When the Letters Stopped

When I was a youngster, and the subject came around to the Holocaust, my mother told me about receiving letters from her relatives in Lithuania, beseeching the family in America to bring them to the US, as the Nazis and their collaborators tightened their grip on Jews in the Baltics.

This troubled my mother to no end, as the family had no connections, political or otherwise, that could have saved an uncle, aunts, and numerous cousins living in places like Vilna, Musnik, and Boguslavisic. That frustration must have preyed on her mind, always wondering if she could have done something to extricate the family from the jaws of extermination.

About 13 years ago, one of my sisters told me that her china closet had tipped over and in the process of the drawers falling out, revealed a packet on which was written, in my grandfather’s handwriting: “Inside My Sister’s Letter,” and under that, my mother had written: “Take Care of This.”

I took the packet thinking that finally, after many decades, these were the letters with the heartbreaking appeal to be saved from the fate they must have known awaited them. I looked at the one envelope in the packet, and saw that it was postmarked April 3, 1935, too early for our relatives to have concluded that the end was near.

Immediately I had the letters—one from my grandfather’s brother, one from his wife and another from my grandfather’s half-sister—translated from the handwritten Yiddish to English. The translator was the late Herman Taube, a survivor from Poland, who became a poet and writer, and a fellow congregant at my synagogue near Washington, D.C.

The content of the letters was similar. Family news from Lithuania, and questions about the family in America, written in that loving way before the ease of long-distance telephone calls. Speaking to my mother, my great-uncle Shlomo Yitzchak Berzak writes:

“Dear Rose, by looking on the pictures, we understand the psychology of all of you, we can see your interest in social life activities, even with strangers…I myself, who is close to you all, love you dearly, no distance, no power in the world can separate us.”

My great-uncle goes to write about his health, and promises that his daughter Chanele “will write to you, she is very busy, she writes that she received from you a gift and pictures and that she will write to you the latest news.”

He closes the letter with: “If you, dear Rose, will send us flowers from your garden, we will enjoy with great pleasure. Their scent will give us the aroma of the Garden of Eden.”

And this, from Shlomo Yitzchak’s wife, Etel, to her sister-in-law, my grandmother Shifra: “May the Almighty bless you and Avraham-Yona (my grandfather) with good health and joy from your children, good hearted and G-d fearing, as we can see from Rose’s writing.”

These few letters are all we have of what must have been a decades-long correspondence. My grandfather arrived in America at the very end of the 19th century, and brought over my grandmother, my eldest uncle and my mother in 1903.

Though touching, there is nothing especially unusual about these letters, with their inquiries about each other’s health and well -being, and expressions of familial love in both directions. We assume there must have been correspondence after this, but we do know that nothing further was heard from Shlomo Yitzchak, Etel, or Alta Sarah after 1941, when they, and all of their family members, were rounded up and shot by the Nazis and their local collaborators.

Reading these letters now, the longing to reunite is all the more heartbreaking, knowing it was not to be. Wrote Alta Sarah to my grandfather, his half-sister:

“I hardly remember how you look…but I still remember and miss you all very much, we desire how you look now…only G-d knows if you can (make the effort) to come and visit us. Now, our only consolation are letters, to know you are all in good health and read the good news about you and your family.”

As time passes, now 75 years since the end of the Holocaust, those who deny that it ever happened are seen and heard all over the internet. As the number of survivors who experienced and witnessed Nazi Germany’s singular barbarity decreases by the day, Holocaust denial, minimalization, and trivialization increasingly goes unanswered, a victim of fading memories and “anything goes” comment on social media platforms.

Indeed, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s flip-flop, after agreeing to delete expressions of Holocaust denial, was a classic example of 1984-speak. Said Dorsey, in response to a question from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado): “It’s (Holocaust denial) misleading information. But we don’t have a policy against that type of misleading information.”

The First Amendment is many things, but it should not stop a leading social media platform from denying its space to those who would rob us of our history, and who would actively enable deniers to promote outright lies about history’s most brutal crimes; crimes which occurred in the memory of tens of thousands of survivor witnesses who are still with us today.

When I entered the Jewish communal field in the 1970s, Holocaust denial in the United States was in the hands of people like Arthur Butz, an engineering professor who wrote “the Hoax of the Twentieth Century; the Institute of Historical Review (IHR, on whose Board Butz sat); and from Willis Carto, founder of the far-right Liberty Lobby (and a founder of the IHR). Their message of denial was of deep cause for concern, but—without the internet megaphone we have today—their voices produced a loyal but somewhat limited following.

