The era of the Holocaust saw the systematic murder of 6 million Jewish men, women, and children by the Nazi regime, along with 11 million members of other groups the Nazi party deemed “objectionable”. Sometimes, history can lose its humanity, reduced to a list of facts and dates. With an event like the Holocaust, it can be hard to comprehend the scale of devastation, the loss of human life, and the suffering experienced by so many.
In Letters From the Holocaust, a collection by Of Lost Time, the voices of people who lived through the genocide ring out clear and plaintive, expressing a wide spectrum of heartache, uncertainty, and yearning for a normal life. From ghettos to concentration camps, these historical letters share real human experiences: honest, unfiltered, and compelling.
In January 1933, the leader of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler, became Chancellor of Germany. Hitler quickly established the Third Reich, a totalitarian regime that would transform the country into a dictatorship state controlled by the Nazi government. Racism, eugenics, and antisemitism were key ideological pillars of the regime, and once the Party gained power, the legal discrimination and persecution of Jews began in earnest.
One method of discrimination saw the state force Jewish citizens to wear armbands emblazoned with the Star of David while in public. Soon, even this identification of their “otherness” was not enough, and the Party took steps to physically remove Jewish individuals from German society and other countries. When the invasion of Poland began in September 1939, the Nazis expelled Polish Jews from their homes and forced them to live in ghettos, segregated, impoverished areas of housing on the outskirts of towns and cities, like the Polish capital of Warsaw.
Letters From the Holocaust includes a haunting missive written by Halina Szwaumbaum, a Polish citizen forced into the Warsaw Ghetto with her parents. Szwaumbaum wrote several times to her friend and former schoolteacher, Stefania Liliental, describing her life in the ghetto. In one letter from June 1942, she painted a poignant picture of her longing to return to life before the invasion and how her imagination provided her with a brief escape from the horrors of reality.
Szwaumbaum described the ghetto as noisy and overwhelming, her ears “filled with the deafening clamour of crowded streets and cries of people dying on the sidewalks”, of “the shots and screams coming from the street”. She lamented the slow loss of places she once loved from her memory, such as the Vistula River in Poland, struggling to “recall exactly how it looks” and comparing the forgetfulness to how we “forget the features or the voices of the dead, no matter how profoundly we may miss them”. To temporarily find relief from her surroundings, Szaumbaum imagined joining her friend in a “green meadow”, lying in the grass, and “crying at the sight of the blue sky”.
Szaumbaum died in the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943, aged just 22, fighting beside her lover in an unsuccessful uprising.
The collection of historical letters includes thoughts from another young Jewish writer living in Nazi-occupied Poland. In 1942, Zbigniew Kelhoffer wrote to his wife Sydonia, who had gone into hiding, describing his isolation and fear of what the future held. He found himself debating three courses of action: to join his wife and her family in hiding, to try and escape, or to join a forced labour gang in an oil refinery camp.
Though he eventually joined his wife in hiding, where the two survived the war together, Kelhoffer’s letter highlights the strain the Holocaust put on family relations, with the young man feeling “lost and not needed”. Personal issues did not vanish in the face of the great suffering of the Holocaust; often, it made relationships and other facets of the basic human condition harder to cope with. In his historical letter, Kelhoffer frequently mentions a deep sense of loneliness at such a harrowing time: “I feel alone in this world without anyone to give me a helping hand when I am drowning.”
The Nazi Party built the first concentration camps less than two months into its rule in March 1933. The Nazis imprisoned Jews and others who they judged as “undesirable”, and genocide and mass murder became hallmarks of their regime. In a systematic process that began in 1939 with the murder of German citizens with mental or physical disabilities and accelerated after 1941, the state imprisoned, forced into labour, or murdered millions of Jews and other Holocaust victims in Nazi concentration and extermination camps.
Another thought-provoking piece in the historical letters collection comes from Otto Bendix, a 64-year-old German of Jewish heritage, born in Berlin in 1878. In October 1942, before his transportation to Theresienstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia, a holding area for mostly older Jews that the Nazis were sending to camps in the east, Bendix wrote to his non-Jewish wife. Facing permanent separation, in his farewell letter Bendix wrote to her: “Again, be strong and happy, with or without me, that is my strong wish.” He died a few months later, in January 1943.
The Holocaust touched millions of lives, affecting not only the direct victims of the genocide, but also those who witnessed its impact. The collection by Of Lost Time includes a letter from Aaron Eiferman, a member of the U.S. 12th Armoured Division who took part in the liberation of Dachau concentration camp in 1945, the first camp built by Nazi Germany in 1933.
Writing to his wife back home, Eiferman described how he and his fellow soldiers “got the shock of our lives” on entering the camp, finding the “charred remains” of Jewish prisoners. Eiferman described the smell and sight in vivid detail and referred to the malnourished, gaunt survivors as “the living dead, nothing but skin bone, and little meat, with a soul”.
In the historical letter, Eiferman captured the moment he came face to face with one of these survivors: “He thought I was a German soldier … But when I told him I was an American soldier and also Jewish, he grabbed my hand and started to kiss it.” Eiferman recounted how the survivor began to tell him his plans to recover and then find his long-lost wife.
In a poignant line, Eiferman wrote to his own wife: “How can we complain about our little troubles when a man who has been in a concentration camp for six years, who faced death every day of the year, can talk of the good things he is going to do, instead of what has happened to him …”
Thanks to all these historical letters and other important documentation, we can remember victims of the Holocaust who might otherwise have been lost to time. These letters beg the question: how many other stories were erased, never committed to paper?
These letters allow us to see moments from the past through a personal lens and gain better insight into the people and events from this tragic time in human history. They remind us that the victims and the atrocities they suffered are not so far from our lifetimes, and, through their words, the writers have unknowingly sent a serious warning to subsequent generations: to never forget, or risk repeating the same horrors.
Of Lost Time is a non-profit organisation that curates and publishes historical letters, shining a fresh light on significant moments in the history of humankind. As the literary unit of Future Science Group, the London-based science and medical journal publishing house, Of Lost Time’s vision is to bring history to life through personal correspondence and connect readers with the past through a more relatable, intimate lens.
Of Lost Time’s letter collections are carefully curated and represent a range of famous and lesser-known, though just as important, individuals. Each anthology allows readers a glimpse into the private thoughts of history’s public figures, philosophers, artists, scientists, and everyday citizens.