POSTCARDS FROM THERE
By Debbie Shapiro
I was sitting opposite Raizel Lipka, listening in amazement as she began talking: “The story, at least for me, began ten years ago, when my mother, Suri Minzer, was sick with her final illness. I had come to
to spend some time with her. We had so much to speak about, so many loose ends to take care of. She knew that our time was limited and she valued each moment that we had together. One afternoon as we were talking, she suddenly stood up and disappeared into the other room. A few minutes later, she returned, carrying an old, yellowed envelope. 'This is my yerusha to you,' she said. 'It's very precious. It contains our heritage. I want you to keep it and to take care of it.'" America
Raizel Lipka handed me a small black box containing sixty nine carefully preserved postcards, separated by rice paper. These postcards, most crammed with tiny letters enough to fill several pages, were sent to Raizel's mother, Suri Minzer, during the first thirteen months – from June, 1942 to July 1943 - of her imprisonment in the Hannsdorf concentration camp located in
. Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia
I sat listening, spellbound, as Raizel told the story of these priceless documents, which, in unfolding the drama of her extended family's fate become an eternal witness to both the ultimate depravity of man and the Jewish response of emuna and bitachon. The first postcard was one that Suri, nicknamed Sala or Salusha, wrote to her family in the town of
Jaworzna, while incarcerated in and waiting to be transported to Hannsdorf. The postcard was never sent. Sosnowiec
Friday, June 12, 1942
To my beloved parents,
I want to share with you that it is now five in the morning and I find myself standing on the main street in
. We are being transported to Hannsdorf, to a women's camp, and therefore as soon as I arrive I will write to you immediately, maybe even today. Yesterday I wrote to my brother Hertzka [Suri's oldest brother. His wife and four children were murdered. He survived and went on to build a wonderful frum family] I have nothing more to write and it should only be good. Our dear G-d should not betray us. Remain healthy, Sala [Suri's nickname] Sosnowiec
PS I am saying again farewell to you one more time, but I hope that it will not be for long.
When Suri was taken away, the family was living in the town of
, where the situation was still relatively good. They pitied their youngest daughter, Suri, for her bad fortune in being grabbed by the Germans and sent to a work camp. Jaworzna
Excerpt of a postcard written by Suri's father, Shmuel Eliyahu, from Jaworzna:
June 25, 1942
I hope you are fine and to hear only good. I sent you a package of half a loaf bread, a piece of butter and a small jar of jam and three packages of sugar to put in your drink, and a blouse that you can fix so you’ll have what to wear for work. The girls who remained here work in the coal mines. They load the trucks with coal; the work is extremely difficult, but without work it is impossible to survive. We took a picture of our two boys [two grandchildren, Avrumeleh and Srulik]together with their mother, Chaya Rechel [Suri's older sister, Chaya Rechel together with her husband, Wolff, and two children, were all murdered in Auschwitz] and will mail it to you. Let us know when you get them… write to me that you're eating lunch.
Excerpt of a postcard written on July 3, 1942, about a week and a half before Bubby Raizel, Suri's mother, and Sima, Suri's sister, were deported and the remaining members of the family fled to the
… Don't think too much about us. Thank G-d we are all fine. At work I am building a sidewalk on … and Sima put in a request to work…. All the girls …, must work in the quarries where they pour the gravel onto the trucks with small chutes. For this they received 19 Reich marks, and perhaps a bit more. You should eat the meat and be healthy so that you won’t need to take medication for exhaustion. You are not home. You are in the camp, and you are not allowed to be sick... be happy and sing because your work is at least fifty percent easier than here [i.e. stay in the camp and don't try to return to the ghetto]…. We received letters from the three boys [Suri's brothers who were also in work camps] and they do not write that they are homesick. They write that someday we’ll all be together. Yesterday, I sent you a package and also [a package] for Relchen and Reizel [Suri's cousins]. We’re happy with all of the letters we receive, but not with yours, because you are not healthy and you cry the entire day, just like Yocheved [Suri's little niece who constantly whined]… Lots of kisses, and eat everything. Sunday we’ll all write separate postcards.
In the summer of 1942, the Jews of Jaworzna were deported to a separate section in the Bendin ghetto [the dulag]. From there the young people were sent to nearby work camps while the elderly, mothers of small children and youngsters were shipped to
Auschwitz. Suri's sister, Sima, and Suri's mother, Bubby Raizel nee Hoffman, were deported separately from Jaworzna and reunited on Rosh Chodesh Av in Bendin. During the days that they were together, mother and daughter composed several postcards which, although infused with an underlying current of hope, made it clear that they were very aware of their situation. In these postcards, they gently broke the news that they would no longer be able to send Suri packages from home as “they were all taken away and there no longer is a home, but you have a home [the camp]” and encouraged her to do whatever is necessary to survive the war.
