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family letters

It is not surprising that probably the largest number of personal letters written by Jews during the Holocaust dealt with the most immediate impact that radical persecution was having on individuals and their families. Jews everywhere worried about their loved ones, especially if they were far away. They were also eager to find out about the situation in other towns, gauge the extent of persecution, assess the danger, and weigh their options. In a way, the topics of Jewish correspondence during the Holocaust reflect the situation of those who most made use of letter-writing: it was those Jews whose immediate family members or relatives were not in the same city or in the immediate vicinity that usually wrote letters, and it was questions about their loved ones' health that dominated these writings. Of course, many letters were lost in the mayhem of the Holocaust, along with their authors, but familial themes tend to dominate those that have been preserved.

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Families can be the source of frustration and despair, as well as nurturing and life-sustaining networks. The Holocaust brought those modalities into relief, and added unexpected twists to family relationships. Forced migration and displacement were new realities that large numbers of Jews now had to deal with. Family networks were tested in these periods, and reading letters to a loved one, or writing to them—whether they had escaped to another village in the Generalgouvernement, or found a way to flee to Paris or the Soviet Union, or were safely in New York—became cherished rituals and were an important part of a person’s day, even though these same activities could cause anxiety, and even despair.

This source base is too large to allow us to to generalize about the content of these letters.1 They differed both in terms of their authors' personal styles—timidity, boldness, pessimism, analytic or literary proclivities, etc.—and the general political and everyday circumstances in which they were written. Jews writing from New York or Geneva did not have to fear deportation or imminent death, and they could write calmly, unhurriedly, sitting at their desks; but if they were writing to their relatives in the Generalgouvernement, they had to find ways of soliciting sufficient information and relating their anxieties and fears without getting on the radar of the German censors. Jews on deportation trains, on the other hand, could only scribble a few words and throw the notes through the cracks of their sealed cattle cars, hoping for the unlikely. Such notes were often lost, ignored, destroyed or stolen; it took personal courage for someone to deliver such a note, since this was punishable by death.

Regardless of this long spectrum of conditions and circumstances, intentions and contingencies, most of these writings bespeak the authors' anxieties and the terrible impact that radical persecution had on Jewish families everywhere.

There are a number of publications collecting family letters from the Holocaust, but no scholarly monographs on correspondence among families during the Holocaust as a genre. See for example Richard S. Hollander, Christopher R. Browning, and Nechama Tec, Every Day Lasts a Year: a Jewish Family’s Correspondence from Poland (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), and Henriette Pollatschek and Renata Polt, A Thousand Kisses: A Grandmother’s Holocaust Letters (Tuscaloosa, Alabama University Press, 1999).