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Letter from Zbigniew Kelhoffer to Sydonia Kelhoffer

Kelhoffer, Zbigniew letter 1942
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

In German-occupied Poland in 1942, a young man named Zbigniew Kelhoffer found himself debating whether he should join his wife and her family in hiding, try to escape, or join a forced labor battallion in an oil refinery camp.1 That summer, German forces had carried out a so-called "Aktion"2 in his town of Borysław.3 To be prepared for possible future Aktionen, Zbigniew created a hiding place in the space between his in-laws' house and the adjacent building. He built a fake wall between the two buildings so that from the street it looked as if the houses themselves were connected. Zbigniew's wife Sydonia, her mother and two sisters, and six other Jews stayed in the hiding space between the two houses.

In November 1942, when German forces started rounding up workers for forced labor camps—and sending others to their deaths in Bełżec—he joined the laborers in the camps. Zbigniew worked in the camp during the day and lived at home with his parents. Meanwhile, he kept up the correspondence with his wife. Each day, he wrote a letter to Sydonia. He then arranged with two non-Jewish Poles who were members of the Polish underground to be couriers to and from the hiding place. He sent the letters, along with food, to Sydonia and the others.

The letters, including the example shown here, illustrate the spectrum of anguish, uncertainty, and yearning for normalcy that many Jewish letter writers expressed during the Holocaust. This letter also highlights the incredible strain that the Holocaust put on family relations. Zbigniew appears insecure about his wife’s feelings for him and very distrustful of his wife's sisters—and the limitations that war and genocide imposed on his options prevented him from dealing with these two more personal issues.4

Eventually Zbigniew joined his wife in the hiding place and there they survived the war together. 

Zbigniew Kelhoffer (born 1913) and his wife, Sydonia (born 1912), along with her mother and sisters, survived the war in hiding in Borysław (today known as Boryslav in Ukraine). After the war, the Kelhoffers left the town, which was now in Soviet Ukraine, and settled in Poland. In 1968, they immigrated to Israel.

German forces used the euphemism "Aktion" (literally, "action") to refer to violent acts against the Jews, usually roundups, deportations, and murder.

Borysław fell under the area of German administration of occupied Poland known as the Generalgouvernement. For more on camps and ghettos in Borysław, see the USHMM Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos.

For more on the unique challenges facing married couples—and families in general—in this period, see the related collection in Experiencing History, Family Life During the Holocaust.

Sydonia's sisters.

For the history of the Sambor ghetto, see the USHMM Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos.

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December 11, 1942

My dearest,

I woke up at 4 AM, because Mama went down to the hiding place. I have an hour to write to you. I want to describe what life is like here. But what to tell? One day is exactly like the next. From time to time there are explosions and then it returns to the same. The other night I slept with Dad in the apartment. Your sisters were afraid of an Aktion, so they fled, without even telling us that they would not return for the night. Of course they could have warned me as well, if they knew something was coming. Oh, well. What was important for them was that they were safe. Maybe God will punish them for all the "good" they have done for me.

Last night Julka was courageous enough to sleep at home, but Rozka did not.1 Julka plans to marry 10 different people. Even my Dad understood not to pay attention to her chatter.

We expect an Aktion any day now. In Sambor, one is already underway.2 Maybe God will have mercy and there will not be an Aktion here; but I don’t think so. The rest of our reality is grey and sad.

My dearest, you promised to write letters and send them through Zdzisiek—I see none. In the last 5 weeks all I got was three letters. Don’t you think that’s a bit too few? Do you feel so little need to converse with me? I cannot force you but it seems strange and drives me crazy. If I could I would write all the time. Writing to you is soothing and relieves my anxiety. How is it with you? Are you interested at all how I live, am I alive, what I do etc., etc.? I suppose that if you were interested you would write a few words. Maybe not. You are in a safe place, you have money —what else do you need? Maybe I should listen to your sister Julka's advice: "take a rope and hang yourself."

I continue writing in pencil, back at the construction site. Beforehand I had to leave home, because Julka started at it again. I finally understand what is the matter. I expected this for a long time and finally it’s clear.

