of ways. The word “Holocaust” only came into regular use to describe the genocide decades later. The curators found various euphemisms including “the catastrophe” and “the fate of our friends in the camps”.

The letters also show how news of individual family disasters could travel to relatives in the safety of Allied countries. In a message sent through the Red Cross, Franz Kuhn wrote from Berlin to the guardian of his young daughter in England. He wrote: “Sorry bad news. Mummy emigrated 14th 12.42 by 25. transport. Please appease Hannele, am terrified myself, but hoping confidently reunion with family after the war.”

It wasn’t to be. Franz Kuhn was deported after his wife and both were killed in Auschwitz.

Those who survived the camps often faced shattering new realities following the war’s end. In July 1945, Arnošt Eckstein sent a telegram from Prague to his sister Marta in London. He told her that their parents were dead and that he believed his wife and children had perished in Auschwitz. “I came back alone.”

Arnošt Eckstein’s telegram to his sister Marta revealing the extent of the family’s losses. Photo: Wiener Holocaust Library Collections

However, there was soon a glint of hope. Three months later, Eckstein wrote again, telling Marta that he had seen a newsreel showing Auschwitz after its liberation by the Red Army. He believed a girl shown lying in a hospital bed was his nine-year-old daughter Jana. “Januška was almost definitely in it,” he wrote. “We asked the people in the cinema to cut that clip out for us and I had it blown up. Everyone we showed the picture to recognised her.”

He went on to describe the beginning of a gruelling search for Jana in Poland. He said: “I am going to be very restless and hopeful for the next few weeks or months.”

He never did find his daughter but went on looking all his life. His son Vic, who was 13 when Eckstein died of heart disease in 1969, has taken up the search.  

In spite of everything, Eckstein had the will to rebuild his life. In his letter to his sister, after sharing news of the cinema sighting, he continued: “I have some other plans, we’ll see what happens. I remember daddy after the First World War, he didn’t know what to do and tried all sorts of things until, finally, he got that job with the Brodas. My situation is quite similar but I do have the advantage of having had my own business.”

The frame from the Soviet Liberation Chronicle film that may show Jana Ecksteinova. Photo: The Archive of The State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oświęcim

Lipner said this courage, pragmatism and desire to get on with life, was a recurring them. “For me what really stood out was how people tried to cling on to a sense of normality. So that even when everything shifted around them, they used their letters to create a sense that everything was still manageable. And I take that as a real sign of what they did going forward after ’45 as well. There isn’t a sense of moaning or complaining. There’s a real sense of, ‘Okay, we’re going to cope with this, we’re going to do this, what can we do?’ So it’s a very pragmatic.

“And that was really striking and moving ⁠— to see this will to live and lead a life that’s worth living as well, both before ’45 and after ’45.”

An illustrated letter from Ilse Majer to her cousin Alfinko, written on the back of a letter sent by her mother. Photo: Wiener Holocaust Library Collections

There are also moments of humour. In a letter of July 19, 1939, 10-year-old Ilse Majer, who had arrived in England on a Kindertransport from Vienna the previous year, described London to her parents in Austria. She wrote: “Tell Edith: London will suit her very well as she always wants to play ‘fine lady’. People wear a lot of make-up. They pin a garden to their hats. Mrs Welch leaves the house at 10:15am and comes home at 5:15pm. The whole family often takes medicine to have regular bowel movements. So do I. I am very well. Mr Welch smokes the pipe a lot, Mrs Welch cigarettes. She is terribly fond of beer.”

Dr Christine Schmidt, the exhibition’s co-curator, said that, as the number of living Holocaust survivors dwindles, testimony from correspondence collections was taking on a greater significance for historians. “Sometimes scholars and even archivists haven’t see family document collections as a prime source for historical research, the big H History. Yet this is who it was happening to, and the people who were making sense of it and writing about it, and being the first eyewitnesses.

“We hope that the exhibition generates lots new research and new consideration.”

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