A sister writes to her brother, telling him their mother is gone. A husband, still looking for his wife and son, writes to old friends asking for some warm clothes. Four letters, by four survivors, written shortly after being liberated, tell the story of the Holocaust and its immediate aftermath in a way that few other texts can.
Featured guest: Doctor Robert Rozett, senior historian at the institute for international Holocaust research, Yad-Vashem.
After So Much Pain and Anguish - Transcription:
Jonathan: It’s one of the major questions of modern life: who do I put down as my emergency contact? Another version, same idea: who do I have on quick-dial on my phone? Or: who is the first person I call, when something life-altering happens?
Today on the podcast: first letters after liberation - survivors, who have just made it out alive, out of the horror… desperately wondering, fearing, that they are now completely alone in the world. Many are unable to write, physically or mentally; but those who can, if they somehow get hold of a pencil, a piece of paper… Who is the first person they contact? And what do they say?
@ music to background
@ QUICK COLLAGE OF LETTERS: ““My dearly beloved Ned”, “My dear Tsotsi”, “I’ll write you all about it in due time”, “But enough about us”, “And even stranger, I read your letter over and over”, “nightmares have passed since we saw you depart”, “even though you know what life is all about – have experienced war, but this sadism was unknown to the world…”
Dr. Rozett: You can’t understand the history of the Holocaust without also understanding people, and trying to go down to individual stories. This is all about people. It’s always all about people, and so hearing what people go through - every testimony’s different and every letter’s different, but there’s still this thing that’s so hard to understand. What this suffering was all about, the things that they went through.
Jonathan: Welcome to “On The Holocaust”, a podcast from Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I’m your host Jonathan Gal and today we’re going to hear four letters, written by survivors, having just been liberated; some from the death camps, others in different circumstances, in various places around Europe - all wondering about loved ones, reaching out, trying to put their stories into words.
Our guide: Dr. Robert Rozett, senior historian at the institute for international Holocaust research, Yad-Vashem. And we begin with letter number one, written in October of 1945 in Brno, what is now the Czech Republic; addressed to one Ned Spindle; but unsigned so - author unknown:
@ FIRST LETTER: “My dearly beloved Ned… No one who has witnessed Oswiecim (Auschwitz) - that concentration camp – will be able to become human again in his lifetime … You will not be able to imagine it, even though you know what life is all about – have experienced war - but this sadism was unknown to the world… In March of 1942, Mum went with the transport to Theresienstadt. In April of 1942, I went with Fritz. There we only stayed a short while with Mum – Mum went to Poland. Nadénko, we have no mother – she was gassed. The most wonderful and divine has been taken from us in such a bestial way.”
Jonathan: Further on in this letter, two pages, originally written in German, the author writes about how she and her husband Fritz were deported to Auschwitz. How Fritz was murdered there, and she was taken for forced labor. She describes having her hair shaved, being given camp clothing, and the brutality of work in the camp.
Dr. Rozett: At one point she was taken to a place called Kurzbach in Germany to dig trenches. And she describes, again, horrible conditions in Kurzbach where there was very little food, the work was terribly hard, there was a lot of gratuitous violence from the guards… and then, near the very end, in the period we call the death marches - which really are early ’45 - prisoners were being taken more and more towards the interior, right? So she is on a death march to the Gross-Rosen camp, which was a tremendous hub, and had become a major hub of labor and prisoners at that point, and she manages to hide at one point, and is liberated by the Russians, that’s what she writes about in her letter. So again, she goes on to tell her experience. And then she ends the letter, being in Brno now in May of 1945 - she poignantly expressed how desolate she felt, and she writes:
FIRST LETTER: second reading “The horror grabbed me – an utterly devastated city. I walked through the streets that were so dear and precious to me, and cried my heart out. The parents - dead. Max - dead. My brothers - somewhere on the globe. The friends - dead. Nothing remained. Only the two small houses – Franciscans.”
Jonathan: “Franciscans” is the type of house? We don’t know?
Dr. Rozett: I don’t know. We don’t know.
