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Letter from Vilma Grunwald to Kurt Grunwald

Letter from Vilma Grunwald to Kurt Grunwald
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

In September 1943, 5,000 Jews from the Theresienstadt camp were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. These deportees were grouped together in a section of Birkenau known as the "family camp."1 Camp officials permitted these Jews to wear civilian clothes and did not have their heads shaved, while children could spend time during the day in a special block designated for them.2

Another transport from Theresienstadt arrived in Auschwitz three months later, in December. Among this new group was Dr. Kurt Grunwald, his wife Vilma, and two sons, Miša and Jan. They remained in family camp until July 1944 when Auschwitz authorities decided to dismantle it. As camp authorities designated those fit for slave labor and those to be gassed, Kurt was selected for work. Miša (later Frank) Grunwald also escaped death thanks to a friend who guided him to a group of older children chosen for labor. Jan, who walked with a limp, had no chance of survival. His mother decided to follow him to the gas chamber.3

On July 11, 1944, while waiting for the trucks to the crematorium, Vilma drafted this letter to her husband. Delivered under unknown circumstances, the message was a farewell to her husband, who had been relocated to a different part of the camp. Although aware that she was to be murdered, Vilma sought to comfort Kurt and relieve him of any guilt he might feel over their deaths. She also expressed hope that Miša might stay safe alongside his father.

Vilma's letter offers a snapshot of a moment Jewish families frequently endured during the Holocaust: the uncertainty—and often finality—of separation. The letter also testifies to the uniqueness the family camp in Birkenau. Unlike so many Jews deported to camps during the Holocaust, several months spent in the family camp allowed the Grunwalds and other deportees from Theresienstadt to remain together instead of undergoing separation upon arrival. Consequently, the unusual circumstance of the family camp gave them hope that their family might remain intact. That hope proved to be short-lived.4

Both Kurt and Miša survived the Holocaust. In 1951 they emigrated to the United States. Miša found Vilma's letter from Birkenau among Kurt's belongings after his father's death.

The so-called Theresienstädter Familienlager ["Theresienstadt family camp"] allowed the Nazi regime to preserve the appearance of humanitarian treatment of the Jews in expectation of visits from the Red Cross. The murder of the entire "family camp" took place shortly after such a Red Cross in June 1944. The committee was satisfied with conditions in the camp and did not insist on further control. See Nili Keren, "The Family Camp," in Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, ed. Israel Gutman and Michael Berenbaum (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 428-429. For more on Theresienstadt and the Red Cross, see also the related items in Experiencing History, Theresienstadt: A Documentary Film, 1944 and Shoah Outtake with Maurice Rossel.

Organized by an educator Freddy Hirsch, the block served as a daycare for children under fourteen, where the youngest inmates of the "family camp" were provided informal education, social activities, and most importantly, more nourishing meals. Ibid., 430–440.

For more details, see the testimony of Frank Grunwald collected by the USC Shoah Foundation, number 25350. According to Ruth Bondy, a Czech Jew who survived the family camp, most mothers joined their children during these selections. See Ruth Bondy, "Women in Theresienstadt and the Family Camp in Birkenau," in Women in the Holocaust, eds. D. Ofer and L. Weitzman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 323–325. 

Kurt Grunwald was deported to the Ohrdruf concentration camp where he was liberated. Miša remained in Auschwitz until his evacuation on a death march in January 1945. After liberation, Kurt was certain that his son did not survive the war; see the details in his testimony in Albert Craig Levinson Collection

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Dr. Grunwald

F Lager

Tuesday, 11.7.1944

You, my one and only, my dearest. We are locked in in our block, waiting for the dark. Margetha Braun and I went to Willy's, who did not leave us with a moment of doubt. With Jenda we at first thought of hiding, which we did, but then we dropped the idea on the assumption it would be hopeless. The infamous trucks have arrived and we are waiting for it to begin. I took five bromides, after this exhausting and unnerving day I am somewhat dazed but completely calm. My dear Jenda is also admirable.

You, my one and only, my dearest, do not blame yourself in the least; it was our fate. We did what we could do. Remain in good health and remember my words that time heals everything—if not completely, then at least in some measure. Take care of that little golden boy—and don’t spoil him with all your love. 

May you both remain in very good health, my two dear golden ones. I will be thinking about little Walter—do you remember how I once said his passing would ease our way? And then, I will be thinking only of you and Míša. 

Live well; we have to get on board. Into eternity, 

Your Vilma

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Accession Number 2012.250.1a-b
Date Created
July 11, 1944
Author / Creator
Vilma Grunwald
Theresienstadt (historical)
Auschwitz, Poland (historical)
Reference Location
Terezín, Czech Republic
Document Type Letter
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