Letters. Handwritten and personal.
Letters offer a picture of real life and reveal the hearts of both writer and recipient. We hear their voices in the letters written, full of emotion, as they tell of celebrations and successes, milestones and memories — and often of falls and failures.
Renowned Holocaust historian Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein has been engaged for several decades in the noble pursuit of perpetuating the truth of what really happened during the Holocaust to those who perished al kiddush Hashem, and to the survivors as well.
About 10 years ago, Rebbetzin Farbstein embarked on a difficult mission — to find and collect survivors’ letters written shortly after the Holocaust. When asked why she undertook this unique endeavor, she responds that although it is indeed exceedingly difficult to find personal, handwritten post-Holocaust letters written by survivors, they are ultimately the most honest testament to the stories of their unspeakable experiences during the Holocaust, no matter where they were. Because they are so personal, they contain all the emotions of heartbreak and hope, tragedy and triumph. Above all they speak of incredible, unwavering emunah and chizuk in the face of unimaginable loss — and of life while staring death in its fearsome face.
There are Holocaust research institutions that have published letters from survivors. Sadly, these letters have missed the point. The writers of those letters, though we may never judge them, have failed to even hint at Hashem, emunah, continuity, rebuilding…
“Collecting letters is very difficult,” Rebbetzin Farbstein explains, “because they are hardly found in archives. Also, finding individuals who have them is quite an undertaking, and though many of the second generation have letters, they often do not appreciate what they have. They may view them only as family letters, while I see them as a crucial part of history. And collecting them in my book, Tal shel Techiyah — Dew of Revival, was far from easy when one has to decide what to include from a collection of several hundred letters.
“There were so many considerations, including gathering information about each family, selecting those letters that reflect a variety of locations before and during the Holocaust, choosing letters written by both tzaddikim and great ‘ordinary’ people, and much more.
“Then, suddenly and ironically, I was presented with a gift — a gift of time. In normal situations, I’d need to find the time to concentrate on this endeavor, but because of the lockdown during corona for so many weeks and months, I was able to concentrate my efforts and work on these letters all day, literally. Also, reaching people is usually so difficult, but it was a lot easier to reach individuals both close by and on different continents who were home because of their lockdowns.”
When asked what message she hopes to impart through her book, Rebbetzin Farbstein readily replies: “Am Yisrael is an am segulah, not only physically but spiritually as well. The title of the book, Tal shel Techiyah, is a concept related to techiyas hameisim— revival of the dead. Although we know that techiyas hameisim relates to yemos haMoshiach, each survivor who held on to his or her faith in Hashem experienced an individual techiyas hameisim. With great siyatta diShmaya, as they rebuilt after the Holocaust, they became models of techiyas hameisim in our day.
“It remains for us to have more admiration, more respect for each one of these survivors. Though never to judge those who didn’t, we ought to view every one of the survivors who held on tenaciously as a giant who has left a most enduring legacy of emunah and spiritual strength, as reflected in this sampling of letters.”
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From the Veitzener Rav, Harav Tzvi Hirsch Meisels to his son, Yosef Moshe, in Yerushalayim
B”H, 4th day of Selichos, 5705 [September 5, 1945]
Kesivah v’chasimah tovah and kol tuv selah,
To my dear son, my heart and soul’s delight, Yosef Moshe, neiro ya’ir,
Baruch shehecheyanu v’kiyemanu lazman hazeh that I have received a sign of life from you, and that you merited going to Eretz Yisrael and are learning in the yeshivah of our Torah hakedoshah. This gave me new life, as until now I did not merit hearing from you. I only heard from hearsay that you had been in Buchenwald, but nothing more. I thank Hashem for His kindnesses.
Let me tell you that I received a notification from someone who told me that he himself saw the telegram from Switzerland from my relative the Rebbe of Satmar that my son Shlomo’le is there. Till now I have not received a letter from him, but he might already be on the way to Eretz Yisrael.
