Voices from the Abyss: Letters and Essays, Edited by Leon Kilbert


The Letters

 BACKGROUND

The letters in this collection have followed a tortuous path both physically and through my psyche. They have managed to survive the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe only to haunt me for over four decades. They are all I have left of my mother, my father, my brother, and my life in pre-war Poland.

The first time I learned about the existence of the letters was when my aunt Celina Mornel handed me her collection. It happened shortly after my arrival in the United States in 1948. I eagerly read them, became quite upset and after a few sleepless nights, I tied them up and put them aside. They have remained untouched for over thirty years.

These letters then surfaced again. Before traveling to Poland in 1980, I visited the late Dr. Isaiah Trunk, noted historian at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. During our conversations, Dr. Trunk spoke about documents and letters that might provide an insight into Jewish life in Poland during World War II. He felt that such material should be preserved and made available to scholars as a record of those years. Dr. Lucjan Dobroszycki, another scholar at YIVO and Professor of History at Yeshiva University, had expressed an interest in the workings of the post office during wartime and felt that these letters could provide some clues into this area of research.

I thought of the letters in my possession. In all there were thirty-nine pieces of mail preserved in this collection. The first was dated February 1, 1940, and the last was dated January 9th, 1943. Excluding the last letter that was sent from Russia, they cover a period of some twenty months (from February, 1940 to October, 1941) of life under the Nazis. At that time I was not ready to give up these letters, even for research purposes. I roughly translated them into English so that my wife and children might read them. I then put them away for safekeeping for another dozen years!

Recently, Dr. Dobroszycki mentioned these letters. He spoke about their importance as original documents of the period. Now I am seventy-six years old; my children cannot read Polish (the language in which the letters were written) and some decision had to make about their preservation. I thought that the best solution would be to publish them, to share them with many people and scholars, to use these letters to further Holocaust research, and to make them a memorial to those who had perished. With this in mind, the original letters and postcards have been reproduced and are exhibited side-by-side with their English translation.

 THE FAMILY

At the outbreak of World War II, the Bernstein family consisted of four sisters (Fela, Celina, Dodzia, and Mania) and one brother (Izhak). An older brother had died before the war began. All of the sisters were married, and with their own families had continued (except for Celina) to live in the city of Plock, while Itzhak was teaching and writing in their hometown. Celina and her two sons immigrated to the United States in 1929. Celina had joined her husband Herman, who had become an American citizen. With the exception of Fela's children, all of the other members of the family were still living in Plock at the beginning of the war.

In November 1939, after Plock was incorporated into Nazi Germany, Lolek Kilbert, son of Dodzia, left Plock. With a friend, Jerzyk Goldberg, he crossed over "border" into the Soviet occupied part of Poland and remained in various parts of the Soviet Union until 1946. He was thus able to avoid the fate of his brother, parents and the rest of his family members.

 

 CORRESPONDENCE

All letters were written to Celina in New York, or were forwarded to her by Dodzia. Most of the letters were dated, or in some cases the dates were ascertained from the postmarks. In some cases the addresses were helpful in placing the letters in chronological order, since the people were constantly moving during the war. Thus, for example, Dodzia and her family lived originally in Plock at Stary Rynek No.15, in their prewar apartment. In October of 1940, with the establishment of the ghetto in Plock, she wrote "we moved to Szeroka Street, and since there wasn't an empty apartment at the time, we are living together with the Rothmans... Our address is Szeroka Street No.33...". However, this did not last long. In March 1941, alter the expulsion of all Jews from Plock, she wrote: ". . . we are at a new place. Our address is Bodzentyn, kreis Kielce..."

A few of the post cards were damaged (e.g., corners of some cards sent from Russia were torn off with the stamps) and some rather insignificant parts or words were illegible or missing. Reconstructed words or phrases are placed in brackets [ ].

The letters, with one exception, were written in Polish. They are filled with religious overtones (references to God and his miracles, requests for prayers, etc.). This was typical of the family. All the sisters had attended high school, which was unusual for Jewish girls at that time. Itzhak was a Hebrew scholar and an accomplished Polish and Yiddish writer. He held degrees in jurisprudence and psychology from Warsaw University. The family heritage was rooted deeply in religion. Their grandfather, Rabbi Leib Rakowski, was the direct descendant of a chain of thirty-six rabbis and for a number of years (1862-1876) he was the Chief Rabbi of Plock. Their father, Tovje Bernstein, was a scholarly and pious Jew. Although members of the family conversed in Polish and were not overly observant, their tradition was religious.

 

 THEMES

The letters are self-explanatory. No earthshaking news, a few complaints. Ambivalent feeling of hope, hardship, and quiet despair are also evident. One has to remember that these letters and cards were censored, so the writer had to be very careful. Despite this, parts of some of these documents were obliterated by the censors. In reading them it becomes obvious that there are certain recurring themes throughout the letters. Perhaps when such a closely-knit family is put under stress they tend to rely on the most basic of concepts and ideas in their communication. Also it should be clear to the reader that there was very little information that could be conveyed.

Status of family members

There is continuous reference to other family members, especially their whereabouts and changing addresses. Since they were never sure if the information had been conveyed, they tended to repeat the most essential bits of news.

Whereabouts of Lolek Kilbert

He was the only member of the family to escape Plock during the war. He had crossed into the Soviet-occupied part of Poland in November of 1939.

