Peggy Walt

Letters Home

Postcard from Vilna to Palestine, c. 1940

Not too many letters home this year, what with everything from Jewish camps to soccer drills cancelled or having moved online into the virtual world, another victim of the pandemic.  It’s too bad, because summer letters are some of the sweetest, and introducing kids to the now very old-fashioned idea of writing home can be fun.  Even if these letters don’t reveal much beyond “Hi, I’m here.  How are you?  It’s hot,”  they’re worth saving. Re-reading them years later is as welcome as a juicy orange popsicle from the ice cream truck on a sweltering summer afternoon.

A friend told me that her archivist buddy predicted that we will be the last generation to save paper anything – letters, invoices, diaries – and for that reason alone, we should be keeping at least some of the paper evidence of our times.  What will there be for future museums and archives to save, as everything moves to digital?  How will future researchers learn about us, from our Tweets and Instagram accounts?

I knew there would be much to be gleaned from the bags and bags of documents I recovered from my mother and grandparents, all excellent preservers of EVERY piece of paper that passed through their hands (including slit-open envelopes, always handy for jotting down mysterious sums and phone numbers).  Ok, I did shred some of this stuff, but as I sorted it,  I loved looking at the tidy accounting of bills paid and cheques written in my mother’s elegant, sloping handwriting.  It helps put the households into perspective, e.g., that couch really was purchased c. 1975!  New roofs, summer sandals, music lessons –  the years of cancelled cheques tell the story of busy lives and resourceful Maritimers who wasted nothing. My grandparents documented their vehicles and mileage in tiny notebooks of their many trips to visit American relatives, and my grandmother wasted not a piece of cardboard that could be re-used for recipes, dress patterns, prayers and quotations from favourite novels. And isn’t it great to know who a letter is from, just by looking at the handwriting?

I wonder if our grand-daughters will write letters?  They need to learn to write first, and the art of penmanship is going the way of the Dodo, but I like to think they’ll send postcards home someday when the world can once again travel.  Noted: If they still exist, Grandma requests postcards!

Learning to write is hard work, but my grand-daughter will get there.

My Mum had a fun letter-writing game of tag going in her twenties with her American cousin Bob that I always hearing about; apparently they sent the same postcard back and forth to each other for months.  Written in pencil, they just kept erasing the contents and address line, and stuck a new stamp on it until the paper literally fell apart. Wonder if the postmen noticed?

I found a packet of my mother’s letters recently, written in the early 1950’s from her pals from university, writing to her from various parts of Canada and the US when she had started out on her own in an apartment in the city, in her first job away from home. So many letters!  She was tickled to see them again.

Also, remember pen pals and how thrilling it was to select one from a faraway exotic country?  Mine was in the Philippines, and we wrote for years, sharing photos, girlish crushes, bookmarks and little gifts.  Eventually we lost touch, but we’ve reconnected recently through the wonder of Facebook.  Facebook is fun for things like that, and I shared photos my pen pal had mailed me that she had lost over the years and her many moves.  She was excited to see again her teenage self, all toothy smiles, white ankle socks and big eyeglasses.  It brought back that amazing feeling of anticipation when there was mail for me in our black mailbox, the one that still hangs beside my mother’s front door.

Yad Vashem has been profiling letters home of a different kind.  These are poignant last letters written before, during and after the Holocaust, like voices from history books, and I can’t stop reading them.  Recently I watched this video that of a survivor whose mother had sent her precious things from the Będzin Ghetto in Poland.  A mother’s love comes shining through.  Incredible that the items reached the daughter in a labour camp – bread toasted to withstand travel, and a special box that could be locked to protect this very precious item – lechem  (Hebrew for bread) for her dearly loved daughter.

