Prof. Debórah Dwork (photo by Jonathan Edelman)
Nearly two decades ago – and a full half-century after the end of the Second World War – a man in Switzerland cleaning out the apartment of his deceased aunt came across a stash of more than 1,000 letters. The discovery disclosed the aunt’s comparatively simple but valiant acts during the Holocaust and provides new insights into the lives of Jewish children and parents separated during the Holocaust.
The aunt, Elisabeth Luz, was an unmarried Protestant woman living near Zurich who appears to have stumbled into a role as the sole connection between hundreds of divided Jewish families. Because postal service between belligerent nations was restricted during the war, neutral Switzerland provided a potential channel for communication. Through what appears to have been happenstance aided by the compassion of a single devoted individual, thousands of letters made it to their intended recipients – and the record they provide demonstrates what families chose to say, and not say, in furtive missives in times of crisis.
The nephew knew that he had stumbled upon something important. He was familiar with the book Children with a Star by Prof. Debórah Dwork, a definitive study of the experiences of Jewish children under Nazism and the adults who helped them. He contacted Dwork to ask if she would like the letters. Dwork, Rose Professor of Holocaust History and founding director of the Strassler Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, in Massachusetts, now possesses the letters and has studied them for years. She will be in Vancouver in just over two weeks to speak at the community’s annual Kristallnacht Commemorative Lecture about what they tell us about families during the Holocaust.
Dwork cannot be certain how Luz came to be the intermediary for hundreds of families.
“From what I can piece together – and this is what I believe is the case – there was a refugee camp, sort of an internment camp, not a concentration camp, for refugees that had been established by the Swiss government in that town,” Dwork said. Luz went to the camp to give voluntary aid, Dwork believes, “to show with her presence that she cared about their plight.”
One of the men in the camp asked Luz whether she would be so kind as to send a letter to his wife.
“From there, it snowballed,” said Dwork. “Some of the letters that I have from the children, for example, say, ‘you don’t know me but Susie told me that you are an auntie who is willing to write to our mothers,’ and so on.”
The parents were mostly in “Greater Germany” – Germany and the areas it occupied. The children had mostly been sent to places thought to be safe, including Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Remarkably, the letters do not end in 1945. In the course of being a conduit between hundreds of parents and their children, Luz became a confidant to many of them – “Tante Elisabeth” – and remained in contact with several who continued their correspondence. The fact that the collection of letters exists at all is due in part to the fact that Luz hand-copied each one, believing that this would be less likely to catch the attention of war-era postal censors. She maintained the originals.
“Parents sent their letter to her, she copied every letter and then sent it on to the children and the children did the same in reverse,” said Dwork.
Some of the children were on the Kindertransport, the effort to transfer Jewish children from Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe to the United Kingdom, while others were sent by their parents to places considered safer for Jewish children.
“There were a number of children who were sent to family members or to friends or to religious organizations by their parents independently, individually,” she said, adding that there is much to be learned from the letters. “It tells us an enormous amount about family, the importance of family and the way in which family members use letters as thread to bind the family together. I think also it tells us about how children absorbed, adjusted, adapted – or did not adjust or adapt – to their ever-changing lives.”
What the letters do not always indicate is the fate of the families who sent them.
“We know a lot about the children who went on the Kindertransport to Britain, because they survived,” said Dwork. Less is known about the children sent to Belgium, the Netherlands and France. “Many of them did not survive as the Germans conquered and occupied those countries,” she said.
Of those who continued corresponding with Luz long after the war, many had lost their parents.
“Because of the relationship that developed between the children and Elisabeth Luz, those who continued to write, by and large, were now young adults whose parents did not survive and she, Elisabeth Luz, was the last tie to their prewar and wartime life,” explained Dwork. “So, she had become their confidant and that’s very important, the way Elisabeth became a confidant to the parents and the children.”
Vancouverites should join her in November not only to hear specifics about the contents of the letters, but also to reflect on some of the broader issues raised by a collection of this sort, which is a focus of Dwork’s academic work.
“The larger question, I think, is how do people keep in contact?” she said. “What do parents in Greater Germany say to their children? And what do children tell their parents about their daily lives?”
While the letters represent voices from the past, they have much to say to people today. “This is a very human story,” said Dwork. “And, as we are looking at refugees today far-flung from one spot to another, it may help us to think about how each one is a member of a family.”
The Kristallnacht Commemorative Lecture takes place Nov. 1, 7 p.m., at Congregation Beth Israel.
Pat Johnson is a communications and development consultant for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. This article first appeared in VHEC’s Zachor.