Monday, January 15, 2007

My Favorite Christmas Gift

A few days after Christmas, a package came in the mail from my aunt Ulli. In it were two thick manuscripts, each almost 300 pages long, entitled Letters from Chemnitz. Volume I is marked "1905 - 1939" and volume II is marked "1940 - 1945." These 600 pages of transcribed letters -- which took Ulli literally years to translate -- are not only a chronicle of life in a "privileged mixed marriage" in Germany before and during World War II (my grandfather, a wealthy banker and art collector, was Jewish), they are also a testimony to the lost art of letter writing. Contained in the books are hundreds of letters that begin by depicting a blissful everyday life in an upper middle class German family in the 20's and early 30's... and which end with the desperate and tragic final days of World War II, days which included the death of my grandfather by an American bomb -- a direct hit to his house in Chemnitz.

The letters are mostly from my grandmother to her mother (which begin in 1905, when my grandmother was just 12), but the books also include other letters, most notably those written by my grandfather after my grandmother's death from a brain tumor in 1944 when my father was just 13. The final letters at the end of the war reflect the desperation that gripped everyone in Germany during that time, but especially Jews -- even those who had been raised as Christians, like my grandfather.

The early letters describe happy family vacations, an idyllic home life with abundant household help, frequent parties and all the comforts of life in a normal, happy German family. Some letters describe the confusion my grandmother felt as she attempted to keep life as normal as possible, even as my grandfather's status as a Jew became more and more of an issue. The last letters were from my always-orderly and conscientious grandfather (a trait my father definitely inherited!) to my father and uncle and were written during the desperate months at the end of the war, months during which all households housed many, many refugee families, letters written during a time when food, electricity and transportation were scarce to non-existent, and letters written full of hope just days before my grandfather's death in March, 1945.

I am riveted by what I'm reading, not only because it gives me a glimpse into my father as a child (his mother even describes his birth in a letter to her mother!) and into the very strong and loving family in which he was raised (which, I believe, is why he and his siblings remained loving, positive, and well-balanced in the ensuing years, even after losing both parents when they were just children), but I'm riveted also because it provides a detailed chronology of the devastating effect World War II had on one family in Germany.

And now, back to reading!

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vailian said...

absolutely amazing. I hope some pictures were included... did she have them printed up commercially? I am assuming she translated them into English?

Betsy said...

Wow, what an amazing gift! I would have loved to be able to read something like that about my family!


Michelle said...

How lucky to have that gift! I'm happy to have a few pictures of my ancestors and some good stories but something like this is really special. Enjoy the reading.

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