Jan 2006 Journal

previous article:Albert Einstein, Man of the Century (review)
next article:Central Office for Holocaust Claims

Letter from Israel

A few weeks ago, together with my sisters and other relatives, I visited Hamburg, the city where my ancestors had lived for many generations until exiled by the Nazis. We were there to attend the presentation of the book Aber seid alle beruhigt, which contains letters written by my grandmother before she was deported from Hamburg in 1942.

Although my father escaped from Germany, my grandmother did not, and she eventually perished in Theresienstadt. Left on her own and caught 'like a mouse in a trap', as she put it, she wrote letters. They were her lifeline to the world. In the first few years of the war she managed to correspond with her children via a roundabout route. My father kept the letters, but 'forgot' all about them.

I stumbled on the letters about ten years ago and felt they ought to be published, but that was not easy. Eventually, we got in touch with Jürgen Sielemann of the Hamburg State Archives. He has worked there for 40 years and regards it as his mission in life to prevent the horrors of the Nazi rule from being forgotten. He is, of course, not Jewish.

Jürgen Sielemann felt that the letters should be annotated and supplemented by a detailed account of what happened in Germany, and especially in Hamburg, during the Nazi period. This labour of love took him almost ten years as he could do it only in his spare time. It was he who made contact with Hamburg's Landeszentrale für Politische Bildung, which undertook to publish the book.

And so, ten years after my grandmother's letters had been discovered, and 60 years after she was murdered, 'her' book was published. The title, roughly translated as 'But Please Don¹t Worry', is taken from one of the phrases she used and reflects the general tone of the letters. She tried very hard to present a brave and cheerful front to her relatives and not to give them cause for concern. In addition to the letters, which are both touching and inspiring, the book contains Jürgen Sielemann's meticulous account of the developments which led to the eventual deportation of the Jews of Hamburg. The book is in German but is currently being translated into English and will, I hope, eventually be published.

Jürgen Sielemann also organised the installation of a Stolperstein ('tripping stone') in front of the house where my grandmother lived. Before the unveiling of the plaque, which bears my grandmother's name and dates of birth and death, he took our little group, together with about 40 Hamburg residents, on a walking tour of the Grindel, the neighbourhood where most Jews had once lived, pointing out my grandparents' house and other buildings of interest for the Jewish community. Contrary to my expectations, many of Hamburg's fine old buildings are still standing. The Allied bombing of the city apparently left the area where my grandparents and most of the Jewish population lived relatively untouched.

I had been asked to say a few words about my grandmother at the book presentation that evening. Initially, this request struck me as somewhat odd, considering that I had never known her. But when I started thinking about what I was going to say I realised that I did know her in a way, through her letters. And now many more people would be able to read about her too. The letters of this woman, who had to face her fate on her own, can serve as a mouthpiece for others like her, and the Hamburg authorities deserve credit for being prepared to accept the challenge.
Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

previous article:Albert Einstein, Man of the Century (review)
next article:Central Office for Holocaust Claims