When Tzipora Shapiro walked out the gates of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, the first thing she felt was guilt. Her father, grandfather, brothers, aunts, and uncles all died in the Lodz Ghetto, and when the Nazis transferred Shapiro and her mother to Auschwitz, she watched as they sent her mother to the gas chambers. As a young, able-bodied woman, Shapiro was put to work in the camp—and was the only member of her immediate family to survive.

After being liberated, Shapiro stayed in Poland, hoping to find a distant relative who may have survived the war. Thirteen months later, she finally found the address of a cousin who had fled to British Mandate Palestine before the ghettos of Poland gave way to genocide.

“At long last,” Shapiro wrote on Feb. 15, 1946, in her first letter as a free woman, “I’m hurrying to send you a living word from a dead world.”

After telling her cousin, Rhuze, that she had survived while her parents and the rest of her family had died, Shapiro wrote:

How could I justify to you that I left the lions’ den intact, that I saw fiery furnaces, red flames in the skies? That I saw thousands of people led daily to the gas chambers, not knowing what awaited them in ten minutes; that I saw sheaves of sparks and tongues of fire, and sometimes even part of a roasted hand bursting forth from a gigantic chimney; that I stood naked daily at roll call for the Selektion, and the SS man, as if to anger me, sent me back to the camp and didn’t take me to the oven … and a huge prayer, a stubborn prayer for divine benevolence, for death.

Shapiro’s letter, written in Polish on a piece of paper that has since turned yellow and wrinkled, peppered with the brown stains of time, is one of thousands being pored over by historians in Jerusalem who are searching for clues to better understand a people and a period of time that to many seems over-studied, but to historians remains full of holes. Researchers at Yad Vashem have embarked on an unprecedented project called “First Letters,” examining the very first dispatches sent by Holocaust survivors in the days, weeks, and months after liberation to let their loved ones know they were alive.

There is of course no shortage of books, films, and millions of words devoted to the Holocaust and those who lived through it. Yet most personal accounts emerged only years and even decades after the war, when survivors were finally ready to revisit their horrifying memories through the mollifying filter of time. “First Letters” is unparalleled in that its messages reveal the very real and complex emotions of Holocaust victims who were just coming to terms with the atrocities they faced. In essence, these letters represent the most original source Holocaust scholars have ever had.

“These letters bring us their first personal voice,” said Iael Nidam-Orvieto, the leader of the project and director of Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research. “They give us an intense glance at the way survivors felt and thought about themselves, their situation, and their future exactly at the time of liberation. We’ve never had that before.”

Nidam-Orvieto, an Israeli Jew of Italian descent who lost some of her own family members to the Holocaust, first thought of the project six years ago, after coming across a note in the Yad Vashem archives. It was written by an Italian survivor to his family in Palestine, describing all he had suffered during the war. Over the next few years she saw similar correspondence trickle into the Yad Vashem archive through another project, “Gathering the Fragments,” which began in 2011.

“Gathering the Fragments” called on survivors and their descendants to submit Holocaust-related artifacts, photographs, and documents to Yad Vashem; many of these time-stained pieces of paper had been sitting in attics, boxes, and old suitcases throughout Israel. So far 150,000 items have come in, including 83,000 documents, 60,000 photos, 3,150 artifacts, and 500 pieces of art. This material adds to Yad Vashem’s database of 4.5 million victims’ names, 125,000 testimonies, and 179 million pages of documents.

After looking through the piles of material she and her research team received, Nidam-Orvieto realized that these letters weren’t just an interesting side note to “Gathering the Fragments.” Taken together, they represented a new historical treasure trove. While there was no single bombshell of information gleaned from the letters, such as a previously unreported concentration camp, these documents tell us more about Holocaust survivors, what they went through, and their immediate feelings after the war, than we have ever known before.

“I never thought so many of these letters had been written,” said Nidam-Orvieto, adding that when she spoke to other Holocaust scholars around the world, they too were shocked to hear how many of these dispatches she was finding.

Scholars weren’t the only ones who didn’t know these letters existed. Even family members who had these notes in their possession for decades had no idea what they were, as most of them were written in Yiddish, Polish, Czech, and other European languages.

Nidam-Orvieto kept her idea for a separate project around these letters tucked away until November 2014, when Yad Vashem decided that its theme for 2015 would commemorate 70 years since liberation. It was then that she initiated the “First Letters” project. Since then, she and other researchers have been furiously translating and analyzing the messages, trying to learn as much as they can about their authors and what happened to them. Yad Vashem plans to publish dozens of the letters in a book that will be published in the coming year.

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While they differ vastly in the feelings they convey, many of the dispatches begin the same way: “I survived and I’m alive,” as if these were two entirely different states of being.

Bernard Zucker had been a free man for 28 days when he wrote his first letter from a refugee camp in Austria to his sisters, who had survived the war by fleeing to Palestine. They were the only other surviving members of his family.

I, who four weeks ago existed only as #87292 in the Mauthausen concentration camp, and was intended like all the rest for the crematorium, have survived and I’m alive! I’m alive and I’m healthy! It’s really unbelievable! Your brother is a human being born anew! I have the ability to write a letter, my first in so many years, to you!

That they had survived the Final Solution and could now begin a new life was something survivors were only beginning to realize through the process of writing these messages to their families, explained Nidam-Orvieto. “It was a way for them to declare to themselves that they had made it,” she said.

In a note written in Yiddish on Sept. 1, 1944, Hirsch Brik wrote from Kovno, Lithuania, to friends in Palestine.

I’m alive and I’m free. After three torturous years, I am back to being a man like all other men. The German bastards have murdered my entire family. … There isn’t a long enough paper to list all the names of our common friends who have been savagely murdered.

