The letters from the Holocaust can tell us so much more than a textbook ever could. Because you can see the events taking place from the eyes of those witnessing them, the experience can give you a better understanding of everything from the camps to the feelings of loved ones receiving the words. We’ll look at what different letters of note reveal about this horrific tragedy.
Keeping House and Hope
Halina Szwambaum was just 22 when she died in the ghetto. Before then, she sent letters to a former teacher about what it was like to live in a place where children were wandering around barefoot in the dead of winter.
What she largely focuses on is her ability to keep house in a time of uncertainty and destruction. She describes tending to flowers, polishing floors, and eating on a budget. She also talks about her studies and how she desperately tried to continue learning in a time of despair. “Recently I undertook the great task of describing the cathedral of Chartres in French. It filled an entire 50-groszes notebook, consumed quite a few evenings, and kept my mind busy, which is a good thing.”
A Letter to His Wife
Another letter of note came from Otto Bendix, who would pass away at the age of 55 in a holding area in Czechoslovakia. What he wanted from the wife he was writing to was for her to be happy and strong, regardless of his circumstances. He was able to send the letter shortly before being transported, and it’s a heartbreaking message of love to her. The group he was with was largely older and included well-known artists of his day. These letters of note from the Holocaust tell us about how people felt when they were forced to be apart from the people they cared about most.
Terror in Isolation
Zbigniew Kelhoffer was living in occupied Poland when he plotted his escape from his captors. What he talked about most was his fear of being lost in the world and lonely without his loved ones around. “I feel alone in this world without anyone to give me a helping hand when I am drowning.”Deportations and attacks were never announced, and the uncertainty would be enough to drive anyone over the edge. He would eventually go into hiding with his wife and survive.
The Horrific Transition
Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, and he wasted no time in building concentration camps to anyone he deemed a threat. People from the ghetto were transferred and forced to work. The conditions were far from humane. In 1942, Nazi officials met to discuss killing all of the Jews in Europe, which they ultimately all agreed upon.
Aaron Eiferman, a US military man, described piles of bodies to his wife. He also called the survivors ‘the living dead’ due to their malnourished bodies. He also tells the tale of meeting a prisoner, one who hoped the soldier would kill him so he could end the suffering. Eifferman told the prisoner that he was Jewish himself and from America, which prompted the prisoner to kiss his hand. Both Aaron and the prisoner would survive.
Letters of note from the Holocaust are more than just a window into history, they’re a way for us to understand the day-to-day activities that are often glossed over in more formal texts. From studies to labour, there is so much value in studying this era from a different lens.