Signs of Life – Letters of the Holocaust

Signs of Life – Letters of the Holocaust

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Family letters and postcards of the Holocaust, Sydney Jewish Museum Collection

Hitler came to power on 30 January 1933 and the daily life of every Jew in Germany soon changed.  Some 40,000 fled that year. Thus, family relationships by mail began.

As Nazi Germany grabbed territory it wanted with Jews it didn’t – Austria in March 1938 and the Czech lands in 1939 — the exodus grew. Planned emigration overtook panicked departure, and Jewish communal organizations poured their energy into the departure of children and young adults. In Germany, 83 percent of Jews under age twenty-four escaped by 1939; similar figures obtained in Austria and the Czech lands.

Torn apart, families turned to letter writing.  Parents and children yearned to hear from each other. Parents continued to advise from afar; children reported on their new lives.

For Jews across Europe, war (September 1939) and German occupation brought forced relocation; incarceration in ghettos, transit and concentration camps; and flight from invaded territory in search of safety.  Mail connections grew tenuous or stopped just when families were most desperate for word.  Still, far-flung loved ones persevered, seeking news and to communicate information. As letters passed by censors’ eyes, writers resorted to code, trusting recipients would divine their meaning.

Letters took months to arrive, if they did at all.  Writers turned to the Red Cross letter system, hoping for a sign of life.  All too often, none came.  After the war, European Jews scattered around the globe and across Europe turned to letters once again in search of family and friends.  Reunification was a rare joy.

The Sydney Jewish Museum holds some 1000 Nazi and postwar era letters and postcards in its collection. Thanks to a generous donation by the JCA Szlamek and Ester Lipman Memorial Endowment Fund, “Signs of Life” brings this private correspondence to the public.