In another letter, Brik voiced his wish to “make aliyah,” or immigrate to the not-yet-established State of Israel. It was a desire expressed in many letters, as more than half of all Holocaust survivors moved to what was then Palestine after liberation. Brik did immigrate in 1947, changing has last name to Barak, a practice of “Israelization” that was common among early immigrants. His son Aharon Barak later became a legal adviser to the Israeli government, participated in the 1979 peace negotiations with Egypt, and served as chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court.

Yet another common theme pervasive in these letters is a morbid sense of guilt. Tzipora Shapiro, the Auschwitz survivor who detailed to her cousin how regretful she was for surviving when everyone she loved had perished, also apologized for what she called “the unpleasantness” she had shared with her cousin:

Forgive me for this bitter letter. I will never talk about it again. From now on I will write you only happy letters, filled with hope for the future. … You see, you cannot go through all of this without it leaving a deep scar that manifests in terrible memories and feelings of guilt.

Others also carried this complex weight of shame and regret. Olga, whose letter is without a last name, survived Auschwitz but lost her only child, an 11-year-old boy, to the gas chambers. “Believe me, it would be a blessing if I wouldn’t remain alive,” Olga wrote to her aunt.

Some survivors hesitated to tell their loved ones what they had been through out of fear that they wouldn’t be believed. “They felt that what they experienced was so painful and horrible that they have to tell their family members it’s true,” said Nidam-Orvieto, noting the widespread skepticism surrounding news of the Holocaust at the time.

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With each letter they analyze, the historians at Yad Vashem are not only translating the words, but investigating the past and future of each author in order to learn more about the Holocaust and the human beings who were reduced to numbers.

“We’ve become detectives with these letters,” said Robert Rozett, the director of Yad Vashem Libraries who is leading the project with Nidam-Orvieto.

For instance, there’s the story of Syme Rysavy, who wrote to her brother Ned eight months after her liberation from Auschwitz, informing him that their mother and her own husband had died in the gas chambers:

You will never be able to understand it, even if, God forbid, you were there. … You will not be able to comprehend the sadism and lack of humanity.

By matching the information in her letter with names, testimonies, and documents in Yad Vashem’s database, Rozett was able to piece together the letter-writer’s heroic life story.

In 1939, Syme’s whole family, including her parents and her husband Fritz, were all living in Brno, in what was then Czechoslovakia. The Nazis had just invaded, and Brno was annexed by Germany. On March 18, Syme invited her parents and younger brothers, Ned and Michael, over to her house for a special family dinner. Syme, then 31, had asked Ned to bring his violin and a suitcase packed with his and Michael’s belongings. It had seemed to Ned an unusual request.

Around noon, the family gathered at Syme’s house, where Syme told her brothers to flee Brno immediately. Their parents, she said, would stay with her and Fritz, as they were too old and frail to run and hide. She gave Ned and Michael some money, and told them to leave as soon as possible.

The brothers listened to their older sister, and despite the Nazi invasion, they managed to flee Brno for Krakow, Poland. As a gifted violinist, Ned began performing around the city. One night, after hearing Ned play, a British Consulate official offered him a visa and a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Music in London. Ned convinced the official to give Michael a visa too, and the brothers survived the war in London, later moving to Palestine.

Syme was imprisoned at Auschwitz with her parents and husband but miraculously escaped during a death march to another camp in 1945. After the war, she moved to Toronto, where she remarried.

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The letters contain information that survivors rarely spoke about otherwise. “Survivors were able to write things that they were unable to say orally,” said Nidam-Orvieto.

Bernard Zucker, who wrote to his sisters in Palestine, went from the refugee camp in Austria to Italy, where he rescued Jewish children and brought them to Palestine with him. There he reunited with and married the woman he had proposed to before the war, who was also a Holocaust survivor. Together they settled on a kibbutz and had eight children, eventually changing their last name to Tzur.

Eli Tzur, their now-67-year-old son, is one of 7,000 Israelis who has donated Holocaust artifacts to Yad Vashem since 2011. Like many children of survivors, he grew up in a home where the subject of the Holocaust was untouchable.

“They barely ever spoke about their experience in the war, and I didn’t ask,” Tzur said. “Many children didn’t ask their parents what happened. They were silent and so were we. We didn’t want to hurt them by opening their wounds.”

Before his father died in 2001, Tzur returned to Poland with him to visit the various camps where he had been a prisoner. Even there, he said, he was afraid to hurt his father, and so he didn’t ask many questions. Only after reading his father’s letters did he finally discover all he had witnessed and felt during the five horrific years of his life that he had tried so hard to forget.

Still, there are some stories and people that have simply been lost to history. Some letters just don’t have enough clues.

Zahavit, whose letter contains only her first name, is one of many elusive survivors whose story is and may always be a mystery. All we learn from her message is that she survived both Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. In her note, written soon after British troops liberated Bergen Belsen, Zahavit writes in Hebrew:

You may not understand me, better us, who went through all of Germany’s savageries. While we were imprisoned, we forgot that we’re people, human beings. We were no more than a number and we didn’t matter to anyone.

Rozett has come close to discovering Zahavit’s roots, but without her last name, any hint of where she’s from and who she sent her letter to, she is merely a name on a piece of paper.

“This is something almost every Jewish family can relate to. It’s like, ‘Why didn’t I ask grandma before she passed away?’ ” said Rozett. “Reading these letters rescues these people from oblivion, but there are pieces of them that you just can’t know. That’s part of what the Holocaust did. It left fragments. We spend a lot of time looking at those fragments and building an understanding, but we’re always going to be missing fragments.”

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