Jonathan: Do we know who Max is?
Dr. Rozett: no.
Jonathan: Do we know if she had children? We’re saying, she went with her husband, her husband was murdered…
Dr. Rozett: Well, we don’t know from the letter.
Dr. Rozett: So, we don’t know, again, who wrote it even from the letter, only that she’s Ned’s sister…
Dr. Rozett: She has a husband named Fritz, she has… her parents had been killed, she’s gone through these experiences, but we don’t know anything about her from the letter.
Jonathan: At this point, our story becomes a little bit of a detective story, as Doctor Rozett and his colleagues try to look for clues, hoping to figure out exactly who wrote this unsigned letter, and what happened to her, after she sent it.
Dr. Rozett: Part of the work with these letters is being a detective, cause you’re trying to figure out - you want to understand [the] context. Because a fragment of the history of the Holocaust without context can be moving and meaningful - but then what does it really tell us? And so we have to find context, that’s one of the main things we’re always doing as historians, and as teachers, and as… you know, writers, or any… or filmmakers or podcast makers, right? We’re looking for context.
So, who was the author? That was the first question. And then, again, what is the background to all this catastrophe that she goes through? Who are the people she’s mentioning in the letter? And then also, what happened to her?
Jonathan: The investigation begins with the brother, Ned, who this letter was addressed to, now living in mandatory Palestine. This is Ned, who, remember, donated the letter, along with a violin, to Yad Vashem… and thankfully, he also submitted testimony, about people he knew who had died.
Dr. Rozett: And on one of the pages he mentions, of course he doesn’t mention his sister, cause she survived, but he did give a page about Fritz, So…
Jonathan: His brother-in-law.
Dr. Rozett: His brother-in-law. So once he gave that, he says in the page that the wife is Syme. And so now we know that the writer of this is his sister Syme, and Fritz’s name is Rysavy, so she’s Syme Rysavy. So suddenly we know who she is.
Jonathan: So that’s our author, Syme, we have a name; and now we can start to piece together the back story, the events leading up to the writing of this letter.
Dr. Rozett: He explains that Syme invited the family to dinner, to discuss what was going on. And she has two brothers: Ned, and a brother Michael. And she urged them to flee. She convinced them they had to flee, and they did. They fled this area now under Nazi control. The next closest place is over the border to Poland. And of course, this is before the war, so Poland’s still a safe place to go to, right? So they fled to Krakow. Now, Ned donated a violin to Yad Vashem. He was a violinist. And it turns out that he was playing violin in the streets of Krakow. And he was probably… he was an excellent violinist, he became a professional musician. He caught the attention of a British person there - we don’t know who that is, but a British person invited him to the consulate, and offered him a scholarship at the Royal Musical Academy in London.
Dr. Rozett: And Ned said: “I’d love to go, but you have to bring my brother, too.”
Dr. Rozett: Right. And that’s what happened, they both went to London.
Jonathan: That’s how they were… saved.
Dr. Rozett: So they spent the war in London, they were studying music.
Jonathan: Now, meanwhile, Syme, in Brno, she…
Dr. Rozett: And meanwhile Syme said: “I’m gonna stay in Brno, and I’ll take care of mom”, right?
Jonathan: She realized the danger, she told her two brothers: “get away…”
Dr. Rozett: “Flee,” her younger brothers, they were younger brothers…
Jonathan: “I’ll stay here with our…”
Dr. Rozett: “With Fritz and with mother and we’ll take care of mom.”
Jonathan: Yeah, “And hopefully we’ll be okay.”
Dr. Rozett: Right. So again, this is… This is only March of 1939, and so it’s before the war, nobody knows that the Nazis - including the Nazis themselves - are going to have something called the “Final Solution”, or anything.
Jonathan: But she had the sense to tell her brothers to…
Dr. Rozett: But she had the sense that things are getting bad… And you, young man, you don’t have a future, you should go.
Dr. Rozett: So that’s what Syme did, and so she is the one behind the fact that the brothers survived, right? Of course, they had tremendous good luck, they were brought to Britain.
