Berlin Letters

by Ronnie Hess


Being Jewish – the religion represented death, sorrow, suffering and concealment to me. When my father was observant it was at Yom Kippur, the high holiday when he fasted and spent the entire day at the synagogue. Or when he lit Jahrzeit remembrance candles each year for his parents, always on their birthdays, because he didn’t know when they died.

I learned about my grandparents’ letters when I was a teenager. My mother and I were standing in front of one of the large closets in our hallway, and I must have asked her something about her manila folders, about what they contained. Letters.

I couldn’t read some of them because they were in German, but I knew that asking my parents to translate them would have provoked enormous anxiety. I had begun to grasp the extent of the family drama in high school as my father had helped me with a project, writing down the names of his parents and aunts. I asked, “What happened to her, to him?” “Dead,” he said, “dead,” again and again. Perhaps at some point he may have uttered the word “Auschwitz.” “Terrible, terrible,” my mother had once whispered. I learned to be quiet and to leave them alone, until I was in my forties, a journalist living in Paris assigned to cover Pope John Paul II’s second visit to Poland.

I had planned a side trip to Auschwitz with my interpreter and told my father about it in one of our frequent phone calls. I was stunned by his reply. “Look for your grandmother’s locket,” he said, his voice suddenly changing, sounding more high-pitched, childlike, and insistent. “It had pictures of us inside.” He was rushing, his words urgent, lunatic, almost hysterical. “She never would have taken it off.” I imagined a Nazi guard pulling it from her throat in one brutal stroke. Of course, I didn’t find the locket in Auschwitz, or a suitcase with our family’s name on it, even though I tried, peering hard at the exhibits.

“What makes you think they died here?” Jacek asked me as we stood in front of the concentration camp, a few feet away from the infamous sign “Arbeit macht frei.” I didn’t know if he was being provocative, or merely asking a legitimate question. “That’s what my family was told.” It was all I could say. (Later, I would learn that my grandparents and great-aunts had been killed in Treblinka in the fall of 1942.)  But Jacek unwittingly had planted a seed of doubt, or at the very least piqued my curiosity to do some research. The letters. I hired a translator and, with his help, began to understand. But only after my father, my aunt and uncle – the three siblings – had died.

At first, the correspondence seemed indecipherable, written in a tight (my grandfather Nathan’s) or flowery (my grandmother Ida’s) script that tried to cram in as much news as possible, with notes along the margins. There were round-robin or group letters, sometimes with messages from both my grandparents and their children, passed from one sibling to another — from Berlin to England to Spain or to the U.S. Over several months, the translator worked on the letters painstakingly, sending his work to me at intervals. There were about twenty pieces of correspondence, including those from my uncle heading to Bolivia just before war broke out, as well as assorted documents, even some short stories written by my grandfather.

As I read through them, I was ashamed that they left me cold. I had expected that they would be revelatory, rich with explanations about what was going on in Berlin after Hitler’s rise to power, or give me insights into my grandparents’ personalities. But instead, my grandparents wrote mostly about the people who came to visit them, sometimes referring to them by their initials or first names making it impossible for me to identify them. (Perhaps, with a fear of censors opening their letters, that was the point.) The letters were also upsetting because my father seemed to come under fire, chided by my grandparents for not writing often enough, for being lazy, a spendthrift, unrealistic and cruelly demanding, in one case asking for books and cameras to be shipped to him in Spain. My grandfather rebuked his son. Didn’t he know how hard times were; didn’t he know how difficult once ordinary things had become?

