“You will never be able to understand it, even if God forbid, you were there. You will not comprehend or be able to comprehend the sadism and lack of humanity...In March 1942, Mutti [mother] left with the transport to Terezin [Theresienstadt], in April the same year, Fritz and myself [sic] followed her. We stayed with mother for a short time. Then mother was taken to Poland. Nedianko we have no mother, she was burned and gassed in the gas chambers. This great and good woman was taken from us in such a cruel way” – Unsigned letter to Ned Spindel, October 13, 1945
Just a few months after the end of World War II, a woman in Brno (today the Czech Republic) wrote an unsigned letter to her brother Ned Spindel in what was then Mandatory Palestine. Ned gave the treasured letter to Yad Vashem, along with a violin that he had from that time.
Like many similar letters, this one gave a brief and wrenching account of the author’s experiences and of the tragic deaths of her loved ones. Typical of such letters, the author prefaced different aspects of her account by emphasizing how difficult it was to describe what she had experienced.
She next related how she and her husband Fritz were deported to Auschwitz. Fritz was murdered there, and she was taken for forced labor.
She described having her hair shaved and being given camp clothing, and the brutality of work in the camp.
Later she was taken to Kurzbach, Germany to dig trenches. She decried the horrible conditions in Kurzbach – the meager, inedible food, the hard labor and gratuitous violence of the guards. When the prisoners were being marched from Kurzbach to the Gross Rosen camp, she wrote that she managed to hide and eventually was liberated by “the Russians.”
Back in Brno at the end of May 1945, she expressed her feelings of desolation: “The city was completely destroyed. I walked along the streets I loved so much and cried. I cried about my parents, my husband, my missing brothers, my friends – everyone was gone, dead, nothing survived – only two small Franciscan houses.”
A heartbreaking letter, yet the author was unknown. Who was she? What was the rest of her story? About whom did she write? Ten years ago, even with arduous detective work uncovering this information would have been difficult, if not impossible. But today, given Yad Vashem’s vast holdings – some 4.5 million names of victims, 179 million pages of documents, 125,000 survivor testimonies and 150,000 publications, and the databases for this material – it is possible to piece together the unknown details about the letter and its author.
The first essential information that I uncovered was through an examination of Yad Vashem’s central database of Shoah victims’ names. Since I knew who received the letter, Ned Spindel, I searched to see if he had submitted Pages of Testimony about his family.
He had. He submitted pages for his parents and his brother-in-law Fritz. I learned that Ned’s mother was named Sarah and her husband Mendel.
Just as the author of the letter had written, the Pages of Testimony confirmed that Sarah died in Auschwitz, and Mendel, who is not mentioned in the letter, was apparently killed in Brno in 1941. The page on Fritz gives his family name, Rysavy, and his wife’s name, Syme Zosim Rysavy, née Spindel. Syme is the author of the letter.
In addition to their names, I now knew the dates and places of birth for Fritz, Sarah and Mendel.
I continued my search and next discovered that Ned Spindel’s story was also recorded as part of the “testimony” that accompanies material in the Yad Vashem Museum artifacts collection. Ned recounted that he, his brother Michael and his parents were invited by their sister Syme to a special dinner shortly after the Nazis occupied Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. She urged her brothers to flee, saying she would care for their elderly parents. Ned and Michael fled to Poland, Ned taking with him his precious violin.
In Krakow he became known for his musical talent. One day Ned was summoned to the British consulate and an official offered him a visa and scholarship to study at the Royal Music Academy in London.
Ned agreed, but only on condition that his brother Michael also be given a visa. So before the outbreak of the war, both young men reached safe haven in the United Kingdom.
Their sister Syme had saved their lives by urging them to flee.
As she wrote in the letter, Syme and Fritz were deported to Theresienstadt in April 1942.
But the search was not complete.
Scouring through the immense digitized archive of the International Tracing Service (ITS), which is also housed in the Yad Vashem Archives, my colleague Zvi Bernhardt uncovered additional details. Syme and Fritz remained in Theresienstadt until September 1944, when they were deported to Auschwitz. Fritz was murdered, probably immediately upon arrival, but Syme remained in the notorious camp until December 1944. At that time she was sent to Kurzbach to dig the trenches she mentioned in her letter. The event she related – escaping and hiding during a forced march to the Gross-Rosen camp – happened in February 1945. The document trail for Syme’s story ends in Toronto, Canada. She reached Canada in August 1950 and in 1958 she summarized the places she had been and her personal chronology during the Shoah for legal documents.
Suddenly the letter to Ned had context: the people had not only names, but additional depth; and it was clear that Syme was not only a survivor of the Shoah, but a woman of valor. She helped rescue her two brothers and bravely took an enormous risk when she saved herself from the hellish last weeks of a death march.
Discovering the names of the victims and survivors of the Shoah is only the first step in uncovering their stories. Gathering documents and publications about them, cataloging them, preserving them and making them available to the public is the next. The last, and no less crucial step, is putting the pieces of the puzzle together, restoring the identity and human dimensions of the Jews who were swept up in the maelstrom of Shoah. Ultimately this will help us to remember them not as generic victims, but as real people who walked the face of the earth and were subjected to cruelty that beggars the imagination, simply because they were Jews.
The author is the director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of Conscripted Slaves: Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front, Yad Vashem 2013, and co-editor with Dr.
Iael Nidam-Orvieto of a forthcoming anthology of letters written by Holocaust survivors and Allied soldiers after liberation, to be published by Yad Vashem.