Jonathan: Brought to Britain and eventually to Palestine, probably.
Dr. Rozett: And eventually to Palestine.
Jonathan: Thanks to archives and databases, people looking for their loved ones after the war, efforts by the red cross to help survivors - we actually can know what happened to Syme afterwards.
Dr. Rozett: And so we know that she fled from the death marches in February 1945…
Jonathan: As she describes in the letter.
Dr. Rozett: But she managed to get away, and then the Russians come along, right, later on, and they will liberate them, and it’ll be the end, but then what happens to her?
Jonathan: She goes back to Brno…
Dr. Rozett: Back to Brno.
Jonathan: … she only finds the houses.
Dr. Rozett: Right, and we don’t know exactly how, but by August of 1950, she’s managed to reach Canada. Again, many survivors were leaving, and they were going wherever they could go, and she managed to get into Canada, that she was living in Toronto, and that she had remarried, and that she had filed for reparations, like so many people did, so we know something about her as well. We know her backstory, we know she survived, we know that she managed to get to Canada, that she remarried, and she, like so many survivors, then begins a new phase in their life by going somewhere far away from the scenes of all of the suffering.
Jonathan: Wow, and we know that at least her brothers’ survival is much thanks to her.
Dr. Rozett: Right, she is, what we say in Hebrew - we say, on Friday nights, many of us sing the very famous song - “Eshet Chayil”, which means “a woman of valor.” And there’s no question, this is a woman of valor.
Jonathan: Before we move on to the other letters, it’s interesting to think about some of the things you keep reading again and again in many of them:
Dr. Rozett: Letters are an amazing resource for anybody who wants to understand the Holocaust, and particularly letters by Jewish people, to help us understand, from a Jewish perspective, since we don’t have the same kind of documentation, really, as we would from the perpetrators’ perspective, so this is a very important resource. Almost all of the letters - people tell about things that happened to them and to people near them, and actually, what these letters are, in many ways, is unsolicited testimony. It’s not like the very important testimony that was taken after the Holocaust by various groups, like in the American Zone in Germany, for example -there was an attempt to gather testimony, or testimony taken from the early trials in Poland and such things. There people were asked to give their testimony. This is unsolicited testimony.
Jonathan: Robert Rozett says he sometimes thinks of these letters as a hand reaching out from under the rubble - trying to touch hope from out of despair, to feel something living after all the death.
Dr. Rozett: It’s people reaching out. Sometimes they’re reaching out to organizations, in which case they’re trying to reach out in order to help establish a future for themselves. But very, very frequently, they’re reaching out to their family, or to friends, who were outside of the zone where the war happened. And so I always see it like a hand extending from the areas of destruction into those areas that weren’t destroyed. And they’re also a tremendous sign of life, and a desire somehow to reach out, and somehow regain normalcy after normalcy has been, you know, totally blown apart.
Jonathan: But maybe the most heartbreaking thing about these letters, has to do with the limitations of language.
Dr. Rozett: One of the things that we see very often in the letters is people either saying: “I don’t know how to tell you this,” or “I’m sorry I have to tell you this.” Because they’re very aware that they’re imparting very difficult information. And again, sometimes they’re just so sorry they’re going to bring this sorrow to the people they’re writing to, and sometimes they really don’t have words. Psychologists, like Henry Greenspan, who was one of the earliest ones to work with survivors’ testimonies quite a few years ago - he’s continued to do it - spoke about how hard it is to take what happened and put it in the format of a beginning, a middle and an end, a story format. Cause sometimes it just seems to defy that, and certainly finding the words to convey the experiences. And so the survivors say that very often in these letters - how hard it is for them to convey what they want to convey.
Jonathan: Letter number two: written in September, nineteen forty four, in Kaunas, or Kovno, present-day Lithuania; addressed to the Leshem family of 120 Ahad Haam street in Tel Aviv; written in Yiddish by Hirsch Brik.
