PER­SPEC­TIVE

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - BY LAU­REN FOX

Let­ters penned dur­ing a hor­ri­fy­ing time in his­tory and safe­guarded in a wooden box be­came not just the ba­sis of this writer’s mas­ter’s the­sis. They ex­plain a legacy of love and fear. By Lau­ren Fox

Mis­sives from a fraught great-grand­mother be­come even more res­o­nant now

SOME YEARS AGO, as I was help­ing my par­ents clean out their base­ment, I dis­cov­ered a small wooden box, in­side of which were dozens of let­ters, writ­ten on onion­skin pa­per in fad­ing ink – let­ters from my great-grand­mother, Frieda Weiss, to my grand­mother, Ilse.

In 1938, Ilse and her hus­band and their daugh­ter, my mother, em­i­grated from Lan­gen­lon­sheim, Ger­many, to Mil­wau­kee. My grand­fa­ther’s best friend, as it hap­pened, was in the S.S., and he had warned them – you have to leave now. The Nazis were go­ing to ac­cuse my grand­fa­ther of be­ing a com­mu­nist and come for him. They man­aged to get out. The rest of the fam­ily stayed be­hind. From 1938 through 1941 they tried, with the in­creas­ing des­per­a­tion of Ger­man Jews on the cusp of World War II, to leave.

I could barely de­ci­pher a word of the let­ters, and nei­ther could my mother, who had worked as a Ger­man trans­la­tor. My great-grand­mother wrote in an old-fash­ioned Ger­man script called Frak­tur, which was taught un­til the early 20th cen­tury, and briefly res­ur­rected dur­ing the Nazi era, when it was con­sid­ered a pure, au­then­tic Ger­man script. Very few peo­ple can still read it. It looked, to my eyes, like a se­ries of loops and slashes.

I was in grad­u­ate school, at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, when I found the let­ters, and my search for a trans­la­tor led me to a Ger­man pro­fes­sor there who took a per­sonal in­ter­est in my project. Ev­ery week I would go to his of­fice with a few let­ters, and he would read them out loud, in English, into my lit­tle tape recorder. Later, on my own, I would tran­scribe them. It took us two years to get through them all.

Pro­fes­sor Weiss (no re­la­tion) told me once that he felt like he was get­ting to know my fam­ily. I felt the same way. Through her anx­i­ety and worry, my great-grand­mother wrote again and again about how much she missed her grand­daugh­ter, but how glad she was that they were gone from Ger­many, safe. Frieda’s let­ters ex­plained a piece of my own heart to me – in them, I heard all the echoes of enor­mous love and fear that were handed down to me. The let­ters be­came the ba­sis of my mas­ter’s the­sis. I was so im­mersed in the project that some­times I would come home at the end of the day and half ex­pect to find a let­ter from my great-grand­mother in my mail­box.

June 10, 1938 This morn­ing we re­ceived your dear let­ter and pic­ture from New York. I’m ter­ri­bly home­sick for my lit­tle child. I think that things don’t look too good here.

Oc­to­ber 12, 1939 I hardly sleep any­more and you, my dear ones, write that you think we will be with you in the spring. There is no pos­si­ble way of think­ing about that. We will sell our house now very soon and the Fuch­ses will per­mit us to stay on in the apart­ment.

I my­self am no longer what I used to be.

When I fin­ished my the­sis, I didn’t want to think about what had hap­pened to my fam­ily any­more. I had read the story of their fu­tile at­tempt to es­cape Nazi Ger­many slowly, over the course of two years, and I was ex­hausted by the end of it. I let go of those let­ters for a long time.

But per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, they’ve come knock­ing again, de­mand­ing my at­ten­tion. Frieda’s words re­flect what hap­pens when the ha­tred that ex­ists in the shad­ows of a cul­ture is wa­tered and fed, given per­mis­sion to blos­som.

The let­ters il­lu­mi­nate the un­rav­el­ing of a reg­u­lar life, the puls­ing anx­i­ety of a woman who has said good­bye to her beloved daugh­ter, son-in-law and grand­daugh­ter, and knows that she is in the process of los­ing ev­ery­thing, in a coun­try she thought was her home. We all know how the story ends. But I also know this: I’m here be­cause my grand­par­ents and mother got out of Ger­many just in time – and be­cause the United States wel­comed three refugees to safety.

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