I recently had the chance to talk to author, educator, and historian Alexandra Weinbaum about her new book, Careful Old Letters: A Jewish Family’s Story. The book is filled with translations and reproductions of a trove of World War II family letters and postcards that were discovered, by chance, in an old box in a closet. We talked about the profound impact these letters had, and how Weinbaum went about writing this intensely moving book.
What prompted you to write this book?
Following my mother’s death, my son and I were cleaning out her storage closet. I was about to throw out what just seemed like an old box when my son stopped me and said, “Look at the title.” The box was labeled Careful Old Letters in my father’s large scrawl. When I opened it, I realized it contained letters from Europe, and postcards, many with swastikas from the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos. Many members of my family had been imprisoned, and died, in those ghettos. I had someone translate a few of the postcards from Lodz, and realized how important they were for me and my family. The 169 letters and postcards tell a story I’d never known.
Had you known about these letters?
My parents were not forthcoming about their parents’ fates, and as a child, I knew “in my bones” not to ask too many questions. When I was about ten, my parents read me one postcard, written by my maternal grandmother when she was in the Lodz ghetto. In it, she lists all the food and clothing she needed — the most basic items. I was too young then to understand the desperation behind her request. And I’d always thought this was the only postcard my parents had. When my son revealed the contents of the box to me, I realized that my grandmother’s postcard was just one of many.
When do the letters start, and when was the last one written?
The letters begin when my parents, who were both born in Lodz but met in Grenoble, France, fell in love. They were both students at the time. My mother had to return to Poland for two years before she finally joined my father in Paris when he went to medical school. But during that separation, they corresponded constantly, and I include some of those letters in the book.
In 1938, a relative of my mother’s who lived in Philadelphia visited them in Paris, and urged them to consider coming to the U.S. where my father could practice medicine. It was already increasingly clear that Europe was a dangerous place for Jews — what was happening in Germany was terrifying, and many German Jews had already sought refuge wherever they could. With that relative’s help, my parents emigrated to the United States that April. Sadly, the war broke out in September 1939, so my parents were unable to bring any of their relatives to the States. Those imprisoned in the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos wrote desperate letters pleading for help, but by then immigration was impossible.
The last letter sent during the war, actually a postcard from my grandmother, was written in June 1941. After this, correspondence was no longer possible. The last letters my parents received came after the war, from the only two surviving family members, my father’s first cousins, Dosia and Adek; and from his best friend, Bolek, who had survived the war in Paris.
Did writing the book require a lot of research?
I’m a historian by training: I majored in Russian history with a minor in Polish history, and knew how to research the background and context. There’s a wealth of information in English about the Lodz and Warsaw Ghettos: translated memoirs, historical documents — both hidden ones that were found after the war, and official documents that the Jewish administrators appointed by the German Army were forced to keep. So I had many accessible sources at hand to contextualize the historical aspects of the letters.
How long did it take to write the book?
It was only after I retired that I was able to undertake the project: having the letters translated, placing them in a historical context, and revealing my feelings as a tragic story revealed itself through those postcards and letters. Then it took three years between translations and writing. I found two extraordinary translators, one for Polish and Russian, and one for German. Both recognized and maintained consistent voices for each of the letter writers, and were in touch with the writers’ emotional tone, too, during what must have been harrowing times.
Was it hard — emotionally — to write?
Except for my parents’ love letters, all of it was hard. Once the war broke out, the writers begged for food and other daily necessities — clothes, bedding — that were unobtainable in the Lodz and Warsaw Ghettos. I don’t know if my parents fully understood how desperate the situation was until well into the war. They did send packages, which my grandmother rarely received, and when she did, they were broken open and destroyed — something the Germans did routinely.
My parents never discussed this with me. In creating a new life for themselves in the States, which they did very successfully — including my father enlisting in the Army for five years — they didn’t realize the full depth of the letter writers’ despair and helplessness. I think my parents felt guilt their whole lives: they survived and nearly everyone else perished. Understanding how this affected them and my relationship to them has been so helpful. Writing the book, in the end, was a healing process.
Who do you think are the heroes of this book? What voices stand out?
These letters convey amazing, heroic moments, in which ordinary people are pushed to their extreme limits and still maintain a sense of love and connectedness with those whom they love. But three voices stand out. My grandmother had the excruciating task of trying to be “motherly” and at the same time convey the desperateness of her situation. The postcards sent in the midst of extreme hunger and suffering to wish my mother a happy birthday and to imagine a wonderful life for her are very moving. My father’s friend Bolek was in hiding in France during the war: one of his letters describes his escape from the French Army just as Germany soldiers were about to capture his unit. My father’s cousin, Dosia, survived Auschwitz: in a letter she wrote after the Americans liberated the camp, she describes the hell of internment. She lived with my family for a short time after coming to the States.
Who are you hoping reads this book, and what do you hope they experience upon reading it?
I think this book will be interesting for anyone who wants to understand what it means to live through traumatic historical moments. These occur all the time throughout the world, as is true for Syrian refugees now. Anyone whose family experienced these situations will understand my family’s story. Because the letters are so vivid, others can imagine it. I know that the stories will resonate especially with those who suffered and those who helped them. These letters touch deeply emotional cords.
Learn more about Alexandra Weinbaum and Careful Old Letters here.