A suitcase full of memories

Correspondence from nine family members offers a tragic rare firsthand glimpse into wartime Poland.

dola stark 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
dola stark 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 286 pages; $28 Surely God's most tender and loving gift to those who have survived immeasurable suffering and trauma is the ability to split ourselves almost in two, creating a past life and a present one, often held together only by the most tenuous of threads. Joseph Hollander left Poland for America in 1939 at 34, equipped only with a law degree and a sense of dreadful foreboding about the fate of the Jews. He spent the next few years fighting within the American legal system for refuge. Left behind in Poland were his mother, three sisters and their husbands and two young nieces, all eventually butchered by the Nazis. Hollander had pleaded with them to leave with him, but they had decided to remain. By almost all accounts, Hollander was a smart, gentle and self-controlled man who was not prone to hysterics. But when he returned to Germany in 1945 as a US soldier, he was shell-shocked by what he saw, claiming that "the history of the 'dark' Middle Ages can be called a fairy tale in comparison with the 'heroism' of the 20th century. They [Germans] have absolutely passed the Japanese in cruelty and inhuman treatment. I don't have a vicious nature and never had, but for them, to punish them, we have to find something to repay them for what they have done. But I am afraid the penalty which they will pay will be in no comparison to what they have done." Fast forward 41 years - Hollander and his beloved wife Vita, an American-born Jewish woman whom he met and married shortly after arriving in the US, were tragically killed while driving near their home in Westchester County, New York. Richard Hollander, their only child and a journalist in Baltimore, was left with the task of sorting through their belongings. It was in his parents' home that he came across a briefcase filled with stacks of letters addressed to his father, Joseph. They were written between November 1939 and December 1941 and brought to life for Hollander the family he had never known. Richard Hollander had grown up in a household that avoided any discussion about the Holocaust and the losses his father suffered. He remembers that his mother took her job as gatekeeper very seriously. She would screen books and magazines and movies for Holocaust content to ensure that her husband was not exposed to it. One time, she erred and the family went to see Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 drama The Deputy about pope Pius XII's deliberate silence during the Nazi slaughter. Ten minutes after the movie started, his father abruptly left his seat. But Hollander also recalls many cherished moments growing up as the only beloved son of two devoted parents who shared an unusually strong marital bond that he describes wistfully as one filled with "extraordinary dedication, mutual respect, and an unparalleled love." During the years following his parents' deaths in 1986, Hollander found himself struggling with mounting regrets that he had never persuaded his father to tell him more about the past. He decided to publish the letters he found in his father's home explaining that "these were letters from my father's immediate family in Poland - the people he never mentioned, the relatives I never knew, and a world from which he endeavored to shield his family, friends, and undoubtedly, himself." Hollander collaborated on this project with two Holocaust scholars. Christopher R. Browning is the author of seven books on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, two of which have won the National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust category. Nechama Tec is the author of seven books. Her Resilience and Courage, Women, Men, and the Holocaust won the National Jewish Book Award. Browning and Tec each write chapters that provide historical context and background that illuminates the conditions under which these letters were written in Nazi-occupied Poland. The Hollander family were assimilated Jews, who comprised approximately 10 percent of the Poland's 3.3 million Jews before the war. Joseph had attended the prestigious Jagiellonian University in Krakow and was director of the prosperous Polish Travel Bureau. He owned real estate in the city. Hollander is still not certain what prompted his father to leave when he did. There is no amount of professional explanation that can prepare readers for the barrage of overwhelming sadness that will engulf them as they read these letters, a chorus of beautiful and desperate Jewish voices trying to hold on to each other and their humanity amid the madness. Letter writing is a very personal and intimate act that has been lost for the most part in our electronic age of instant communication. As Joseph Hollander was struggling in New York to try to find a way to save his family, they were holding on to hope that perhaps he could. He did manage to secure some sort of papers for them to travel to Nicaragua but they proved fruitless. His mother's letters are overflowing with love for him, and fear for her other children. His sisters are all remarkably different; the eldest stern and sometimes chastising, the middle one religious and the mother of two beautiful girls, and the youngest feisty and rebellious and self-obsessed. As time passed and things worsened, his sister Klara wrote, "I ask God to help us to be together. When will God send us the so desired peace? Those who are alive envy the dead ones now..." Hollander dedicates his book "to Joseph Hollander - who left us their story and forged his own." But the reader senses that is was really the dark cloud of pain that enveloped his father and haunted him. Hollander wanted to know more about his father, who he was before his birth, and why it was that he often seemed so mysteriously sad. His immersion into the letters and the history of the times and circumstances under which they were written seems to have helped him understand more about the world his father left and lost, and the family he himself never got to know. And in embracing his father's tortured past, he somehow seems to have moved closer to him.