My dear friends Leshem,
I am alive and I am free. After three torturous years, I am back to being a man like all other men. The German bastards have murdered my entire family. Lyuba and Arik are no longer with me. I still hope to find them. Even if I wanted to make a list of all the names of our mutual friends who have been savagely murdered, no paper could absorb the ink needed for it. I am still too exhausted for such a task.
I’ll write you all about it in due time. I am working now and have sufficient food to eat. I am earning money and able to get just about everything here. Please send me some clothes urgently (if it is not too complicated for you). Send my regards to Haim Barlas, David Shor, Eliyahu Dobkin, Moshe Kleinbaum, Shafer Bilovolskes and the rest of my friends. I am eager to hug them all and just cry our hearts out. I kiss you and your children.
Dr. Rozett: To me, this is an incredibly moving letter where his expressions are so strong about the destruction, that the paper couldn’t absorb the ink for all of the names of the people who he knows who had been murdered. That’s an amazing image, right, that the paper can’t even absorb that ink, and that he just doesn’t have the energy now to even begin listing it all.
Jonathan: It’s so human.
Dr. Rozett: It’s so human.
Jonathan: And he’s asking if he could send some clothes, but “I don’t wanna bother you.”
Dr. Rozett: Right.
Jonathan: “If you can, send some clothes.” I Imagine, for you and your colleagues sort of studying this, you feel like a real person is in front of you, right?
Dr. Rozett: You do, and certainly when he says that all he wants to do is hug these people, and they can all just cry.
Dr. Rozett: It’s just such a devastating picture of loss. But still, he’s talking about… “But I’m living,” right, and he…
Jonathan: “I’m alive and I’m free.”
Dr. Rozett: There’s all the loss, but there’s still an element of hope in this: “I’m living, I’m making enough money,” and he’s hopeful that he’s going to find his wife and his son. We do know a little bit about who is in his letters, who he is talking about. First of all, who are the Leshems? Why is he writing to the Leshems? Well, Max, or Mordechai, and Yehudit Leshem were activist Zionists in Lithuania before the war, and already into the war, they managed to escape and come to Palestine. And they continued trying to send packages and other things to Lithuania to help people, and they were known to people who were involved with Zionist activity in Lithuania. And Lyuba, who was mentioned here again as Hirsch’s wife, and Arik as his son.
Jonathan: It’s a group of people, a community, who are…
Dr. Rozett: Who are Zionist activists, right.
Jonathan: Zionists, some of them managed to get to Palestine, some of them, like Hirsch, still stuck in…
Dr. Rozett: … were stuck in Kovno.
Jonathan: So Hirsch is stuck in Kovno, writing to his fellow Zionists, who were lucky enough to make it to Palestine. When he writes this, he probably has no idea about his wife and son “Lyuba and Arik are no longer with me,” he writes, “I still hope to find them”.
But here’s the twist:
Dr. Rozett: Yes, but we do have more letters from this family, so we have another letter.
Dr. Rozett: And the other letter, we’ll already know that his wife and son are found, because the next letter will be from his wife.
Dr. Rozett: Lyuba - later called Leah - to the same friends.
Jonathan: So - letter number three, undated, also sent to the Leshem family in Tel Aviv, written by Lyuba - or Leah - Brik:
THIRD LETTER: To my best friends! Hirsch has already written to you about everything. All that’s left for me to do is to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your true friendship. Yes, my dearest, many dreadful years of horrific nightmares have passed since we saw you depart to Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel]. It is impossible to relate in a letter all we have endured. Nobody will ever give us back what we have lost. An entire beautiful Jewish world had ceased to exist. You can no longer see in Lithuania a bearded Jew. Gone are our fathers and our mothers who sustained the fine and pure Jewish life upon their shoulders! A Jewish world is forever gone! And nobody in the surrounding world feels any shame! On the contrary: They still hate us, the survivors, for who we are! But enough about us, we are tragedy personified, albeit we are the lucky ones.