My father, the spoiled child, the inconsiderate older brother, the one who was too full of himself – those feelings had always been implied but rarely uttered by my aunt and uncle; now they were out in the open and acknowledged by parents who I never imagined would have been so forthright. And there were more intimations of unresolved family squabbles, snide comments about this or that relative, especially my uncle’s wife, Hannah, and their marital troubles. I had seen enough vindictiveness and backbiting among my father’s family when I was growing up, and I was disgusted and demoralized seeing them played out so much earlier, well before my father, his sister, and brother were reunited in America. In September 1940, my grandfather relayed one particularly excruciating comment from my uncle’s wife, referring to my father, Louis, by one of his nicknames. “Lutz promised us a lot, but didn’t keep anything,” Hannah had said. I recalled tense family dinners in New York when my uncle seemed spineless, beaten down and diminished, his wife quarrelsome and sneering. I hated it when they spoke German, how Uncle Arnulf whimpered and Aunt Hannah snorted. I hated the evening when my mother came home abruptly and in tears because Aunt Hilde had told her, on their way to a concert, that a woman’s place was in the home. Was this her way of getting back at my father, who had once thought his sister should have stayed behind in Germany taking care of their parents? And I hated the day when, in my teens, my father made me speak to my uncle, who it seemed – I never knew if I got the story right – had locked himself in the bathroom and, despondent, was contemplating suicide.

In short, I didn’t know how to read the letters, and it took me several attempts before I could begin to fathom their emotional terrain.

My translator, Marcel – a French name but German – had begun by translating my uncle’s letters, written on board a ship as he, Hannah, and baby Florian steamed to shelter in Bolivia. The descriptions gave me a completely different image of my uncle. He wrote eloquently about the passage and the people he was meeting on board. He was smart and resourceful, coming up with creative ways to do business that would make and save his family money. Who was this man, I wondered? Why had I never seen this side of him?

As Marcel pressed on with his work, the most significant piece of information, the one that excited both of us because it seemed to stand out historically – it wasn’t part of the litany of visits and ailments, including treatment of my grandmother’s broken arm – was my grandfather’s description sometime after September 19, 1941 of having to wear the Star of David. “Dear Ludi and Tina,” my grandfather began, “It was twice the joy that you wrote us right on time for the holidays. It does not matter that we are now publicly labeled. It has been happening before. Five hundred years ago it was a yellow spot or ring at the clothing, the so-called ‘spot of shame.’ Now it is the Star of David, therefore a sign of honor, with the same effect as the Holy Cross.”

Initially, I had hoped to learn from the letters whether my grandparents had tried to get out of Germany. During my childhood, on the rare occasions when the subject had come up, and only with my mother, she would explain that my grandparents hadn’t thought this could happen to them. After all, the family had lived in Germany for hundreds of years. Surely, the Nazis wouldn’t hurt them because they were in their seventies. But what I discovered in the letters was that, of course, my grandparents had wanted desperately to immigrate. That was the source of my family’s silence in America, of my father’s crippling sense of guilt. Accounts of trying to obtain visas, and the various failures and successes of friends and relations at this task, dominated the correspondence. But, like many other German Jews of their generation, my grandparents’ first concern was to guarantee the safety of their children, and they were preoccupied with these details.

“It is unbelievable that the matter should fail,” my grandmother wrote in an undated letter, probably in early 1940, expressing incomprehension, frustration, and despair about my father’s situation as he waited in Spain to immigrate. “Why don’t you write to the Pittsburghers?” (A colleague of my father’s lived in Pittsburgh and had agreed to sponsor him.) “Can’t you talk to the high man whose picture you took? Maybe he could intervene for you. When your letter came yesterday, I thought it would be a good one. First you write that the consul tells you to pick up your visa and all your papers are OK. All three of you don’t seem to have luck with America. Could it be completely locked off for you?” Then, my grandmother’s tone softens for a moment. “Maybe everything will turn out for the best, which I hope for dearly. You will probably note from my handwriting that I am very upset about it.” (Are these blotches from her tears? Is her hand shaking?) She returns to trying to find a solution, mentioning an idea that must have come from my uncle, by then in Bolivia. “He thinks that … he would be able to request us. However, it takes too much time. Who knows what will be happening until then.”

