November 8, 2011
Postcards From Hell: Nazi-era documents shed light on fate of families
After arriving by cattle car at Auschwitz, many Jews were handed postcards, with the uniform message thoughtfully prepared by the Nazis.
“Things are going well and we are enjoying ourselves,” the prisoner wrote. They added their signatures and the addresses of relatives still in ghettos or labor camps, thus lulling the others into the belief that they had nothing to fear when their turn for deportation to the east arrived.
The Germans dubbed this diabolical deception “Operation Briefkarte” (Operation Postcard), and some of the original correspondence is included in a rare collection throwing new light on the paper trail of the Holocaust bureaucracy.
Designated as the Edward Victor Philatelic Holocaust Collection, consisting of some 2,000 stamps, letters, ID cards, visas, currency receipts and other assorted documents of the Nazi era, it was recently donated by Victor to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH).
Valued at $260,000, the collection was painstakingly acquired and organized by Victor, a retired Los Angeles lawyer, over a 30-year period. In many cases, the content tracks the fate of a given Jewish family from the very beginning of the Nazi regime in 1933 to its demise in 1945.
A prime example is the Lachmann family of Munich, comprising father Julius, mother Meta and son Hans.
Included, for instance, are the father’s birth certificate, his award of the Iron Cross while fighting for Germany in World War I, and documents certifying completion of Talmud Torah and cantorial studies, and release from Nazi imprisonment in 1939.
Later, there are pathetic letters begging for a job offer and visa to work in the United States, and finally a 1949 notice from the International Tracing Service, reporting that Julius and Meta Lachmann were deported to the Riga ghetto, where hardly anyone survived.
Their son Hans was able to get to America in 1939, taking along the family’s early documents and preserving the later correspondence.
Victor also pointed out that concentration camp inmates could correspond with outside relatives, though under precise restrictions, such as no more than two letters incoming and outgoing per month.
For instance, regulations at Dachau specified that letters by prisoners “must be legible … and there may only be 15 lines per side,” adding that “[R]elease requests from ‘protective custody’ to the camp management are useless.”
E. Randol Schoenberg, president of LAMOTH, commented that the Victor collection represents written and photo information on an “enormous swath” of hundreds of concentration and labor camps, subcamps and ghettos throughout Europe, as well as refugee internment camps in Britain, Switzerland and Canada.
In addition, Schoenberg said, the new material “fills holes and adds spice” to the museum’s existing exhibits and archives, while representing “the first non-monetary donation” since the opening of the new museum in October 2010.
Mark A. Rothman, the museum’s executive director, evaluated the new documentation as “drilling down to specific, minute details while framing how the events of the Holocaust happened. … I hope that after seeing the collection, visitors will have a better sense of everyone’s personal responsibility in preventing future Holocausts.”
Vladimir Melamed, director of archives and library, said that the current archives at LAMOTH are categorized both by themes and time lines. “About 99 percent of all our holdings are digitalized and accessible through on-site computers at the museum,” Melamed said.
Some material is available on home computers through the museum’s Web site.
Victor got the stamp-collecting bug as a youngster, initially concentrating on stamps from Palestine during the Turkish and British administrations, and after 1948 from Israel.
As he grew older, he started reading about the Holocaust, and “eventually I merged my philatelic and Holocaust interests,” he said.
Victor soon discovered that there were many people, particularly in Europe, who shared his combined interests, and he became a regular at auctions, including the largest one held in Switzerland five years ago.
“It is not just Jews who are interested in this field, but many Germans and other Europeans, and one of the largest collections is at the Cardinal Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History in Weston, Mass.,” he said.
LAMOTH’s roots go back to 1961, when a group of survivors pooled their personal mementos and artifacts to start the museum collection. “We were the first Holocaust museum, following Yad Vashem, “ Schoenberg noted.
In its new, modern facility in Pan Pacific Park, the museum welcomed some 30,000 visitors, including many public school students, in its first year, he said.
During a quick tour of the museum’s 15,000 items, Schoenberg pointed out collections of oral history interviews, Los Angeles newspaper headlines from 1933 on, a photo gallery of top Nazis, and videos of ghettos and concentration camps. There are also cartoons drawn by Theresienstadt inmates, photos of displaced persons camps, resistance and recue attempts, Holocaust music and musicians, and, domestically, the internment of Japanese-Americans.
Outdoor boards with 1.2 million holes, where visitors can place notes, commemorate the children murdered in the Holocaust.
“There are still so many aspects of the Holocaust which are practically unknown,” Schoenberg said. “Who has heard of the Maly Trostenets extermination camp near Minsk? Yet, 65,000 Jews were murdered there.”