Our single hope is Eretz with its new life, its strength and its enthusiasm. How are your children? Did Miriam get married? And how is the handsome Dodik who resembles the Roman Caesar? Please let us know how they are doing. And you, how is your life coming along? Be well. I hope to properly repay you for your friendship. Your beloved Arik will soon turn nine. He is a fine big boy, but our constant wanderings have had a very negative effect on him. This is another reason why Eretz is my only hope. Stay well and send my regards to Miriam, Dodik and the rest of the acquaintances. Yours, Lyuba
Dr. Rozett: Again, the phrases are so, so strong - that “you can’t see a bearded Jew in the street anymore,” right? And of course, in Lithuania, there are very many observant, traditional Jewish men who would have had beards, and many of them dressed, you know, in Kaftans and other such things, and you just don’t see that anymore. But I think one of the strongest things she says is that, despite all this destruction, they still hate us. And I think that’s such a strong thing she’s saying, that we all think that the Holocaust, as soon as the news comes out, should have destroyed Antisemitism, right? I mean - this thing happened because of Antisemitism, and after we know that it happened, Antisemitism should be obliterated - but that’s not what happens. And of course, today, looking at it so many years later, we do understand - Antisemitism never went away. It was always there. Sometimes more overt, sometimes less overt, but it never went away, and her strong feeling that they still hate us, and still we’re the lucky ones, because we survived.
Jonathan: So she’s saying: “The horror may be over. Like my husband Hirsch said, he’s alive and he’s free. We’re out of the immediate danger, but…” she’s in Kovno writing this, probably?
Dr. Rozett: Yeah, she’s in Kovno.
Jonathan: Back in Kovno, she’s saying: “Okay, the horror may be over - but they still hate us.”
Dr. Rozett: They still hate us, and for her, and they’re Zionists, as I said, Hirsch was head of the Zionist office, for them the only answer is to come to the Land of Israel. That’s the answer for them. Now, we know that, from surveys later on, taken in camps where Jews were housed as displaced persons, that the vast majority wanted to come to the Land of Israel. Because of the policies still at the time, and it was so hard, and also because life here was so hard, many of them ended up not going there, they ended up going wherever they had family, relatives, wherever they could go and start new lives. But the vast majority of the Jews left those lands. I mean, some remained of course, but large, large numbers left the areas of the murder, and a great many, who maybe weren’t Zionists before, became Zionists in the aftermath of what had happened. They wanted to come to the Land of Israel, and that also… in this case, she says it so clearly, that this is the only solution for “us.”
Jonathan: So the family was reunited - mother, father and son thankfully, miraculously, alive and well, together, back in Kovno, hoping to join their old friends in Tel Aviv. But there’s a whole other act to their story:
Lyuba and the boy Arik, turns out, survived only thanks to incredible acts of kindness and courage:
Dr. Rozett: So Leah gave a testimony, which we have at Yad Vashem, and in her testimony, it’s a testimony about a Righteous Among the Nations, because her story is about being helped by a Righteous Among the Nations. Hirsch survives how he survives, but she and Arik survived because of help, and this is what her testimony says: In the spring of 1944 in Kovno, there was something called the “Children’s Aktion”, where the remaining children were supposed to be handed over to the Germans, and they were supposed to be killed, and so there was news about this beforehand. Leah, or Lyuba, had studied at the university, we know that she was a teacher, a history teacher, and she had contact with all kinds of non-Jewish people, and she turned to many of them to get help, and eventually a man named Rakevičius agreed to try and help get their son out of the ghetto, Arik. And he brings him out, but Rakevičius is a widower, a recent widower. And so he says to Lyuba: “You also have to come, I can’t deal with a child on my own.”