To mark my 60th birthday, I’m having a batch of family letters translated from Yiddish to English that I found on Yad Vashem’s website, and we’re nearing completion of this mini archive. It is fascinating, frustrating and moving to learn more about my husband’s family from their letters to beloved children who had left home.  How anxiously they awaited letters comes through on every page, mail sailing back and forth from the changing political climate of wartime Vilna to the newly-established kibbutz in Palestine.  “Write straightaway and keep well….Your card and two letters safely received – thank you for writing, my dear children.  I’m thinking only of you,  “Please write me, it’s my only joy,” says the mother to her daughter from 1940 Vilna.  How I would love to be able to read the replies, no doubt evaporated in the chaos and destruction of war.

Letter from Vilna to Palestine, c. 1940 (used with permission of the Gurwicz family). Photo: P. Walt

And the precious items so lovingly sent:  “Now, dear Resele, collect from Khaske your blanket, two pillowcases and two bedsheets, and Mendel’s shoes with the white toe caps.  Now you’ll collect your green coat with the muff…a pair of your light-colored shoes, a small embroidered cushion in a brown case, and four handkerchiefs.” Things a girl would need in the hot climate of Mandate Palestine?  No doubt mailed with so much love.

Photo: P. Walt

As I wrote in a previous blog post (Finding Emanuel), late in 2019 I received an email from Yad Vashem  in response to a query to them which changed my understanding of my husband’s family during WWII yet again.  They wrote me that a male relative I’d found in JewishGen, who I assumed had either not survived childhood or had been lost in the Holocaust, had in fact immigrated in 1914 to the United States.

I was stunned to find out that this “Joseph” (Iosef)  had made it by ship to New York, docking at Ellis Island to start a new life in America, later sending for a wife and daughter in Vilna to join him in America.  I immediately began searching for any children and grandchildren.  I located a man who I believed to be Joseph’s grandson, but how to contact him? Friends and fellow amateur genealogists all were firm: write him a letter.  And so I did, an old-fashioned letter from the  heart, which included a precious family photo that I hoped would help prove my sincerity to a stranger. On a morning walk, I mailed the letter to what I believed was his current address.  And I waited.

A month went by, nothing.  I imagined my letter losing its way, the address incorrect, or maybe Joseph’s grandson just wasn’t interested in learning about this family from “before.”

But on Sunday evening our home phone rang as we were about to sit down to dinner.  Seeing an unfamiliar area code and thinking it might be a telemarketer, I didn’t pick up.  Seconds later my cell phone flashed the name of the man I had been waiting for.  As I listened to his message, I flew to the kitchen, laughing, crying and shouting to my husband – “he got the letter!!”

For more than 40 minutes we talked with this new relative, he as unaware of us as we had been of him, my husband’s “new” second cousin.  All because of his grandfather’s letter to the International Tracing Services after the war:  what happened to my step-brothers back home in Vilna?  Seventy-five years later, a reply.

“I was amazed to receive your letter,” the “new” cousin told us.  “We moved over a year ago, and I was about to tell the post office to stop forwarding the mail.  But I hadn’t quite done it yet.  Some kind soul must have forwarded it to our new address.”

I had  included a copy of a family photo, shyly pointing out, “I believe this is your great-grandmother.”  I had chills when my husband’s cousin Howard told me, “I showed the photo to my sister right away.  She said she has the same picture, but we never knew who the people in it were.”   The pen truly is mightier than the sword.

This summer I’m sending my girls seashells, lovingly gathered at a Nova Scotia beach, mermaid’s treasures, coming to them by mail.  My sweet four-year-old grand-daughter tells me, “When we get our needle shots, Grandma, we’ll go to PEI and the beach and eat ice cream!”  She is so happily dreaming of our future summer fun.  May we all share her optimism on these hot summer days, as we look to our mailboxes for messages of love, hope and wonder.

Mermaid’s treasures that I mailed to my grand-daughters this summer.



About the Author
Peggy Walt has worked for 40 years in the arts and culture sector in Nova Scotia, Canada. She's writing a book on the search for what happened to her husband's family during the Holocaust and her conversion to Judaism in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Nonfiction at King's University in Halifax.
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