Earlier, in April 1939, my grandfather had affectingly humored my aunt, writing to her in England, where she had found work as a cook, addressing his postcards to “Hilda Göring.” (Had he thought it was a way to get past the censors?) He began his note in English, “My darling,” before switching to German, “What do you say now? Am I not ready for England?” He closed at the end of the card, “At night, I always read novels on London and know my way around there.”

According to historian Marion Kaplan (in her book about Jewish life in Nazi Germany, Between Dignity and Despair), there was an expression, “children turned into letters,” which testified to Jewish parents’ sense of loss. My grandparents lived for their children’s news. Sometime in the summer of 1939, my grandmother wrote to my aunt, “Monday comes the letter we were longing for. We are very happy. I would like to hug and kiss you. If only I would get a letter like this, every four weeks.”

That summer, before war broke out, my grandmother had been upbeat. “I am considering visiting you in London sooner or later. What do you think about that? I think I could get a passport for fourteen days. I would like to have a serious talk with you.” Was she worried that my aunt was being difficult and headstrong to the point of risking losing her job as a cook? “If your Lady is satisfied with you, you will certainly stay there,” she wrote, before commenting on some upstairs/downstairs infighting. “Don’t let the chambermaid win, be independent. I am not afraid about my Hildchen,” her little Hilde.

My grandfather was still dreaming of England that summer, too. “From my time as a boy I can remember the album pictures from Ascot. Dozens of English horses, meager and thin with colorful jockeys on the green lawn in front of the grandstand filled with people. You have probably seen such a picture ‘over there’ as well. This way the brain is refreshed again.” The weather was pleasant that August, he said, and he and my grandmother went out for walks every night, sitting on a bench along the banks of the Spree River. Anglers weren’t catching any fish – my grandfather was an avid fisherman – and work tailoring was slow.

By early 1940, my grandparents knew their chances of reaching America were slim, but they wanted to leave and were explicit about it. My grandmother wrote, “Our number at the consulate would be 60,000. Since only 5,000 a year are ‘requested,’ it would take too long for us. We would like to get out, too.” When it was my grandfather’s turn at the end of the letter, he added, “What else will happen to us is written in the clouds. It would be our wish to get out of here as fast as possible, although I had a different opinion in the past as you know. Unfortunately, the remorse comes too late.”

The emotions rise and fall throughout the correspondence, from letter to letter, even sentence to sentence. On June 21, 1940, my grandfather’s 73rd birthday, he is demoralized and fatalistic. “I wish I could sit down with you again at table. Unfortunately, the perspectives for that are bad, and we have to wait for the future, for what destiny has planned for us.” He mentions that the Hilfsverein, the Aid Society of Jews in Germany that was offering assistance with emigration, and which my grandfather shorthanded as “H.V.,” had just replied to his second letter telling him they couldn’t do anything to help him get to America. “Over,” my grandfather writes summarily, and yet, he still held out hope, pinning his chances on my father being able to do something once he got to the U.S.

In July, my grandfather reported that he had gone to the American Consulate and that the conversation had lasted five minutes. Officials said they would contact the Consulate in Madrid, but meanwhile my grandparents would have to wait “1.5 more years.” “Therefore I ask you, dear son, again, if it is not possible for you that we come over there.” (I assume my grandfather meant Spain.) “I hear that there are visas for transit. Please try it again, because we both don’t know where we will end up.”

Perhaps a little later – I can’t tell from the undated letter – my grandmother’s tone becomes insistent with my father, “We asked you repeatedly what quota number you have. You did not tell us yet. Here, everyone got a number when they applied. We can’t do anymore here.” In another note, she writes about bumping into two women who were leaving for Bolivia and their surprise to hear “that we don’t have a requisition yet.” My grandmother softens the news by adding that her daughter-in-law, my uncle’s wife, had once said, “It is still too early. It is closed. We have to wait. Who knows how it will work out?” I can sense not just my grandparents’ anxiety as the noose was tightening, but also their consternation – their children seemed incapable of acting on their behalf; people around them were leaving yet they were not.