So they smuggle, we know how they smuggled him out, they were revamping clothing and things in the ghetto, right, and they would bring out wagons full of clothing. So they hid, Arik was an eight-year-old child in one of the bags of clothing, and they smuggled him out through the gate in the clothing. Okay? And then Rakevičius took him home, and then they managed to get Leah out either, we don’t know the exact details of how she gets out, but she gets out as well, and they were there for a while, but then after a little while it became unsafe. He said: “You have to go somewhere else,” and they found another person, a very simple farmer by the name of Jonas Mozūraitis. And Mozūraitis was a very poor man with a farm, but he was a very warm hearted and gentle man, and he had a very warm place in his heart for Aharon, who he called Argildes, which would be a Lithuanian name of calling him, right? And he says that he would take the little boy, Arik, out to the river to wash, and he would let him ride the horse, and he would notice how lonely Lyuba was, Leah, and he would say to her: “Don’t worry, as bad as it is, someday it’s going to be better,” and he would say to her: “see, madam, your son one day will be a great man. After it’s very bad, it will be good,” that’s what she says in the testimony.
Jonathan: Now here’s the punchline. The boy, Arik? Turns out, he had a pretty special third act of his own…
Dr. Rozett: We know that they left Kovno, they went to Italy, and they finally made Aliyah [immigrated to pre-State Israel] in 1947. They moved to Haifa. We know that he worked there, he was a lawyer and they worked there, and she was a teacher, and we know that Arik then studied. Ge was a very bright kid and he did very well, and according to Mozūraitis’s prediction, he became a great man - because we know him as Aharon Barak, who was the Chief Justice or the President of the Israeli Supreme Court, so it’s…
Dr. Rozett: It’s quite a story, and again, it’s a devastating story, but this is also a story of hope, where she’s reaching out to her friends. It’s also worth mentioning that she talks about Dudik, right, the Leshems’ son, he…
Jonathan: “Handsome like Julius Caesar.”
Dr. Rozett: Yeah, he married Ben Gurion’s daughter, Renana.
Jonathan: Our fourth and final letter today - undated, originally written in Hebrew, by Zahavit to Tzotzi:
FOURTH LETTER: My dear Tsotsi, It’s strange, when I received your letter I didn’t know what to do with it, open it, or it’s something to toy with, something really joyous. And even stranger, I read your letter over and over, not because I didn’t understand it but because I got happy all over again each time.
Jonathan: So this one, a little different, it’s a actually a reply letter: Tzotzi had written to Zahavit, and this is her answer.
Dr. Rozett: He wrote to her. He was in the Jewish brigade, which were the Jewish soldiers who had enlisted to fight along with the British, and then after the war many of them stayed in Europe and they were looking for survivors. And he found her in Bergen-Belsen and he wrote to her the first letter, which is a letter, she says, she read forward, backward, upside down, over and over again because it was so joyous to read it.
Jonathan: His letter…
Dr. Rozett: Reached her first.
Jonathan: Reached her and was… gave her a reason to sit down and write.
Dr. Rozett: And then she wrote to him her letter.
@ FOURTH LETTER: You may not understand me, those who went through all of Germany’s savageries. While we were locked up, we forgot that we are people, human beings. We were no more than numbers and we didn’t matter to anyone. As long as we were strong and could work for them, things went well. After we ran out of strength, the gas was our fate. The first camp they took us to from home was Auschwitz. You must have heard about that famous camp. At the gate of the camp, they took me specifically and sent my parents and siblings to the other side, meaning the gas and the crematorium. The camp where I spent three months was the extermination camp. We had no hopes of getting out of there alive. At the last moment, it was ordered that they needed working hands in Germany. Fortunately for us, we were placed in this transport and reached Germany. Here I spent nine months in one camp until the day of our liberation.