My daughter Hinda and my son Zalman Leib are in Sweden and, baruch Hashem, I receive good letters from them. When I merit receiving a “Certificate” and we have the possibility of coming to Eretz Yisrael, we will be ready to travel together. …
My beloved son, take care to look after your health. Don’t learn now with intense hasmadah — diligence — as you used to at home. Just sleep enough at night, and also during the day take care to relax so that you regain your strength as before.
Please write to me from time to time about your situation and your good health, for my soul is longing to see your handwriting. Write also to you brothers and sister … to revive their spirit.
And with this I remain your father, clinging to you with love and wishing you kesivah v’chasimah tovah. May we merit seeing each other soon in true joy,
Tzvi Hirsch Meisels
* * *
Monday of Parashas Bo 5706 [January 7, 1946], London
With Hashem’s help, today I received two letters together — the one with the picture, and the second, a later one. You revived my soul. It’s difficult to write how many tears of joy I shed on receiving the letter with the picture. You are fulfilling the mitzvah of kibbud av with every word you write.
Now, my dear son who brings me light, I beg you: Become strong and invigorate yourself. You mistakenly assumed from my letter that I am shattered. Let me tell you that I look for and think about who is left from the camps and who did not survive, and I see that we must thank Hashem for the merit to have remained alive. I myself was in great danger several times … and I miraculously came out. I was able to endure only because of zechus Avos and also because I was with your brother, Zalman Leib. … He always looked after me that I shouldn’t suffer too much. He was my whole vitality in the camp, and if Hakadosh Baruch Hu helped us that some of our family should survive, let us hope that we will merit to meet and to see good life together.
I beg of you, my dear son, do not cry. Be happy always. Learn diligently, as “pekudei Hashem yesharim mesamchei lev — Hashem’s precepts make the heart happy” (Tehillim 19: 9). I always interpret the passuk, “Yodei’a Hashem derech tzaddikim, v’derech resha’im toved [normally translated as Hashem knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish]” (Tehillim 1:1), as: “Yodei’a Hashem derech tzaddikim — The way of the righteous is to say, ‘Hashem knows what He is doing, even if we do not understand.’” … We little people can’t expect Hashem to give an account of how He leads us. We have to know one thing — that He knows everything. “V’derech resha’im toved— the wicked seemingly have a way, but it will perish. It cannot allow them to strengthen themselves.”
I sent you a parcel with a suit for you. If it doesn’t fit, sell it or exchange it. I will also send you a little money. Buy what you need. It’s impossible to get a hat here. Perhaps you need shoes. Write me your size and I’ll be able to send them to you. Write whether you have enough to eat. If not, I’ll send you cans.
Again, I beg of you, chas v’shalom to become sad. That is the worst middah; only simchah. Hashem Yisborach is our merciful Father. He will help us together with the entire Jewish people. …
So writes your father, who is waiting to hear good news.
From Shmuel Emanuel in Holland to Grandpapa Goldschmidt in Zurich
B”H Nymegen, 19.6.45
My dear ones,
I hope that you are all well and that you received my letter from Bergen-Belsen.
As of Tuesday, June 12, I am back in Holland, in Nymegen. It was impossible to travel from Bergen-Belsen to Switzerland. On Sunday, I was unexpectedly taken on a stretcher from Bergen-Belsen and transferred to Holland in a furniture-removal truck. The journey went well and did not cause me any harm.
I am now lying in a wing of a monastery that was set aside for returning Dutch people who cannot immediately return home. Most of them stay here for just a few days, but I will stay here till I find somewhere to live. I am lying in the sick ward, where at the moment there are only four patients.
Health-wise I feel very good, but I weigh 40 kg (height — 1.65m). Yesterday, they examined my lungs and found them to be, baruch Hashem, okay, unlike the lungs of many of those who have returned from concentration camps.