In September 1940, my grandmother spoke to my aunt of the possibility of emigrating to Colombia and how she regretted my aunt’s decision not to use a visa to Shanghai: “I wish you would have gone to Shanghai, then we would have been there already. The exit to Shanghai is very big now, everyone is going there, although it is not easy anymore over land via Moscow.”

Sometime after May 1941, perhaps toward the end of summer, after my parents had reached America, married, and were expecting the birth of my sister, my grandmother expressed how thrilled she was, referring to the “joyful event” and inquiring about my mother’s health. “Now, my dear boy, you know that we have the holidays. Tina probably set the holiday table with candles for you. Think of us and pray for us that we can come to you and celebrate a reunion.” She said, “here everything is normal.” But you can tell it’s not. “Especially when shopping you have to run quickly in order to be done.” By this time, the list of foods Jews could not buy was probably getting longer and stocks were scarce.

In the fall of 1941, my grandfather’s letter with birthday greetings to my mother seemed unusually short for him and particularly lacking in energy. “The nice promising papers are all void, therefore our hopes are buried.” My father must have been nostalgic in an earlier letter to my grandfather, thinking about his rowing buddies, for my grandfather tersely replied, “So, your teammates from the rowing club are evoking fond memories? It’s gone. Many greetings and kisses. I am thinking of you. Your father.” In October 1941, anticipating the worst, my grandfather wrote a sorrowful goodbye to my father. “When you hold these lines in your hands, we will have finished our ‘outing’ into the big unknown. All hopes were in vain.” One handwritten postcard, mediated by the Red Cross, followed in November 1941 stating: “Trip to America now impossible. New address to come soon.” And then two more postcards, in June and August 1942, printed by a third party, again through the Red Cross. In June, “We are healthy. We are thinking of you lovingly and hope to see you soon.” In August, anticipating deportation, the card said: “We are healthy and hope you are too. The Neumanns left, also the aunts. We follow. Why do we have no news from you?”

Then silence. Until November 1945, when my father and siblings received correspondence from a woman named Rosalie Bogner, with extremely personal family news. For eight years, before my grandparents’ deportation, Bogner had been in contact with them in Berlin and with my great-aunts, Thekla and Frieda, in Munich. (The Neumanns were my Aunt Hannah’s parents.) Bogner wrote, “For months, I have been trying to find out more about the fate of your relatives, but so far I have not succeeded.” There was information about important family documents that my great-aunts had given Bogner for safekeeping.

“You will ask yourself how I earned the trust of your dear relatives,” Bogner wrote carefully, diplomatically, but without holding back. “The reason is that I am in a very close familiar relationship to them, since I am the illegitimate daughter of your father. As evidence, I enclose a copy of the birth certificate. I don’t know if the dear parents ever informed you about this. It is possible that the dear parents tried to let you know and the message did not find you.” Rosalie. The name was the same as my grandfather’s older sister, who died young of tuberculosis.

There were a few more details. In April 1942, Bogner was able to see my great-aunts in Camp Milbertshofen, the Nazis’ deportation site in Munich, as well as visit my grandparents a few times in Berlin at considerable personal risk to herself. In July 1942, every contact was cut off. Through inquiries at her parish, she learned that my relatives had been deported to Theresienstadt, the Nazis’ so-called model concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, where many elderly Jews were transported before being sent to other camps. “I hoped that they were saved from the horrible suffering, but since I did not receive anything after the end of the war, I assume that they became victims of this horrible gang of murderers. Their memory lives in my heart and we have to accept the faith that we all meet in God’s name.”