My friend, if only you knew how much more I could tell you face to face. If only you could visit me; that way we could talk lots and lots. It’s good to hear about comrades who we haven’t seen in years. I have to write in pencil because there’s no ink in my room. I hoped that you would bring Hitler to our congress; he surely didn’t think that there’d be a Jewish congress in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Just the same, we just lost the war. What’s the difference between the camp of the past and now? Before, the camp had German overseers; now the camp isn’t much different: it has British overseers. It’s best not to speak about this issue, because that way it hurts [to see] that there’s lots of suffering even afterwards. It’s impossible to become a free person. I won’t write more to you because I am very upset. Heartfelt regards, Zahavit
Dr. Rozett: So this is a letter that was written in Bergen-Belsen in 1945, and Bergen-Belsen of course was a camp that the Nazis had set up. It was initially meant for exchanging Jews with Germans who’d been stuck abroad, and Jews who for some reason could come to Palestine, that was the main thing, and there were Jews exchanged from Bergen-Belsen, specifically Dutch Jews, but also earlier transports of Jews that had been exchanged. Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war, however, became a place to which prisoners were dumped in great numbers, especially sick prisoners. And so Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war was a place of horrendous suffering, with typhus and starvation and… and the British liberation of Bergen-Belsen is a very significant piece of the British story about the Holocaust. And then afterwards they set up a displaced persons’ camp in Bergen-Belsen. And so this is where she’s writing about.
Jonathan: So the British come in, liberate the camp, the Germans are out, there’s a lot of sickness and death and suffering, but the British are trying to maintain some order, they’re taking the camp and saying: “Okay, we’ll use this as a temporary place to…”
Dr. Rozett: displaced center. And about 10,000 people died in Bergen-Belsen after the liberation.
Jonathan: Under the British.
Dr. Rozett: Because they were still sick, yeah, cause they were still so sick.
Jonathan: And she’s saying, she describes this vividly, she’s saying it’s not much different.
Dr. Rozett: Right, because they’re not free yet. They still have some overseers… this is obviously… it is different, but for her…
Jonathan: Nobody’s trying to actively kill them.
Dr. Rozett: Right, but for her it feels the same, “I’m not free yet.”
Dr. Rozett: “I’m not free yet.”
Jonathan: Some more detective work now: pretty much the only thing Robert and his team had to work with, in trying to figure out the story behind this letter, was that Tzotzi or Tuztzi, was apparently a nickname, given to Tzvi Ringler, the person who donated the letter to Yad Vashem.
Dr. Rozett: Other than it was signed “Zehavit,” we don’t know anything about who wrote this letter. We know about Zvi, because Zvi had given us material, Yad Vashem, we knew who he was, we had a testimony from him, we knew. But when he gave us the letter, he just said “from a friend, Zehavit.” And he didn’t know who Zehavit was, and he didn’t tell us who she was, so we tried to figure it out - Zvi’s from Munkács. Do we have any information about a Zehavit in Bergen-Belsen and as a D.P from Munkács? it’s not enough to go on. We couldn’t figure it out. And so after trying to figure out who Zehavit could be, one of the people I work with had a conversation with Zvi, who by then was well into his 90s.
Jonathan: You decided to go back to the source…
Dr. Rozett: To ask Zvi, “maybe you know.”
Jonathan: “Help us piece this together.”
Dr. Rozett: Yeah, “Maybe you can figure it out.” and… and so we talked to him, and he came up with the idea, “Oh, wait a minute, her name was also Golda.”
Jonathan: Zehavit, Golda.
Dr. Rozett: Golda. And she was a classmate of his in the Munkács Hebrew Gymnasium, right - which is where he had studied as well.
Jonathan: That’s something to work with.
Dr. Rozett: Right, so Zvi was born in 1921. So if she was a classmate of his, we had an idea about how old she might be, right? And she was a classmate in the gymnasium. So once we knew that, we started looking around, what do we have about this gymnasium? And we have two very fascinating things in the archives at Yad Vashem. One is a piece of film footage of people in this Hebrew school singing Hatikvah [“The Hope” - later Israel’s national anthem] in 1933.
Dr. Rozett: And then we also have a photograph of a lot of these young people, and in the photograph there’s a lot of people that have been identified, and one of them was Golda. And we knew then that her name was Golda, and we knew that her name from the identification in the photograph, that she’s probably Golda Gluq. And so suddenly we had something to look for.
Jonathan: Now that they had a full name and a date of birth, the researchers could scan the archives, and trace her movements over the years and across continents. Turns out Zehavit, Golda, was one of the survivors interviewed after the filming of “Schindler’s List”, a project led by Steven Spielberg.