… I heard news from Frankfurt an der Oder that there are 1,200 Dutch Jews there. It is very possible that that is the transport of Yona, Baruch, Bella, and the Abrahams family. Can you do anything for them? I also want to come to you as soon as possible, but I’m in a better condition than Yona, Baruch and Bella. The treatment and the food here are excellent. I don’t have any clothes, but I’ll receive some one of these days. My only possessions are my tefillin and my bitachon. I think day and night of the dear ones that you and I lost. May Hashem remember them for good together with all the tzaddikim of the world, amein.
Regards to the whole family. From now on, may we share only good news. I wish you an easy fast [Shivah Asar B’Tammuz].
* * *
From Julius Goldschmidt in Bnei Brak to his uncle, Yehoshua Goldschmidt in Switzerland
May 20, 1946
Dear Onkel Jozel, l’oy”t
It has been a long time, far too long, till I have pulled myself together to finally write to you, the last of the Goldschmidt-Landauers; that is, at least, if you ignore the letter I wrote on my journey here on the way from Istanbul, and which you probably never received, just as the others I wrote to never received theirs. That was almost two years ago. For us, it is almost unbelievable. In addition, the impressions that Bergen-Belsen had left on us were too strong. I am talking not only of horrific memories, but also of great and sublime memories. They relate to my parents, whose unswerving bitachon in Hashem and whose modest reserve when it came to personal matters and steadfast will when it had to do with keeping mitzvos demand the highest respect. In addition to these are the memories of your children, and those married to your children, and of your grandchildren — each and every one of them was something special in his own way. The fathers and mothers in their Yiddishkeit, in their constantly cheerful disposition despite everything, in their readiness to always be of help — what Marthe and Bea were for my parents, only Hakadosh Baruch Hu can pay their reward for their concern to build up and have their children progress both spiritually and Jewishly. (Nobody from the outside can possibly appreciate the meaning of this in an environment where everyone naturally thinks only about food and his own survival.) And the children — pure neshamos, untainted by the filth of the camp; Yiddishe kinder who tried not to make things difficult for their parents; the boys who got up especially early to daven; who after work, if they weren’t too tired and exhausted, used the time to learn; who tried to keep Shabbos despite the danger. And the girls, who modestly and without speaking courageously helped their mothers. Even the little ones behaved nicely and full of respect to their parents, pleasant and attentive to everyone. These are things one expects of children from your home in a normal environment, but in the camp it was the conspicuous exception. I am writing this so that you know that you achieved the goal you set for yourself.
Here I am in a diamond factory. There are some stones that can be polished quickly, and others where it is more difficult and takes longer. There are those that will never reach the state of first class. Those that can be processed the fastest are often the most beautiful, the purest, the most sparkling. It is the same, according to an old saying, with neshamos. There are those whom the tzaros do not help in the polishing process. They become smaller and lose their worth. Others become improved and shine. And there are those who just need a short time in this world to reach perfection. Your children and grandchildren belong to these. I am not writing this as consolation to a [bereaved] father. I am convinced of it. And Fanna [Julius’ wife] and many others are of the same opinion. Please G-d, those that survived will continue in the way of their fathers — your way and that of Tante Esther. They all have the appropriate tools for that. There, in the camp, where everyone was stripped of his superficial manners, one saw people for who they truly were. There, no one could deceive anyone else concerning his true personality.
[The letter continues with a description of the family’s adaption to life in Eretz Yisrael.]
Sincerest wishes to you and your children,
* * *
From Chassidei Gur in St. Maria, Italy, to the Imrei Emes via Reb Moshe Blau in Eretz Yisrael
To our friend, the chairman of Agudath Israel in our Holy Land, Harav Moshe Blau, shlita
The word na is nothing other than a word of request. Seeing that there are several members of Agudas Israel here and we want to travel to our Holy Land, na, please have mercy on us and do everything you can for us, as every extra minute that we are here is a matter of danger, both spiritually and physically. It is impossible to put in writing the amount of oppression we suffered, the “halachatz zu hadechak — the pressure, this was the harsh torment (Pesach Haggadah)” for about five years in the concentration camps, literally sufferings of death, and Hashem Yisborach performed great miracles for us — beyond the realms of nature. We have been left without family and have none to rely on other than our Father in Shamayim.