That my grandfather had a youthful dalliance with a non-Jew before he married my grandmother may not seem particularly shocking. There had been an increasing number of intermarriages between Jews and non-Jews in 19th and 20th century Germany – 27 percent in Berlin by 1933 by one account. But an out-of-wedlock child would have been a bombshell to any family, even in New York City in 1945. It created new fault lines in my father’s relationship with my aunt. He refused to recognize Rosalie and, as far as I know, felt no obligation to her. My aunt, on the other hand, embraced Rosalie and accepted her into the family, visiting her in Germany, bringing back presents, including a Bavarian peasant blouse Rosalie had embroidered and which I wore until the fabric was so yellowed with age that it fell apart.

That my aunt had no apparent hesitation in accepting Rosalie as part of the family wasn’t surprising. As a child, my aunt had had a reputation for being a rebel, and in her thirties she still had liked to buck convention, refusing to settle down and get married, much to my father’s disapproval. There was a rumor in the family that she had had a non-Jewish boyfriend. Perhaps just as bad, she had had lovers after she had immigrated – not many, at least not that we knew, but by my count there were at least two, both of them married, both of them devoted to her.

As I read my grandparents’ letters asking the children for help, alternately grasping at straws, suggesting new avenues of escape, even coming close to upbraiding them for not being able to pull a rabbit out of a hat, I wondered what the other side of the story might have been, what my father’s, aunt’s and uncle’s letters had said, the ones that are unknowable because they didn’t survive. It is too shameful for me to speculate, to think that my father wouldn’t have tried everything possible. Too oppressive, also, is my complicity in his silence, my failing to engage him, to try to root out his self-recrimination, and in the process – or is this absurdly naïve? – to set us all free.

A few days before he died of a lymphatic cancer, months short of his 90th birthday, my father had called for the rabbi and asked for forgiveness, for not having saved his parents. He had been the eldest son, the golden boy, the success story, the lucky one, the one who had always got his way. Had his brother and sister expected that, as the one who supposedly knew people in high places, as the first one to reach safety in the U.S., he would have been able to achieve the impossible? A professional photographer, he had hocked his cameras to raise enough money for boat tickets for my grandparents, according to my mother, but been told by an intermediary that it was too late. Had his siblings held it against him? I remember the frequent telephone conversations between my aunt and my father, the sometimes loving exchanges where he laughed and called her Süsse (sweetie), a word reserved only for her; or cajoled her and tried to calm her down when she became irritable or even insulting; or the raging battles where he fumed or yelled or even hung up on her.

Literary scholar and author Nancy K. Miller writes in her memoir, What They Saved, that searching for family history, the process of piecing information together and hoping for connection “in the end will still yield only partial knowledge.” More importantly, the search will never return to us past lives. The people we never met, the ones we thought we knew. And yet, we continue to look, reaching out for meaning.

I have found that meaning, even perhaps solace, in unexpected places. Several years ago at a conference, I was introduced to a woman who shared my last name. I asked her if she was Jewish, and when she said yes, she laughed, saying that maybe we were related. We exchanged family trees, and indeed, we are. Distant cousins, now friends.

I also have enjoyed imaginary conversations with my grandfather. In one, I tell him I want to know what happened to him. He asks me why this is important and says, “You have read what you need.” And I know he is right. I tell him some mornings questions swirl around me like dead leaves, that if I take the leaves in my hands and crush them and let them drop across the bedcovers like shadows, I realize that surely this is what the family did, over and over, but worse. He counsels me that what I am doing is pointless. He says, “Don’t waste your time here. Go in another direction. The one where there is light not darkness.” And so we discuss my readings in Holocaust literature and argue over whether it is right to fictionalize the past. He is generous and I am critical. Tailor that he was, he begins to teach me how to sew.


About the Author

Ronnie Hess is a journalist and poet. She is the author of three poetry chapbooks (Whole Cloth; Ribbon of Sand; A Woman in Vegetable) and two culinary travel guides (Eat Smart in France; Eat Smart in Portugal – both, Ginkgo Press). She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

An undated photo of the author’s grandparents Ida and Nathan at their cottage just outside Berlin. Photo submitted by Ronnie Hess


One of the family letters the author had translated. Photo submitted by Ronnie Hess