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last letters

In a certain sense, many letters that Jews wrote in the period of the Holocaust were "last letters," voices subsequently extinguished by mass murder and genocide. Even if the authors of these letters were not immediately aware of their impending deaths, in many cases their subsequent destinies made their writings “last.” Indeed, the scholarly and popular discussions of the topic of Jewish writing during the Holocaust treat all contemporary Holocaust testimony—letters written in various ghettos, in camps, in hiding, in underground resistance groups, etc.—as “last letters,” inasmuch as their authors were subsequently murdered.1 

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This view of Jewish writing during the Holocaust, however, is fundamentally influenced by hindsight. Many decades after the Holocaust, we can label someone's letter their "last," because of our knowledge of history and the historical outcome of the Holocaust—even if we are not aware of every single letter writer's personal fate. Most Jewish writers during the Holocaust, however, did not think of their communications as “last,” even if they might have been aware of their narrowing options and the approaching mortal danger. Labeling most genres of Jewish writing during the Holocaust as “last letters” may inadvertently silence the writers' variegated reflections, hopes, fears, and other emotions and thoughts they reflected in their writing.2

Some Jewish communications, however, did come close to the literal meaning of the phrase "last letters." In many instances during the “liquidation” of ghettos in Poland and Ukraine, when entire Jewish populations of towns and cities were transported by cattle cars to their deaths or—less often—to labor camps elsewhere, people wrote short and hasty messages on pieces of paper and threw them off the transport trains, hoping that someone would find them and deliver them to the right address.3 These were instinctive and rushed pieces of writing, relating no real information; most "liquidation actions" or deportation orders came suddenly, were characterized by radical murderous violence, and people herded onto the trains had no time to ponder the consequences of their forced journey. Yet they were aware that something terrible was going on, and many wanted to assuage their fears and anxieties by notifying relatives and friends about where they were and where they were being taken. Since most writers of these notes did not themselves know the answers to those questions, these writings often simply note the place where they were being written (and thrown out of the rail car), and express some hope that all is not lost.

There are relatively few surviving pieces of such writing. A cluster of related circumstances worked against these letters finding their addressees: helping Jews was forbidden everywhere in Hitler's Europe, and picking up Jewish messages by the tracks and delivering them to other Jews could cost someone their life. But even that is assuming that people who found these messages actually wanted to deliver them to the right address; in many cases, the instinct for self-preservation and the antisemitic environment combined to prevent this from happening. And even in cases in which brave individuals found notes thrown off the train by deported Jews and decided to deliver those pieces of paper, the notes themselves might not be preserved, perishing in the mayhem of the Holocaust with their intended readers.

Despite all this, anecdotal evidence testifies that this mode of communication was not uncommon, and many such messages have survived.

See for example Zwi Bachrach, Last Letters from the Shoah, trans. Batsheva Pomerantz (Jerusalem and New York: Devora Publishing Company, 2004). Of course, in some instances, authors of preserved letters survived; by definition, the letters they wrote during the Holocaust were not "last."

The dangers of reading Holocaust literature and telling Holocaust history with unexamined hindsight are argued in Michael AndreĢ Bernstein, Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

This happened also in other deportation situations, in Western and Central Europe as well.