Meine Liebe Frau Pels
The “Chesed Connection”
from the Denmark Collection O.27
The Yad Vashem Archives has in its collection a black box. The box is not particularly large or impressive - but it held a secret – as black boxes meant to reveal the mysteries of large disasters usually do.
When this black box was opened at Yad Vashem, out came dozens of letters – folded, crammed together, sent from a variety of places, some postcards, pages written in a cramped fashion, some with envelopes and others without. Some letters were handwritten, others were typed, some were long and others were short - but what they all had in common was the postal address:
Dyrkob 3, Copenhagen, Denmark
and the opening line:
“Meine Liebe Frau Pels, Dear Mrs. Pels”.
Who was the addressee, Mrs. Pels?
Why were there so many letters crowded into this box?
Who wrote these letters, and why were they sent?
There were many questions, but at the outset – no answers. We began our search.
Dyrkob 3, Copenhagen, Denmark
At this address stood a Jewish home for the elderly, the Joseph Fraenkels Old Age Home. Its residents were Jewish refugees from the city of Hamburg, Germany, including a couple named Cecilia and Ludwig Liepmann Pels.
Cecilia , the daughter of Simon Cohen, married Ludwig Pels in Hamburg. The family of wine merchants was very active in Jewish communal life in Hamburg. Ludwig was the head of a Hamburg “Chevra Kadisha” (burial society) and Cecilia was a housewife who helped in the collection of donations for needy people. The couple had three daughters, Martha, Lisbeth and Irma who each followed a different path.
Martha traveled to Copenhagen to marry Lipman Eliezer Kurzweil, born in Nurnberg and a teacher in Copenhagen. Lisbeth made aliya to Mandatory Palestine, where she established her home.
Following Kristallnacht in November 1938, the Pels family lost a significant portion of their property. In 1940, when the situation of the Jews had further deteriorated, the Pels decided to escape to Denmark and join their daughter and her family, the Kurzweil family, but only after they had succeeded in sending their third daughter, Irma, to London.
The Pels couple were already in their 60’s when they fled, leaving behind their previous life, identity, sense of belonging, society, native language and their family and friends. They were forced to become refugees in a foreign city.
Cecilia joined the “Syklubben” Women’s Organization in which most of the women were close to her in age and likewise refugees. The women would make a variety of handicrafts and organize a large annual bazaar. The proceeds of the bazaar were donated to the Va’ad Hayeshivot of Jerusalem, for distribution among yeshivas and yeshiva students.
The collective existence and common experience of the residents of the old age home, together with the letters which arrived from family members and friends left behind in Hamburg, allowed Cecilia and her friends to see beyond their personal difficulties, and to focus on the suffering and distress of others. They decided to take action in their own small corner of existence. Cecilia began to send care packages from Copenhagen to her needy family members in Hamburg.
Cecilia received thank-you letters from her family members in return, in which they asked for help for other people who were also in great distress. It soon became apparent that there was a need to send many care packages to many people. The thank-you letters also included reports of transports, information about the deaths of mutual friends and acquaintances and descriptions of the overall situation – to the extent that they could be written under the restrictions of censorship. Young girls and their educators in an orphanage in Hamburg, from which all but one survivor perished, wrote some of the most unique letters describing their daily life and distress.
Cecilia understood that something needed to be done beyond her own personal capabilities to cope with the ongoing stream of requests. She widened the circle of giving and created a Charity Connection – “Kesher shel chesed”, in which both Jews and non-Jews agreed to be recruited and offer their name in order to send the packages. The packages project became a collective project of the female residents of the old age home at “Dyrkob 3”.
The cost of sending these many packages was above and beyond the capabilities of the refugee families in Copenhagen, so it was decided that the monies raised at the annual charity handicrafts bazaar would go toward the sending of the packages to Europe, rather than a donation to the yeshivas in Jerusalem. In addition to the financial burden of sending so many packages to Germany, the charity project was in effect a violation of German law, which forbade the sending of packages to anybody who was not an immediate relative. Due to food shortages, a similar prohibition was legislated by the Danish authorities.
The heads of the Jewish community, who were reluctant to provoke the wrath of the authorities and feared the outcomes of the women’s activities, expressed their opposition. The women on their own however managed to find ways to circumvent the prohibitions and continued to send the food packages to seven occupied countries.
One of the people who joined their effort was the Pels’ daughter Martha who, in the natural order of things, knew many more people in Copenhagen and also spoke the local language. Martha took upon herself additional organization, errand running, enlisting the efforts of other people - as well as sending the actual packages.
In order not to arouse further suspicion, the women did their best to send the packages from different post office branches throughout the city. For this task they also enlisted their grandchildren, who would travel throughout the city on their bicycles in order to help send the packages.
During the weeks and months that followed, more and more of the intended recipients of the packages were sent to their fate in various death camps.
In October 1943, the Pels couple and their family escaped to Sweden - along with most of the Jewish community of Copenhagen.
At the end of the war, the Pels family returned to Copenhagen.Cecilia Pels died in 1965, at the golden age of 83 years.
To read more about the Paulinenstift Orphanage click here