At long last, after effectively marking time for seven years in England since their arrival on June 3, 1939, my grandfather, Hugo, and my aunt, Isabel, were poised to disembark in New York City. The date was May 27, 1946. They had boarded the steamship MS Gripsholm ten days earlier in Liverpool.
Sadly, my grandmother Charlotte was not with them. By disposition and self-admission she had been an anxious person. It turns out she suffered from a thyroid illness that worsened over time and apparently led to some form of psychosis. She died in England on January 26, 1945.
Waiting for them at the dock was my father, Ulrich, my aunt’s twin brother, whom they had not seen since March 1937 when he emigrated alone, ahead of the family. Now, after nine years apart, they would finally re-embrace. The moment they had all yearned for must have been tense and bitter sweet.
In fact, years later, just weeks before her death in 1989, Isabel recalled the poignant reunion in an interview she taped with my cousin Michael. She said, “When we came to this country we got off the boat and Ulrich was standing on the pier and he was waving to us and we didn’t recognize him because it had been so many years since we saw him last. He was a little boy when he left and he was a man when we saw him and it was awfully sad and awfully embarrassing and so finally I said, ‘Oh, there’s Uli,’ and so we started waving to him.”
When my father left Germany he was just a month shy of 16½. He was now 25½ years old. Isabel’s appraisal may have been a bit of an exaggeration. A year earlier his Naturalization application recorded that he was 5’8” and 145 pounds, certainly not emaciated, but not exactly a full-bodied muscular man. A photograph from April 1946, on his Tennis Permit for the Department of Parks, City of New York, also reveals a young man’s face.
Yet his memory of that day confirms Isabel’s recollection. “I seemed bigger,” he told me, “more American, remote, I bought Isa a summer dress.”
In the intervening years so much had happened: so much fear and anxiety, tragedy and horror. So much struggle for survival. So much adaptation and adjustment to new challenges and circumstances. And, also remarkably, so many proud accomplishments and achievements and so much enduring optimism despite all the horrors. Life would continue, like would somehow become normal again.
In 1951, when my parents went to Germany for my father’s first trip back, they spent time with old friends and some relatives. In a letter home my father wrote, “The truly miraculous thing is that these people who had to go through all this have come out of it with perfectly sane minds. Perhaps they had a nervous breakdown when it was all over, but now they act as if nothing had happened and are even able to joke about certain aspects of their experiences.” (Uli, May 1951) Compared to others, my father always downplayed his own terrible experiences, but of course he was also talking about himself and his own resilience.
Most remarkably, my father saved the hundreds of letters that his family wrote him, first from Germany (1937-1939) and later from England (1939-1946), as well as other correspondence to him from other family members and friends in America. In 1941, with the arrival of his grandfather, Franz Furstenheim, known as Opi, the cache of letters expanded to those he wrote and received as well. There were now additional postmarks from Argentina, Shanghai, other family members in England, as well as friends around the world, some who had lived out the war years in Germany.
Collectively, there survived over 800 documents – a pittance compared to the millions of people who perished – but each one a living-breathing artifact. Together they tell a remarkable story of what so many endured and experienced during those years. They range in content and emotion, from trivial and chatty and calm to plaintive, concerning, if not suspenseful. These letters often conspicuously leave out salient facts – whether repressed or intentionally suppressed -- that were only shared later, if at all. In contract, my father’s letters to his family are mostly absent, but one can piece together what was going on in his life by the comments they made to him, and by the few letters and key documents he wrote that he preserved.
I never asked my father what impelled him to hold all these papers. I suppose he knew instinctively that this was not ordinary correspondence. There was something very special about these letters that demanded their preservation. There was something about them that transcended the messages on the paper. They served as a talismanic life-line to his family. But what if their fate was doomed, a chilling thought? What if they never made it out of Germany and later England? Then, these letters might potentially be all that was tangibly left of them, a horrible concept to consider, but how could it not have crossed his mind?
Even after the family made it to safe haven in England, the possibility of never seeing them again must have lingered on. In fact, his mother came to visit him the summer after his arrival in New York, and then returned to Germany. That was the last time they saw each other.
The letters became precious, embodying in their scratched out handwriting the embedded personalities of the writers. To hold a letter is to connect to the person. To hold a letter is to hold and be held by that person. No wonder the letters survived, not just during the war years, but for all these years that followed, and why they captivated my attention and affection as well.
I knew my aunt and loved her fondly, but I never knew my grandparents – my grandfather died two years before I was born and I owe my middle name, Hugh, to him. These letters became for me, and my cousins as well, a poignant way to know our grandparents, and Uli and Isa, too, when they were younger. It is also my hope that these letters can speak to, inform and inspire far more people than just our small family. Then the memory of their lives and the legacy they left behind will truly be honored.