“We declare that on 7 July 1944, the order for the evacuation of the ghetto of Siauliai (Shavli) was issued. We want future generations to know our names: Shmuel Minzberg — the son of Shimon from the city, Lodz (Poland); his wife, Reisele née Saks from Vaiguva; her sister, Feigele Saks; and Friedele Niselevitch — the daughter of Nahum Zvi from Vaiguva. We don’t know to where we are being deported. Two thousand Jews are in the ghetto awaiting the order to leave. Our destiny is unknown. Our state of mind is dreadful. May the Kingdom of Israel be established speedily in our days. – Shmuel Minzberg.”
This testament — found on the site of the former Siauliai ghetto — is one of many final letters and testaments penned by Holocaust victims only moments before they were never heard from again.
From within the camps, ghettos, and prisons, en route to the valley of death, prisoners tried to send news about their fate and the fate of their community to relatives and friends. These last testaments were often scribbled on scraps of paper, relying heavily on code words and hints so as to bypass the strict censorship. Many letters were concealed in hiding places and discovered only after the war; many others were thrown from the trains by deportees unaware of their destinations. Still others were sent by official postal service or couriers. In a few cases, decades passed before the letters arrived at their intended destinations.
Some writers focused on dates, names, and events — so future generations would have knowledge of what transpired. Others crafted personal messages to family members, relatives, and friends. Some knew, to a degree, that they were approaching death, while others expressed a terrible sense of uncertainty, coupled with feelings of optimism that perhaps they would ultimately be rescued.
In almost all instances, there was a clear division between references to the writer’s individual or personal fate — that was to be decreed and out of the victim’s hands — and that of future generations of the Jewish people. Many writers believed in the continuity of the Jewish people, expecting their children or the readers of their letters to continue living as Jews according to the precepts of Jewish tradition, at times even requesting that they emigrate to Eretz Yisrael.
Along with expressing their unshaken faith in a future for the Jewish people, many writers understood the importance of imparting their message to future generations: A father from Slobodka’s final testament embodies the historical imperative to remember all the victims: “I have decided to leave at least some information for those who remain after us, so that you will know all that has happened to us from the primary source.” Another father from eastern Lithuania asks to be individually remembered through the observance of his yahrzeit (annual memorial day): “Be healthy, these are my last words. Today is 21 December 1941, and it should be the date of my yahrzeit.” Yahrzeit observance, a practice dedicated to remembering the dead, is also inexorably linked to the idea of continuity. By carrying out this tradition, a determination to live and an expression of hope for the future is demonstrated, along with a reverence for and commemoration of the dead.
The final plea given by Holocaust victims to remember also incorporates the imperative to avenge. In some cases, rather than seek revenge on the murderers, they asked that it be carried out through remembrance of the victims — those whose lives were taken before their time. Such was the desperate call for revenge of a young girl: “So that she, whose fate was to die when she was nineteen, will not be forgotten.”
According to the Jerusalem Talmud: “As long as a person is alive, he has hope. When he is dead — his hope is lost” (Tractate Brachot). Even when devoid of reality, the capacity to hope helped victims keep desperation at bay and accompanied them in various ways throughout the hellish torment of the Holocaust. At times, however, hope stemmed from a sense of confidence, as expressed in an anonymous letter thrown from a train declaring that whoever read the letter could be absolutely sure that the writer would return.
In other instances, hope derived from feelings of love: the love of one’s neighbor or partner, the love of children, mankind, and Eretz Yisrael — as expressed in final writings — strengthened the victims and helped them endure their suffering. Regina Kandt, a native of Belgrade, wrote in a letter to her husband, Maks: “I have suffered greatly, but I endured it because I believed in the good Lord and because my great love for you, Mutzek, kept me going… I did not love anybody in the whole world as much as I loved you. Therefore you, too, must be strong and patient, for one day an end will come to this too… I am writing this just in case I do not survive. But I do have the feeling that we shall see one another again…”
Whether written out of hope, a need for vengeance, or the desire to bequeath a vital message, the last letters and wills of the condemned serve as eternal monuments for remembrance, continuity and hope.