Nearly twenty years after my grandfather died, we discovered a collection of letters that he had written to his family during his time in United States Army during World War Two. Some of the letters are more mundane, complaints about food and requests for care packages. Others are remarkably detailed and powerfully capture many different aspects of his experience.
After being sent to Europe in January of 1945, his unit saw combat in Germany and then was eventually stationed at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp not long after its liberation. They would go on to spend several weeks there and it was there that my grandfather’s eyes were truly opened to the horrors perpetrated against the Jews of Europe during the war. Because my grandfather spoke Yiddish, he was one of the only soldiers who could communicate with the Holocaust Survivors there who had not yet been able to leave. One particular letter stands out, and the excerpt is below. He describes how he was able to build a relationship with a young woman, Celia Feldstein, who had lost a husband and child during the war. In the letter, my grandfather tries to convey to his family the magnitude of what had taken place during the war and the profound questions that the Jewish people faced in its wake. Questions such as: Why didn’t American Jewry do more to help the Jews of Europe? What is the significance of Zionism after the war?
My grandfather had a great love of history and would often regale our family with stories of the past, but he never spoke openly about his time during the war. This year on Yom HaShoah, I plan on reading several of them to my children, including my oldest son who is named for my grandfather.
Norman Winiker, June 16, 1945, Mauthausen Concentration Camp
When I came back from Paris and found the boys in the new billets, I also found that they were having people come down from the camp and clean up our house. Well, I didn’t pay any attention to them until three days ago. I happened to go down to the basement that morning, and there was this girl ironing the uniforms of a couple of the boys. She looked at me, I looked at her and finally she said, in German of course, “I think you’re Jewish.” I told her I was and found out she was Jewish also. It came as a surprise to me when she told me that there are several thousand Jews at Mauthausen now. It’s a wonder that they’ve lived this long.
Well anyway, since that day I have spent hours and hours talking to this girl. She returns every day to do ironing, sewing etc. I’d like to tell you her story. She doesn’t speak any English only Polish and Yiddish or German. Now, my Yiddish is rusty, but I can understand it pretty good. Since she does most of the talking it’s a good arrangement…
She was born thirty years ago in Cracow, Poland. Her father died in the first World War and her mother remarried. Like in Mama’s case the step-father treated her badly. He wouldn’t let her go to school (she’s a very intelligent girl) but made her stay home and work. She managed to learn tailoring work in her spare time and that’s become her life’s work.
She was in love with her uncle from childhood but he lived in another town. When she was eighteen, she married this uncle. They were very much in love and lived happily together until those fateful days of September, 1939. At that time the Germans of course marched in and immediately her husband was sent to a camp in another town. She had a small baby and soon he contracted tuberculosis from one of the people who was now living in the girl’s place.
The Germans didn’t bother for a while because of the child’s death and she worked for them in a tailor shop. Meanwhile, she was corresponding with her husband. Then in a new round-up, her luck gave out. She was sent to a real camp and has been in different camps ever since. She didn’t hear from her husband anymore and she found out that all her relatives have either perished or disappeared.
How she survived through all the bloodshed that surrounded, she herself doesn’t know. Just the hand of God. She has told me many of the things she’s seen happen in these camps down to the last detail, and I just can’t bring myself to write them down. She’d describe an incident and then she’d ask me, “Didn’t you Jews in America hear about these things?” I told her yes but I just couldn’t answer when she came back with “why didn’t you do something at the beginning?”
She was very despondent when I talked to her the first time. Her child, family, home, and old life were gone. Her only hope is that she can find her husband. When she mentioned that she has even thought of suicide, I couldn’t blame her in some ways, but I gave her one of the longest lectures I’ve ever given in Yiddish on the greatness of life and the presence of everlasting hope. I’m telling you that I put my heart into it, and I believe and I hope that I’m right that she won’t think of suicide again.
This discussion evolved itself into a debate on philosophy. We began to talk in the abstract. Then, we had quite a talk on the Jew in the world today, and let me tell you, she opened my eyes up to a lot of things. We compared the Jew in America and the Jews in Europe. And we talked about Zionism…
She’s very happy to be able to talk to me and as she said once, “I’m glad to be able to tell everything to someone.” She says that most people aren’t the kind to listen to someone else’s problems. They have their own.