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Old Letters Revealed Her Parents’ Holocaust Experiences

Eleanor Reissa

The Letters Project: A Daughter’s Journey

Post Hill Press, 289 pp.

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The Holocaust left considerable traces – some obvious, some hidden – on the Jewish collective soul, and although it took place far from America’s shores, it’s become an integral part of American history.

Tens of thousands of survivors immigrated here, most of them Polish Jews who endured World War II in Nazi camps, ghettos, in hiding places, as well as in the eastern regions of the Soviet Union, in Siberia or Central Asia.

Following their arrival they generally avoided speaking about their traumatic experiences, and few Americans really wanted to hear about it. Only many years later, as the last generation of survivors was disappearing, did their children and grandchildren begin to wonder what life had been like for their parents and grandparents before, during, and after the Holocaust.

Over the past few years a number of private historical projects have been published, trying to reconstruct personal family histories in the wider historical context of the twentieth century. “The Letters Project: A Daughter’s Journey” by the New York Jewish actress and singer Eleanor Reissa (known in Yiddish as “Alte Risha”), falls under this category. The inspiration for the book was a bundle of letters that Reissa inherited from her mother. Until that discovery, Reissa’s only knowledge of her parents’ Holocaust experience were based on her own impressions: “What little I do know, I learned from my own eyes and ears, overhearing family conversations or looking at photos.” These letters now began to serve as her main guide through the dark history of her parents’ past.

Reissa’s mother was born in Biłgoraj, Poland, and her father was from the Galician town of Strzyżów. Her mother’s family fled to Fergana, Soviet Uzbekistan, and left the Soviet Union after liberation, together with other Polish refugees. Eleanor’s parents met in the DP camp in Germany. He was twenty years older than her and had settled in Germany after World War I. In 1943 he was deported from Stuttgart to Auschwitz and was the only Jew to have returned there after the war. The letters, which were written in German, date from the time when Reissa’s mother had already arrived in America and her father was still in Germany. But the relationship between the two parents was troubled, and they divorced a few years after Eleanor’s birth.

Years later Reissa decided to travel to Germany and search for traces of her family history. For her this was a sort of belated reunion, “to be with my parents and my family again, whom I have not seen for such a long time.” Her relationship with Germany was complicated. On one hand, Germany was the land of criminals, where every stone was a witness from Hitler’s time. On the other hand, the author met friendly people there who were eager to help her in her quest.

As Reissa visited the German cities, which she knew only from the letters and photographs, she was flooded with emotions. “Time frozen. Past and present merge into one,” she writes, and then later: “The dead are screaming in my ears.” In Stuttgart, she met the daughter of her father’s friend, and in the archive in Ludwigsburg she found folders full of documents about her family, among them — her father’s testimony, which he had given to the German governmental agency in order to receive reparations, having been a victim of Nazi persecution.

Her father’s life story, which unfolds for Reissa as she reads the letters, suddenly becomes a heavy burden on her soul: “Their content and mere existence were too painful for me. [I] had believed that I was immune, that I had seen and heard it all;…. that this Holocaust stuff had no effect on me anymore. [I] was wrong. It was more than even I could bear.”

“The Letters Project” is a very personal book, a product of deep and painful quests in search of the author’s own roots. This was no doubt an overwhelming experience for Reissa personally, but at the same time, it’s a fascinating read. Reissa’s voice in the book is earnest and speaks directly to the reader. Her richly detailed and emotional narrative takes us along on her journey to the land of her past.

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