The Pen and the Sword

For close to seven decades, Yad Vashem has gathered and recorded over 4,800,000 names of Holocaust victims from a myriad of sources, including Holocaust-related documents and Pages of Testimony. These biographical documents submitted by family members, friends or colleagues of the victims, reveal much more than the names of the Jewish men, women and children murdered during the Shoah; they are a window into both the life story of the victim as well as the person who submitted them. Whether filled out by a son or daughter, niece or nephew, friend or acquaintance, these “virtual tombstones” highlight the connection of every Holocaust victim to the Jewish people and to humanity.

This year on 27 January, I attended (by virtual means) Australia’s national ceremony commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in which the results of a new, path-breaking survey about Holocaust awareness “down under” were showcased. At the conclusion of the online ceremony, I conducted a search in Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. There, I discovered two Pages of Testimony completed in 2001 memorializing Jakob and Emilie Roll. The Australian woman who had submitted them, Jean Gaze, referred herself as a “pen friend.” It is a rare occurrence to have a Page of Testimony signed by a pen pal, and therefore, I became intrigued and began to wonder about Ms. Gaze, and her relationship to a Jewish couple who had lived in Vienna before the Holocaust. I set out to investigate.

Born on 23 August 1924, Jean Gaze (née Doig) grew up in Colac, some 150 kilometers from Melbourne in the Australian state of Victoria. Her father, Keith Doig, was a well-known physician who worked in the local hospital. Jean’s grandfather, Mitchell, was a teacher. During WWI, Keith Doig served in Europe in the Australian Army Medical Corps and was decorated for his “exceptional service.” As I would later uncover, Dr. Doig remained an exceptional human being, as he and his family later attempted to sponsor the immigration to Australia of an Austrian-Jewish family– even though they had never actually met.

In the mid-1930s, Jean had been a “pen pal” of a Jewish girl from Vienna named Edith Roll. The young girls corresponded quite regularly about their daily lives, excited to receive letters and foreign stamps in the post. As the Nazi threat grew, Edith confided in Jean about her family’s desperate situation in Vienna. The Roll family was looking to emigrate as a result of Nazi anti-Jewish policies and racism. Edith’s father, Jakob, was also a medical doctor. As a result of the worsening circumstances, the girls’ mothers began to correspond as well. The Doig family in Victoria sought to bring the Roll family to Victoria, continuously petitioning the Australian authorities to provide them with entry visas. Despite their exceptional efforts, and their willingness to sponsor Edith’s family in Australia, the Roll family was denied this safe haven far from Europe’s menacing grip. In essence, the sword had become stronger than the pen.

Meanwhile, Edith managed to enter the United Kingdom as part of the Kindertransport operation to rescue Jewish children living under Nazi rule in Germany and Austria. Edith’s parents were not so fortunate: They were deported to the ghetto of Theresienstadt (Terezin) and later to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, where they were murdered in late 1944. 

The girls lost touch during the Second World War. In the ensuing years, Jean searched for her childhood friend from Vienna, but she never reconnected with Edith Roll, who passed away in Los Angeles in 1971.

Edith and Jean’s correspondence has been preserved, and a decade ago was showcased in an exhibition of the Jewish Museum in Melbourne. These letters denote not only the tender friendship between two young pen friends, but also the wartime Australian immigration policies as well as the fate of Jewish families at the time. The Doig family’s efforts were exceptional in a sea of apathy, providing an educational message for generations to come. 

In 2001, Jean Gaze filled out the Pages of Testimony for her dear friend’s parents, so that the world would remember the Roll family.

In the words of the first President of Israel Chaim Weizmann, after the Evian Conference in Summer 1938, “the world seemed to be divided into two areas – those places in which Jews could not live and those they could not enter.” This is just one tragic story of a Jewish family during the Holocaust that was desperate to leave Europe, but found the doors to another country – in this case, Australia – closed to them. By donating this collection of letters with her childhood pen pal, Jean Gaze provided Australians another window into their country’s connection to Holocaust history. 

In light of this new study undertaken by the Gandel Foundation, it is Yad Vashem’s hope that more lifelong learners in Australia and around the world will have additional opportunities to listen firsthand to Holocaust survivor testimonies, visit Holocaust museums and attend meaningful Holocaust Remembrance Day programs in order to be warned, and inspired, by the story of the Roll and Gaze families.

The author is Director of International Relations and Projects Department in the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. 

About the Author
Richelle is Director of International Relations and Project Department in the International School for Holocaust Studies. She also served for ten years as the Director of the European Department in the International School.
Related Topics
Related Posts