December 27, 2007
A different attic’s holocaust secrets
Joseph Hollander left the untold story of his life packed up in a suitcase, waiting to be found. |
His son, Richard Hollander, found the suitcase in the attic of his parents' Westchester house in 1986, after they were both killed in a tragic car accident. The younger Hollander uncovered piles of letters, neatly stacked, from a family he didn't know -- his father's mother, three sisters and their husbands and children --written from Poland between November 1939 and December 1941, to Joseph, who managed to leave in 1939 and make his way to the United States. Each envelope had a large hand-stamped Nazi imprint on the back.
When Richard Hollander, the only child of his parents, found the suitcase, he was still so devastated by his parents' sudden death that he packed up the contents again and stashed it in his own attic for more than a decade. Also packed inside, along with the letters, were files and court papers involving the U.S. government's efforts to deport Joseph when he arrived as an undocumented refugee, a case Richard hadn't heard about. Richard also found photographs, his father's unfinished hand-written autobiography with a preface to his grandchildren -- he didn't know his father had been working on this -- and also a stack of letters between his parents during their courtship and marriage.
"Every Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family's Correspondence from Poland" edited by Christopher R. Browning, Richard S. Hollander and Nechama Tec (Cambridge University Press), is the story of Joseph Hollander's experience and that of his family. Richard Hollander, a former newspaper and television reporter who now heads a communications firm in Baltimore, spearheaded the project and wrote Joseph's story. He commissioned translations from Polish and German of the mostly hand-written letters. Browning and Tec, who are scholars and authors of important works about the Holocaust, lent their support to the book and contribute historical and analytical essays, providing context for the letters.
The power of the book lies in the letters, which depict day-to-day family life and concerns amid growing uncertainty and stress. These letters are very different from the many memoirs of survivors written after the war looking back at their experiences, for as the Hollander family was writing to Joseph, they didn't know the final chapters of the story. The letters, written by three generations of a family, are not about political events, nor do they provide detailed descriptions of the suffering the family endured, as the writers were mindful of postal censors; sometimes they wrote about fears and hopes in coded language. Theirs is a one-sided correspondence, for although Joseph -- Joziu, as he is referred to in the letters -- was meticulous about saving the letters he received, none of his responses exist.
"History is usually written by the victors, not the victims," Richard Hollander said in an interview recently. "The losers don't get much chance to write history."
When he first showed the letters to a curator at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., he was told that they were a historical treasure.
"There are two parallel Holocaust stories. My father is in the U.S., facing deportation and probably death, and his family is in Cracow, facing separation and probably death," Richard Hollander said.
While Joseph was trying to secure his own entry, he was also trying to arrange his family's emigration. His great frustration was that although he was able to save people through his travel business while he was still in Europe, he couldn't save his own family.
Although a journalist by trade and an inquisitive person, Richard never spoke to his father about his experience during the Holocaust. Richard says he doesn't understand why he didn't inquire, but he somehow knew that his father, a man of great integrity, didn't want to talk. His mother served as gatekeeper for her husband on everything related to the Holocaust.
"Mostly this is the story of my father, a man who was a victim of the Holocaust, although he never saw a ghetto, experienced the dehumanizing conduct of Nazi overseers, nor witnessed the indescribable atrocities," Richard Hollander writes.
The book's title is drawn from a letter written by Berta Hollander, Joseph's mother, in May 1941. For her, as she awaited her son's responses, "Every day lasts a year."
In another letter, his sister Klara writes, "During our land exploring journey we lost most of our belongings but may this be our only sacrifice. I thank God that we are all together and we all help each other as much as we can. We all work and this is good since we don't have too much time to think, and time runs quickly. I don't have to write you that your letters are our joy, but we don't get too many of them. Are we going to see each other?"
Richard Hollander explains that their "land exploring journey" was a failed attempt to leave Cracow. The book includes 300 entries from different family members, each with their own outlook and vision. Sometimes the different writers share a single piece of paper, and they often make references to the letters they are receiving from Joseph. At times, they ask him to stop sending packages, explaining that they don't need anything and have been getting some uninvited guests. Richard Hollander assumes that these guests were the Nazis.
After finding the material about his father's case in the suitcase, Richard Hollander contacted the National Archives and New York Federal Court, and received hundreds of pages of documents. Joseph and his wife arrived in New York in December 1939, on board an Italian ship named Vulcania. They had first sailed from Naples to Portugal, their original destination, but they weren't allowed to disembark, as they didn't have proper documentation; they then sailed on to New York where they were considered stateless and illegal.
Richard Hollander was recently told that his father was "the Elian Gonzalez of 1940," referring to the young Cuban boy whose deportation attracted much attention in 2000. Included in the materials are letters from Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of Congress and other high-ranking officials. The resourceful and determined Joseph, who was trained as a lawyer in Poland, spent years in litigation. His marriage fell apart in 1942. In 1943, he was granted citizenship, and then soon after joined the U.S. Army. Before being shipped to Europe, he met the woman who would become his new wife. He searched for members of his family, but none survived. Browning asked Hollander to answer several questions about his father; the most challenging was to figure out how his father reconciled himself to life after the war, when he had lost his family members. Richard Hollander credits his mother (Joseph's second wife), who was born to American parents and had an optimistic attitude about life; she created another world for Joseph and gave him a second life.
In the book, Browning, the Frank Porter Graham professor of History at the University of North Carolina and author of "The Origins of the Final Solution" and "Ordinary Men," writes about German occupation policies; Tec, professor emerita of Sociology at the University of Connecticut and author of "Resilience and Courage," writes abut the wartime situation of the Jews of Cracow.
Richard Hollander now has the letters in a safe, and plans to donate them to an institution so that scholars will have access to them. The letters are annotated by Browning and by Richard's son, Craig Hollander, whose own award-winning essay about the letters, for a history course at Columbia University, helped set this book project in motion. Craig Hollander is now enrolled in a Ph.D. program in American history.
Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.