Holocaust denial today comes in all shapes and forms: from the Left, the Right, Islamists, and social media freelancers. A good deal of it emanates from Iran, which—not content to call only for Israel’s destruction on a daily basis—also seeks to mock the destruction of European Jewry.

The regime in Tehran conducted an annual cartoon contest, whose objective was to lampoon the Holocaust. One of the winners featured an old fashioned cash register, with the number 6,000,000 rung up, a cash draw on which was written “Shoah Business,” and a key to open the register,  festooned with a Star of David—on which was written “B’nai B’rith.”

Holocaust denial ironically brings together the extremes of the political spectrum. Earlier this year, the British newspaper The Guardian reported gatherings of former Labor Party members and known far-right figures who traffic in anti-Israel tropes and Holocaust revisionism. “Storybook gas chambers,” is how one convener of these gatherings described the death camps. Another participant professed that there were no deaths in Auschwitz.

In Germany—of all places—one of the leaders of the ultra-nationalist AfD Party, famously referred to the period of rule during the Third Reich as but “a speck of bird poop.”

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ doctoral dissertation, written in the Soviet Union, minimizes the extent of the Holocaust and charged Zionist organizations with encouraging it. Nearly 40 years after writing this, Abbas still dabbles in denialist and revisionist rhetoric, including a speech in 2018 in which he charged Jewish “social behavior,” and not anti-Semitism, as being the cause of the Holocaust.

There is a perfect storm brewing of Holocaust denial and Holocaust ignorance. The Conference on Materials Claims Against Germany (known as the Claims Conference) 2020 survey points to some frightening, but not surprising statistics: 48% of U.S. millennials and Gen Z-ers were unable to name a single concentration camp. 63% did not know how many Jews were killed; 36% thought the number was fewer than 2 million. And, perhaps most disconcerting, is that 11% of those polled believe Jews themselves were responsible for the Holocaust.

If these young people come to Holocaust history tabula rasa, then will they learn that history from the internet, where deniers and minimizers lurk around every corner? The Claims Conference survey is the lastest wake-up call to act while we still can, and while there are still survivors with tattoos on their arms to attest to the fact that “I was there.”

Good for those who go on the March of the Living to see the sites of the Nazi concentration camps in Poland, or those Jewish schools which offer similar trips to graduating seniors. But what about our public schools? To date, only 15 states require that Holocaust education be a part of their public school curricula.

And what about Europe, where these very crimes were committed and which is experiencing a dramatic spike in anti-Semitism? The need for public-sponsored Holocaust education is as evident here as anywhere. Even though many European countries are members of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which commits its members to teaching about the Holocaust, adherence to this pledge varies from place to place. Kudos to those countries that have appointed special envoys to combat anti-Semitism, including Holocaust denial. But more countries need to do the same. And a growing number of countries, including Austria, France, Germany and Romania have adopted legislation that makes Holocaust denial a crime, and here too, more should do so.

The problem also exists in the Islamic world, where in many countries young people are taught that the Holocaust is a myth perpetrated by Zionists playing on international sympathy in order to wrest land from the Palestinians. Much credit goes to the Secretary General of the Muslim World League Muhammad Abdul-Karim al-Isa, who led a groundbreaking visit of Islamic leaders to Auschwitz-Birkenau this year on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp. The value of such initiatives cannot be overestimated.

The passage of time and the fading of memory is our most daunting challenge. That, and the willingness to believe that such a horrendous period ever happened. For their own nefarious reasons, anti-Semites of all stripes have found common cause, and sick satisfaction from turning history on its ear, and tormenting us by perpetuating the charge that this was all a myth.

Eighty-five years ago, Shlomo Yitzchak, Etel, and Alta Sarah Berzak wrote about their lives, about things that were the most important to them; health issues, news about the family, the hope that they would one day meet up with my grandfather and my mother and continue the conversation in person.

We know their lives were brutally ended, along with six million other Jews, in the blink of an eye. No more letters, no more expressions of love and good wishes, no more exchanges of photos.

To perniciously dismiss their demise by declaring it never happened, is simply unacceptable. These Jews were abandoned once, with such tragic consequences. We must not let it happen a second time, while there is still an opportunity to do all we can to honor their memory and defeat those who would rob it from us.

About the Author
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the CEO of B’nai B’rith International
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