Dr. Rozett: So we know who she is, we know what happened to her, we know about Zvi from his own material that he gave us, and suddenly we have a context to this, and so we also know that in January 1945, she ended up in Bergen-Belsen, right? As many of those kinds of camps were emptied out, she ended up in Bergen-Belsen.
Jonathan: And she mentions “a congress that we’re going to have, the Jews…”
Dr. Rozett: That’s right, so we know that as well, because we know that there was a Zionist congress that happened in 1945 in Bergen-Belsen, in the summer.
Jonathan: So when she tells him… she’s making a joke, “we thought you’d bring Hitler to the congress…”
Dr. Rozett: Right.
Jonathan: Because she knows he’s working with the British.
Dr. Rozett: He’s gonna come to the congress, she’s hopeful.
Jonathan: Yeah, she’s saying: “You’re part of the British now, you guys can capture Hitler and bring him to us for the congress.”
Dr. Rozett: Right, right.
Jonathan: So, wow.
Dr. Rozett: So she’s saying, you know, how would Hitler have ever thought the Jews were gonna survive and have a Zionist congress?
Jonathan: It’s a moment, a small victory.
Dr. Rozett: It’s a small victory, and it’s also very hopeful.
Ultimately she didn’t come to Israel, even though she was a Zionist. She started studying in Heidelberg.
Jonathan: Stayed in Germany.
Dr. Rozett: but then she left in May of 1946 for New York.
Jonathan: So that’s really interesting.
Dr. Rozett: Yeah, she wanted to…
Jonathan: Staying in Germany for a little while, but maybe couldn’t…
Dr. Rozett: To study. But she could find a way to go, I guess she went to New York, which is May 1946, not so much afterwards.
Jonathan: Had the opportunity to…
Dr. Rozett: And ten years later she married a man named Alderbert Smook, and they moved to New Rochelle, New York, which is one of the suburbs north of New York City, and they had two children.
Dr. Rozett: Two girls, and she passed away in 2012.
Jonathan: All of these letters, and many more, you can find in the book that Robert Rozett edited, together with Doctor Iael Nidam Orvieto. They titled their collection: After So Much Pain and Anguish - First Letters after Liberation
Dr. Rozett: We often tend to think of liberation in terms of the sailor kissing the woman in New York City, you know, the famous iconic photograph, the war is over, right? And it’s just happiness. But for survivors, the war, the end of the war meant beginning to confront the loss, and transmitting it to other people, and so we call it the anguish of liberation. We call their book “After So Much Pain and Anguish”, because there’s still a lot of pain and anguish that they went through, and they still have to deal with it and somehow… somehow deal with it.
You can’t understand the history of the Holocaust without also understanding people, and trying to go down to individual stories. If you just talk about individual stories, again, what I said in the beginning, you need context. But the individual stories… this is all about people. It’s always all about people. And so, hearing what people go through - every testimony is different, and every letter is different, but when you hear what they went through, first of all, it’s… as much as we know, there’s still this thing that’s so hard to understand, what this suffering was all about, the things that they went through. And the other thing is the resilience. That there is a lot of resilience. Not everybody - there are survivors who don’t have resilience, we don’t wanna make it all a good story - but a lot of them showed tremendous resilience, and put their lives back together. And so that gives you a feeling that, you know, that something about human beings, there’s hope. It’s not all despair. Recognize how horrible human beings can be to one another, that’s part of the story; recognize also that individuals often have tremendous resilience, put lives back together. Again, I’m not saying that everything’s wonderful, and I don’t like the triumphalism stories that we might hear. It’s not triumphalist, but it’s like a new chapter. And sometimes a new chapter has a lot of good things in it. Like moving to New Rochelle and having two children after all of this.
Jonathan: That’s it for this episode of “On the Holocaust”, a podcast from Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. My name is Jonathan Gal. Sound editing and mixing by Dor Komet; Tova Shimanov was our producer. Thanks to our guest, Doctor Robert Rozett, senior historian at the institute for international Holocaust research, Yad Vashem.
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