The postal service between the Soviet and German occupied areas of Poland was reliable for only a short period of time; the service tended to be sporadic or non-existent at other times. Thus the first letter from Lolek arrived in Plock on May 17th, 1940-six months after he had left the city. With the outbreak of hostilities between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in June 1941, postal service between the two countries ceased completely, and Celina became Lolek's only link to his relatives. In virtually every letter Dodzia wrote, she commented or inquired about her son.

Illness of Fela Pokrzywa

Fela had suffered a nervous breakdown in October of 1939, and she moved in with her children who lived in Warsaw. Celina, it seems, was very concerned about her older sister and even accused Dodzia of withholding information; Dodzia was, in fact, hiding Fela's illness. Celina suspected that Fela was no longer alive, but Dodzia reassured her by the end of 1940. (Letter #13 -"Since you have such morbid thoughts, I will tell you the whole truth.")

Assistance

The letters seem to alternate between requests and refusals of aid. Dodzia, proud and unyielding, was reluctant to ask for or accept any assistance. In her earlier letters she constantly wrote: "... right now we don't need anything. . .", or "... do not send anything...", etc.

It was only after receiving the first letter from Lolek the previous day that Dodzia does ask her sister Celina to send him some clothing and shoes. (Letter #7) This is the first and only time she asked that Lolek be sent packages and she quickly reverses herself in her next letter: "...Please don't send him anything, because he is doing very well, thank God..."

As the situation deteriorated, on November 28th, 1940 Dodzia wrote (still not asking for herself but rather for the others): "... please do not delay and send a food parcel to Warsaw..." In the censored letter of December 2nd, 1940 she discussed assistance and wrote: "... If it is at all possible to mail parcels, send food and clothing to Warsaw..."

Only at the very end, on August 7th, 1941, while starving in Bodzentyn (Letter #35) she wistfully wrote:

"... I will be candid and admit that food parcels would now be very, very useful... one could sell such packages and buy bread and potatoes from the proceeds..." Even at this point, in extreme need, she does not ask for packages but rather discusses their usefulness. In her last letter (#38), Dodzia wrote:
"... If you could be sure, that if you mailed a package it would safely arrive here, it would be very desired. But I understand that you cannot get such a guarantee, therefore it is not worth the risk. . Thus until the very end, Dodzia discourages her sister from sending aid.

Fela did not request aid for herself, but quite bluntly wrote (#26): "... if you want to help them, then don't pay attention to Dodzia. All here are in need..." She also added in a postscript, "If you could send us a little condensed milk for my beloved two-year-old granddaughter, or any other prepared baby food, that would not spoil, I would be very thankful for it." Itzhak acknowledged receiving some food parcels and asked for more packages.

Lolek Kilbert, who was living in Russia, had some information about the plight of his family and the conditions in Poland. He repeatedly implored his Aunt Celina to help his parents and the other family members in any possible way.

Celina, obviously, attempted to aid her siblings and their families throughout this whole period. She forwarded money and packages to all family members, and as the letters from Warsaw indicate some money and food did reach them.

Impending Doom

All members of the family who were living in Poland perished during the Holocaust - either in the gas chambers of Treblinka or in the Warsaw ghetto. Their fate was sealed in late 1939 when they remained in occupied Poland. They were doomed but they did not know it.

As the early letters indicate, members of the family felt and hoped that they would survive the war. Thus the comments: "... there is no reason to worry about us...", or a more elaborate statement (Letter #6) -
"... Don't worry about us. Thank God, we are alive and that is the most important thing. Since wars do not last forever; we hope that God will allow us to endure these difficult times and to await a better future. I truly believe that our ancestors are watching over us.

In letter #16, Dodzia, elated over Fela's apparent recovery, wrote: "... I now strongly believe that God will allow all of us to survive the war and to enjoy better times...". Even as late as May 1941 (#32), she wrote from Bodzentyn: "...Sometimes one begins to believe that perhaps we shall survive...". In the next letter (August 7th), Dodzia commented: "...we do not hope to survive the war...", and on August 28th she mentioned that "...There is no chance of surviving the war...". In the last letter that Celina received, she wrote: "... God only knows if we will survive the war. By now we lack the strength to endure all this...".

 THE FAMILY BERNSTEIN

The following is a breakdown of the Bernstein family; they are the correspondents and their names are frequently mentioned in the letters and postcards.

Siblings

Fela

Celina

Dodzia

Mania

Itzhak

Spouses

(1)

Herman

Mojzesz

Leon

(2)

Surname

Pokrzywa

Mornel

Kilbert

Karo

Bernstein

Children

Lolek (1)

Lolek (Arthur)

Lolek

Cesia

Twins (3) Unnamed

 

Motek (4)

Max

Motek

 

 

 

Hela (5)

 

 

 

 

(1) Deceased before World War II

(2) Married during war, wife's name unknown

3) Born and deeceased in the Warsaw ghetto

(4) Wife Zenia, born Szlifsztejn' daughter Hanka

(5) Married during the war in the Warsaw ghetto, husband DR. Szlifsztejn, brother of Zenia

All first sons were named Lolek after Rabbi Leib Rakowski, the grandfather of the Bernstein siblings.

 

WE REMEMBER THE BERNSTEIN FAMILY FROM PLOCK!


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