I felt for a long time that the hiding place in which you are, my dearest, is only for you. I have no permission of entry. It's fine with me. I am glad that you are safe. I will try to save myself; I am not sure if I will succeed. I want you to know that if you lose me, you will have Julka to thank for it. Maybe it’s something you wish for? I would like to sell the wardrobe and the bedcover. Let me know what price to ask for it. There is nothing else of value; oh yes—the small table and four chairs. Give the price for these as well. Other items do not belong to you, so your sisters should take care of that. I don’t owe them anything. I will treat them the very same way they treat me. You, my dearest, don't blame me; I did everything I could for them; now they need to take care of themselves. Anyway I want to make it clear: I will not visit you again. If you need anything let me know via Zdzisiek and I'll try to get it for you.

Be well my beloved, my one and only treasure. I lived only for you. If this is God’s will that I am to perish, I will die thinking of you.

Your Zbyszek

I sit here without anything to do so I am writing to you.

I don't know what is happening to me today; everything sobs in me. I feel lost and not needed. Why am I suffering? For what? What did I do wrong? Sometimes I am so angry and mad at myself. Why am I so naïve and trusting? What do I get for it? Not even a good word; all I get is a spit in the face. You don't get it and maybe you cannot understand it right now. One day you will understand what is the difference between a mother, a sister, and a husband for whom you are the dearest thing in the world. I would give everything for you. What do I get for it? I have no one to console me, to give me faith that the world will change for the better. Today in return for all the good I am doing I heard: "take a rope and hang yourself." My father had to hear it, my father who loves me and cannot help me. He is as helpless as I am. This is my fate and my tragedy. Maybe one day, reading this gibberish, you will see that I was right. You will understand that listening to your husband's advice is in your best interest. Today I am heartbroken. I feel alone in this world without anyone to give me a helping hand when I am drowning.

I am sitting in Oles's pharmacy, right after the conversation with Roman. He gave me new hope, but do I need it? When a human being loses his life’s goal, what does he need hope and faith for?

Yes, my dearest, I know I lost all I most valued in life. I lost self-confidence and now my life's purpose is gone too. It was but an illusion.

Don't take my words so seriously. They refer only to me. You have your whole life ahead of you and soon it will change for the better. I am sure you will laugh reading this nonsense but I am very somber. I am serious like rarely in my life. I should be at peace today; maybe God will grant that all the Aktionen will omit Borysław, and no matter what, my life is over. I lost my life the very moment I lost you. You were my best friend whom I trusted completely.

And now? I am alone, abandoned by all, broken down. I wish to God that I would learn how to live and how to treat people. Whom to trust and whom to spit in the face, just as they do to me now.

Rozka just brought me your letter. I must admit I don't understand it at all. I suspected that I would not be allowed to join you. I was hoping that this was Julka's doing and not Roza's. Never mind; not to worry, I will not step in this house ever again. Even if I knew that I would have to hide in the streets and that I could be caught, I would not come to hide with you. As to Roza and Julka I will settle the score with them after the war, if I survive, God willing. I will pay them back with interest. I'll try to become as despicable as they are.

I was supposed to come by today, but since I didn't receive anything from you and I knew that Julka and Rozka are there—I didn't come.

1. Tomorrow I hope to get sausage, saccharine and maybe even meat; I saw Inka last night and she will send a package through a laborer. 

2. Wiska went away and will return only on Sunday.

3. Tomorrow I will get milk and I'll send it to you together with the saccharine and the sausage.

4. Here no one has "W" yet [?]

Otherwise all the same; I am very sorry my dear, that your mother and sisters are standing between us. I already wrote that one day you would understand what husband should stand for. Sleep well, my beloved, sleep sweet. May God protect you from all evil. I will pray for you. Your Zbyszek

P.S. If Zdzisiek brings a letter for Inka, I'll send it right away.

Do remember that you are married and you have a husband!!! Love me and think about me as much as I love you and think about you, my beloved.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Accession Number 2004.706.9
Date Created
December 11, 1942
Author / Creator
Zbigniew Kelhoffer
Boryslav, Ukraine
Borysław, Poland (historical)
Reference Location
Sambir, Ukraine
Sambor, Poland (historical)
Document Type Letter
How to Cite Museum Materials

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