Dies sind meine letzten Worte... Briefe aus der Shoah. Ed. Walter Zwi Bacharach, Göttingen: Wallstein 2006. 336 pp., b/w illus.
The victims of the National Socialist murder of the Jews wrote numerous letters before their violent death to relatives, close friends and acquaintances. Only a small part of this has been published to date. This volume with ‘Letters from theShoah’ contains far more than a hundred letters written by persecuted Jews during the Nazi rule in variouscountries and regions across Europe between 1939 and 1944. The basis of this volume in German is an Israeli publication in 2002 initially in Hebrew and in 2004 in English.[i]
These documents, which due to fortunate circumstances survived the Nazi murder of the Jews, have been taken in the main from letters stored in Israeli archives, in particular the Yad Vashem Archive, and from already published editions. The selection is similar to an earlier edition published in English in 1991.[ii] Both contain notes by slave laborers in the Chelmno/Kulmhof extermination camp, a letter by Frieda to her husband Abraham Hameides, and the farewell letter of the Gerlitz couple to their daughter in Będzin. If the letters were originally in German, they have been reproduced here in their original; in other cases, the text was translated into German from Hebrew by Maurice Tszorf.
The arrangement of the letters is not chronological, but rather is oriented to perspectives in the world of feeling and experience of the authors. Walter Zwi Bacharach’s detailed introduction clarifies the principles for ordering of the letters, and this introduction should definitely be read before exploring the main section with documents (pp. 87 ff.). In his overview, Bacharach presents in some detail the main themes and the examples illustrating them (pp. 21-86). As he sees it, the writers of these epistles wished to leave a written testimony that would survive after their death. The final days and weeks of the victims were often overshadowed by anxiety and despair in the face of an inexorable violent death looming ever closer. On the other hand, there were also repeated moments of hope that countered the despondency. Many made use of their last communication in order to compose makeshift wills, in which they expressed their final wishes – and in some they spelled out how any possible inheritance should be apportioned or to whom the temporary holder of the message containing these ‘final words’ should give the letter. Aside from one’s own person, concern expressed was for the children, their situation and wellbeing. By contrast, the thoughts of those who were younger often turned to the question of how the crimes of the murderers could be avenged. Sometimes they also pondered how they themselves might take revenge by an organized armed struggle. But arrayed over against that possible step were their family ties and obligations, in the ghettos in particular, the constant concern for family members. These obligations and concerns were only overcome by inner struggle. Larger was the group of those determined to stick it out, survive and live to see the end of the war, despite all adversities. Still others ultimately accepted the fate prepared for them by the National Socialists and their accomplices. Many took their own lives in order to preserve a remaining modicum of self-determination and to elude their murderers, who made the victims their objects for annihilation. For religious Jews, the mass murder operations were an occasion for them to confront anew the question of God and divine providence. In the view of the editor, only few Jewish believers were moved to the point where they doubted God.
The authors of the letters, who provide testimony in a unique and very personal way about the mechanisms of the National Socialist murder of the Jews, came from an array of different social strata: represented among them are heads of Jewish Councils from the upper middle class as well as the sons of farmers, and rabbis, lawyers, politicians active in the Jewish workers’ movement, housewives, and young men and women from the Zionist youth leagues. Their geographical framework extends from Athens in southeastern Europe to Rivealtes in Western Europe, the Baltic countries and the former Soviet Ukraine. Authors from Germany and Austria are over-proportionally represented. Comparatively large likewise is the proportion of authors from the Second Polish Republic. Also included in this collection are several letters from Lithuania, Hungary and Slovakia, along with a few individual letters by authors from other countries. In order to convey to relatives and friends abroad the horror of what they were experiencing, and to get their letter past the censors, they employed code words, inserting Hebrew words or allusions to the situation. A striking example is the letter by Dawid Guzik, a staff worker at the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee in Poland, sent in October 1943 from Warsaw to Palestine (Doc. 115, p. 333). Expressions such as ‘taken ill,’ ‘hospital,’ and ‘cleansing’ took on an incomparably greater dramatic meaning in the context of deportations to the death camps, as Walter Zwi Bacharach makes clear. Allusions to persons and events in the Hebrew Bible (such as the reference to Amalek in Doc. 1, p. 93) serve as a coded signifier. The authors also employed other allusions as well, such as the Polish place name Zagrobek (‘behind the grave,’ p. 120). The family name of a Mr. ‘Izbicki,’ whom the author was soon to meet, stood for the destruction of the Jewish Community in Izbica, and anticipates the writer’s own imminent death.
This is not a scientific-scholarly edition in the technical sense, as, for example, Ruta Sakowska’s exemplary edition of letters from the Ringelblum Archive. Her volume contains three or four main components: the photocopy of the original, its transcription, if necessary a translation and a detailed commentary according to exacting editorial guidelines.[iii] Unfortunately, these standards have not been achieved here. The reader is provided a translation in German, and left uncertain about the language in which the original was written in. Only those letters originally written in German are in keeping with the transcription of the original.
Many points in the documents should have been explained more exactly. One example was when the victims of ‘Operation Reinhardt’ in Lublin accused the head of the Jewish Council, Henryk Bekker, that he ‘was guilty of everything,’ this due to a misunderstanding of his latitude for taking action vis-à-vis the staff of the SS and Police Leader (SSPF) Globocnik. It should be recalled here that Bekker himself was deported two days later together with his wife to their death in Bełżec (p. 105). The spelling of the names of numerous individuals, streets, localities or other geographical names is idiosyncratic, and should have been supplemented by a concordance. In one case, the city of Piotrków in western Poland is mistakenly confused with the locality by the same Polish name in the Ukraine (today Petrykiv) (p. 118). In Doc. 103, the name of the Polish underground radio station ‘Świt’ (‘Dawn’) should have been explained, and Władysław Raczkiewicz was not ‘state president in the Polish exile government,’ but the president of Poland. It is very bizarre when Israeli books in Hebrew referenced in the footnotes are given titles translated into German; in one case, this has been done with a volume of documents that appeared in English (p. 79)! The French used in the footnotes is also erroneous (p. 57). Dr. Woehl appears in the English edition of this volume as Emil Eliezer Nohl (p. 221), and only that edition has a subject, place and person index.
Finally, not all of the letters reproduced here are ‘final words’ of the authors in the narrow sense. Adolf Berman and Icchak Cukierman from the Jewish National Committee (ŻKN) in Warsaw survived the end of German occupation (Doc. 92, pp. 283-287), and the married couple Gerlitz had the unexpected good fortune to be reunited in freedom with their daughter after their farewell letter to her on 7 July 1944 (Doc. 96).
In addition, more exact information about the authors and their relation to the intended recipients of the letters would have been useful for the interested reader; even when this information is available in the archives, it unfortunately has not always been included here.
Translated from the German by Bill Templer
[i]Last Letters from the Shoah. Ed. English version, Toby Weissman, Jerusalem 2004. 400 pp.
[ii]Final Letters. From the Yad Vashem Archive. Selected by Reuven Dafni and Yehudit Kleiman, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991, 128 pp., illus.
[iii]Archiwum Ringelbluma. Konspiracyjne Archiwum Getta Warszawy, Vol. 1: Listy o Zagładzie, ed. Ruta Sakowska, Warsaw: PWN 1997. 381 pp., numerous illus. But Bacharach took a number of letters from this volume edited by Sakowska, which are published here for the first time in German translation.