For most of the 20th century, written communication was usually managed by governments through a postal service. Written correspondence was one of the most important means of exchanging information among individuals. People wrote letters to their relatives, friends, and acquaintances. They also wrote to newspaper editors and various local and national authorities. By the beginning of World War II, letter writing had become an ordinary, normal activity for many Europeans.
During the Holocaust, letters became extremely important for European Jews. Amid the chaos of escalating persecution and the uncertainty about anti-Jewish policies, Jews used letters to keep in touch with relatives and friends in other towns and cities. They asked about the situation in different ghettos, explored opportunities for emigration or flight, hoped for news from relatives and family members overseas, and expressed their despair or their awareness of approaching death. Faced with a terrible and disorienting reality, many Jews found that writing and reading letters became one of the few ways to gather information. Letters could also help to maintain a sense of routine and a continuity with life before persecution.
The means of communication itself changed radically with the rise of Nazism and Germany's occupation of much of Europe. Both local and national conditions determined the scope of these changes. For example, the German postal service had become the postal service of the Nazi state. In the ghettos in occupied Poland, on the other hand, the German administration dumped all so-called “Judenpost” (literally, “Jew mail”) on the various postal services of the different so-called Judenräte. In the Łódź ghetto, for example, German authorities stopped delivering mail to the Jews in February 1940. By the end of that year, the Łódź Judenrat employed 139 people— including mail carriers, messengers and clerks.2
In both Nazi Germany and the occupied territories, exchanging letters became a highly controlled activity. Where it was still possible at all, written communication was subjected to systematic censorship. Many letter writers assumed that their letters were being read, and they exercised caution when sharing information in their writing. Censorship rules and practices were not clear. In addition to avoidnig the obvious topics that were not to be discussed—criticism of Nazi leaders, acts of resistance, other "criminal" activities, etc.—each writer had to navigate an uncharted territory of self-censorship, coded references, and bold statements. The letters in this collection illustrate some of these strategies.
Sending and receiving mail was sometimes possible even as people faced their deaths. This was not true for all geographical locations or at all stages of the Holocaust. But especially in western and central Europe, the mail often brought home the realities of Nazi persecution. Letters that were returned because an addressee was "unknown" hinted at the horrifying realities of Nazi genocide while using vague and bureaucratic language.
On the other hand, many letter writers did not rely on formal postal services. But these services increasingly became unreliable or unavailable. Many messages were exchanged informally and often "illegally" via trusted couriers or drop-off locations. People smuggled letters into and out of ghettos and camps and wrote letters down into notebooks. Others hastily scribbled on pieces of paper that they threw from cattle cars as they were being deported to their deaths, hoping that maybe somebody would find the notes and deliver them to the right address.3
This collection focuses on personal letters written by Jews in various places and at various points during the Holocaust. These documents reflect personal communications—the collection does not include other types of letters Jews wrote to authorities, newspapers, international Jewish organizations, or other entities.4 The authors featured here focus on personal experiences of the Holocaust, pointing to some of the most common themes and issues that individual Jews addressed in their writing.
Many personal letters written by Jews during the Holocaust have been preserved, helping to illuminate how critical information was shared during this period of extreme upheaval. Perhaps more importantly, these letters illustrate the ways in which Jews understood and responded to the catastrophe unfolding around them.