Dear friend, have pity on us, mercy, feel our sorrow in all aspects, both Heavenly and earthly (the hint is sufficient for the wise). Again, I ask you to be of help to us, so that we can again serve Hashem without worry and in kedushah, and to taste the Divine light, to fulfill: “Happy is our youth, that it will not put our old age to shame.”
Waiting for an immediate reply, I sign in the name of all my friends,
Harav Moshe Kleinberg (son of the tzaddik who was killed al kiddush Hashem, the Rebbe of Zalschitz)
Aharon Noach Yoskowitz (grandson of the Gerrer Rebbe, shlita)
Hersch Leib Greenstein, Lodz
Yaakov Arye Morgenstern, Zdunska Wola
Mendel Weingut, Lodz; Shlomo Tzvi Meislish, Zdunska Wola
Shlomo Gelbard, Sasnowitz; Lipa Horowitz, Krakow
Yitzchak Yustman, Lodz; Moshe Schwartz, Lodz
Nosson and his son Moshe, Papa
* * *
From Savta Sara Shlomtzi Eichenstein in Yerushalayim to her granddaughter Mirel Rubin in Sweden
Beloved and esteemed children,
Ad bi’as go’el tzedek — May you live to see the coming of the Redeemer of justice.
I received your beloved letter and it is very precious for me. Write me another good letter, im yirtzeh Hashem.
From me, your grandmother who blesses you with all the yeshuos from Heaven.
We hope to see you happy, with Hashem’s help.
Sara Shlomtzi Eichenstein,
* * *
From Harav Eliyahu Meir Bloch in Cleveland to his mechutan, Harav Zalman Sorotzkin, in Yerushalayim
B’ezras Hashem, Sunday of the parashah, “The more they multiplied and the more they spread” [Shemos], 1946
To my soul’s friend, my mechutan, my uncle the Gaon Harav Zalman Sorotzkin, shlita, and my dear aunt and their beloved sons,
Mazel tov, mazel tov, on the birth of your grandson Yosef Yehuda Leib. May it be Hashem’s will that the whole family will find consolation and be healed from its terrible affliction, and may we enjoy great nachas from the children whom Hashem has left us as a blessing.
Similarly, we heard news of a double simchah — that the girls who stayed in Vilna plan to leave the “red” country and that Chaya, the daughter of Harav Avraham Yitzchok Bloch, shlita, is asking our agreement to her engagement to Harav Isaac Ausband from Vilna, a long-time talmid of our yeshivah, a precious boy, outstanding in Torah and every delightful middah.
It is true that when a joyous emotion arises within, it immediately touches the deep, bleeding wound; but nevertheless, we must thank Hashem, Whose mercy can be seen even when He makes us suffer, that our family will again be built up. May Hashem grant that we should be able to fulfill the lofty mission we inherited from our sacred fathers.
With regards and blessing, I remain your loving mechutan, who awaits consolation.
E. M. Bloch
* * *
From Reb Avraham Yehoshua Gelberg of Austria to his brother in Eretz Yisrael
Wednesday of Parashas Bamidbar 1946 [May 29], Linz
Shalom and all the best to my dear, beloved brother, Chaim Dovid, and to his blessed wife, Bas-Sheva, tichyeh,
I cannot describe my great joy at the merit of receiving a letter from a brother from Eretz Yisrael. Just imagine, a year and a half has already passed since the Liberation; I wrote and sent tens of letters and telegrams but didn’t receive any reply. And suddenly — a letter from Yerushalayim, from Chaim Dovid Gelberg, a letter from my brother. That means that I still have relatives who know me.
