It’s been said that we inherit the memories of past generations. For families who lost loved ones in the Holocaust, tragedy felt like something known right “in my bones,” as author Alexandra Weinbaum writes. Her remarkable new book, Careful Old Letters: A Jewish Family’s Story — Lodz, Warsaw, Paris — is an odyssey on two levels. First, the discovery of a mystery box of wartime letters sends Weinbaum on a long journey as she searches for answers. Then, carefully organized (and reproduced) in the pages of her book, these stirring letters and postcards take us back in time.
Certainly, the reality of what befell some six million Jews during World War II is unfathomable. For many families, what happened was better left unsaid. “To be curious was to uncover the unspeakable,” Weinbaum writes of her own family — which, as countless others did, simply tried to “close the book.” Yet Weinbaum, an educator and historian, grew up with enough glimpses to know there was tragedy in her family’s past. There was Dosia, a cousin, who had numbers tattooed on her arm that she covered with a band-aid. There were others, who had simply ceased to exist. Without knowing all the details, Weinbaum knew her family was haunted, in a sense.
While sorting possessions after her mother’s death, Weinbaum was alerted to a cardboard box on a storage shelf (it was actually her son who made the discovery). Marked “Careful Old Letters,” the carton contained 169 letters and postcards, some with Nazi postmarks, many sent from the Jewish ghettos of Lodz and Warsaw. Many of the authors were Weinbaum’s long-lost relatives, including Dosia — one of the few lucky ones, as it turned out — who survived. The book Weinbaum’s family had tried for so long to keep closed was insisting that Weinbaum open it. She became the custodian of voices silenced, of lives lost.
It would take years for Weinbaum to fully come to terms with the written evidence of love and loss in that box. But come to terms she did. To bring these voices back to life, Weinbaum sought out expert translators and drew on her own love for history and teaching. She takes care to set everything in context, explaining how a simply written line, such as, “We need flour,” concealed far more desperate straits. In the ghettos, Jews were starving, but to say so would mean a letter censored, or confiscated. Faced with intense, heartless deprivations, the writers of these letters held onto hope, warmth, humor and, of course, love. They slipped in photographs, asked for tea and cocoa, begged for news of relatives, sent love and best wishes. Then they disappeared.
What makes this book so powerful is that it brings a small handful of people back to life, in their letters, in their photographs, and in the careful and factual recounting of just what life was like during that time. Weinbaum not only conveys the complicated emotions of those who escaped the Holocaust, but also notes the gravity of her own efforts. To resurrect the voices contained in those letters was also to resurrect the terrible pain and sadness her own parents must have felt. As Polish émigré students in France, her parents had emigrated to the United States, no doubt assuming they would see their families again. Like many, they were unaware of the true scope and systematic ferocity of what faced their loved ones. As Weinbaum writes, it may be better that way.
It is impossible to not be moved by Careful Old Letters, and just as impossible to put it down once you start reading. It is at once highly personal and sadly wise: at one point, Weinbaum visits Treblinka, the death camp, where so many perished. “No opportunity to say good-bye,” she writes, of what it must have been like for her paternal grandparents. In this book, she does it for them, reconnecting family ties over generations, and healing universal wounds.