However, my beloved brother and my sister-in-law, I am not calm that you did not mention anything in your letter about our brother Peretz, or about our sister Miriam, or Yosef or Leah. Unfortunately, that is all that remains of our families Gelberg and Kapler. Raizl Tzimles traveled to Russia, but as yet I have not heard anything from them.
You wish to know the sum total of what happened to all our family. Unfortunately, the “sum total” is very, very distressing. Our mother, a”h, was niftar on 15 Teves, 1939, our father on 20 Kislev, 1940, all our sisters and brothers together with all the residents of Kozhnitz [Kozienice] were deported to Treblinka, to the ovens, on the second day of Sukkos 1942.
I, my wife Roize, and my two dear sons, Refoel Yitzchok and Leibele, escaped to the ghetto of Volnow [Wolanów] on the first day of Sukkos.
On 19 Kislev, they shot and killed 131 Jews in the ghetto, among them my two precious diamonds. Both are buried in the mass grave in Volnow near Radom.
I and my wife Roize were in the ghetto and we worked [at harsh labor]. On Tishah B’Av 1944, we were deported to Auschwitz. I was sent to work in a coal mine 300 meters under the ground. Roize stayed to work in Auschwitz. Baruch Hashem, I survived and was liberated in 1945.
I arrived in Kozhnitz and waited for six months, each day wetting the ruins with my tears — I thought that Roize would also come. But to my sorrow, I could not wait any longer in Kozhnitz, and I started out on my journey in the world with the goal of coming to you in Eretz Yisrael. For only with you in Eretz Yisrael will I perhaps be able to find some consolation for my shattered and severed life.
Physically, baruch Hashem, I am healthy, but mentally, my morale is crushed. May Hashem Yisborach have mercy on me that I will no longer have to wander around, that I may finally be zocheh to reach a place of rest and to find a bit of comfort for my life.
My dear brother, write to me about Peretz and Miriam, and write about yourselves in detail — how things are going with you in terms of health, livelihood, and so on …
Believe me, I have read your short letter already a hundred times, and I ask you, Dovid, to go into the Gerrer Rebbe, shlita, and mention me, Avrohom Yehoshua ben Tzimma Reche, for good physical health and yiras Shamayim, and that I should be zocheh to come to Eretz Hakedoshah soon and with ease.
I beg of you, reply immediately because you simply will revive me. And if I receive a reply from you, I will write to you everything that I have been through in my life, and in general what is going on with me, as far as that interests you. I have no further news.
Stay healthy and strong …
From me, your only brother from Poland, who is longing to see you soon in our Holy Land,
Avrohom Yehoshua ben Yisroel Menachem Gelberg of Kozhnitz
* * *
Pathway to Insight
They all searched for some relative or acquaintance. Happy were the survivors who knew that they had family over the ocean or who had also survived the Holocaust. As is clear from the author’s moving examples, finding the addresses was often a difficult project in itself.
In the chaos that reigned after the Holocaust, thousands of letters did not reach their destinations, and some can still be found in the archives of various organizations. The author points out that Jewish chaplains in the American and British armies played an important role in transferring the letters, as did Rabbi Elimelech Tress and Agudath Israel, as well as the Joint.
In the book we find letters from all across Europe, from east to west, written by people of all ages, both “ordinary” and well-known Yidden. Most were written by survivors, but letters received from the free world also have great significance. Each letter in the book is accompanied by information about the background of the writer and his/her location at the time, the historical context, and other people mentioned in the letter. The personal aspect allows readers to gain interesting insight into the period and deepens their appreciation for the survivors.
The book is divided according to the relationship between writer and addressee — letters to family members, letters to friends, letters to Rabbanim and community leaders, and letters sent by soldiers in the liberating armies to their families. Finally, there are the letters of those who survived outside the borders of Nazi occupation — Siberia, Samarkand, and Shanghai. This division preserves the personal nature of the documents and emphasizes the significance of the initial contact to the survivors’ lives.