Excerpt of a postcard sent by Sima from the Bendin dulag:
July 21, 1942,
To my dearest sister, Suri,
…the situation doesn't look good. The people from Shanov have been brought to Bendin, and many people in
registered to come to Bendin to be sent to work, but meanwhile they have not yet arrived. We're here together with another 500 people from Jaworzna. We belong to the Reich, to Sosnowiec Auschwitz… Tell your friend, Malka Fuchs, that she does not have a home anymore. Her entire family is here, with us – her mother, father and brothers…
Sima's letter was followed by a note from Bubby Raizel:
To the dearest and most loved Salusha,
Don't look for cookies. You don't have a home, so just eat whatever you can… We're all here. We left our homes behind, and all we can think about is to be together with our families again… You should try to stay happy because what is happening today is what has to be. The poor and the rich, the great and the small, we're all in it together. Right now they are picking people to work, and we are dancing at a wedding [mir tantz off a chasunah… sarcastic expression]. Write me a card.
@ @ @
Excerpt of a letter written on Tisha B'av, July 23, 1942, by Bubby Raizel in the Bendin dulag:
Today is a fast day. People are arriving from other places, but there are already plenty of people here and we would have been fine without them [sic]. People who were in hiding were caught and beaten, and then sent here to register, and they registered on their own [sic]. There are also very old people here. I arrived on Saturday, together with the other people from our street, and an additional transport arrived on Tuesday, and then another today… May our dear G-d help that we will be accepted for work, because if you work, that's already considered good. Overnight we have all became equal. You should see the high society here; we all eat from one pot… We have already accepted [our destiny] and are already laughing because every Jew is in the same boat. They [the Nazis] have but one goal, to take everything away from us. G-d willing someday we will be together and we will rejoice together. Don't make yourself problems. Eat everything because you won't accomplish anything as we cannot send you anymore packages.
Suri's older sister, Sima was sent to Schomberg concentration camp in
Silesia, Poland, where she continued to correspond with Suri, while Suri's mother, Bubby Raizel was shipped to Auschwitz. Just before boarding the train to Auschwitz, Bubby Raizel somehow managed to write a postcard to her youngest daughter and find a gentile to mail it to her. The postcard was written in pencil and is looks as though it had been trampled on.
Excerpt from the letter Sima sent to Suri from the Schomberg concentration camp, in response to Suri's accusation that the "allowed" the mother to be sent to
August 9, 1942,
… Friday afternoon when I received your postcard, I was very excited, but then [after I read it] I cried so much that I could even eat my meal. You ask why I didn't go together with our dear mother. But you know our dear mother well, and you know that she would never allow me to accompany her since she wants me to be able to write to you and to all our dear beloved ones. I had no idea that I would be separated from our dear mother forever, but the police and soldiers entered Bendin, grabbed all the young people and rushed them out into the yard. I wasn't even able to say goodbye to our dear mother, nor could I take along my suitcases. I managed to grab one suitcase, but in the other suitcase I had a suit and warm clothing for you… There is no one left to send me things, as I don't have a home anymore, so who will send me things now? When I was at home with our dear family, we were able to send you packages. You knew what the situation was like then, but we still continued to send and to send some more, whatever we could. On the last day [before I was deported] I ran to the post office to send you a package… The day after I was deported, our dear mother arrived in Bendin… when I saw that she was also there, I fainted and the people around me had to revive me. My dear mother said to me, "Why are you so upset that I'm here? You should be happy that I came to see you." But I already understood what that meant, and that we wouldn't remain together, yet there was nothing I could do to prevent it. The dear mother was sent away with everyone… I am not to blame. She said, "We must live with hope and remain strong so that we will merit to survive this war." We should only be zocheh to be together with her, in health…
Meanwhile, the remainder of the family succeeded in escaping the deportations in Jaworzna and fled to the relative safety of the
ghetto, where they continued sending Suri letters. Sosnowiec
Excerpt of a postcard written by Shmuel Eliyahu shortly after he and the remaining members of the family fled to the
My dear, beloved Surela,
I have all the postcards that you wrote. Yesterday I received a card from you and two cards from Simchie [Simcha --Suri's sister, who was in a different camp] …. I beg of you my dear, beloved Surela, please don’t cry. Your beloved mother also requested that we please don’t cry. It won’t take long before we’ll be able to tell each other everything b’simcha. The mother is gone, she willing [sic] fell in together with … [he lists names of relatives and friends who were deported]. I cannot write too many details, but thank G-d I am able to send you a postcard, as Chaya [a close family friend] has no one to write to [he was telling Suri that Chaya's family was deported]… Hashem should help us that we will be able to continue. Our home is no longer a home and we just hope that G-d should help that it shouldn’t be much longer. And that you should be helped and that everything should be good, take care and be strong. Simchie wrote me that she eats everything [in the camp. In a previous letter Suri wrote that she doesn’t want to eat non-kosher food and requested that the family send her food packages.] She [Simchie] realizes that it’s impossible for us to send her a package. I will send regards from you to her, and from her to you. It’s difficult to write to you as the postal service is only once every two weeks. You should just eat everything, until Hashem is able to help.
Excerpt of a postcard sent by Suri's father, Shmuel Eliyahu, from the
August 20, 1942
… Don't be too curious. Baruch Hashem we’re all alive. We all have agmas nefesh about your dear mother [who was deported]. We must turn to Hashem and He will help. Today, people joined the mother [i.e. there was an aktzion]. We are trying to figure out how to send you and Sima a package. I also sent someone to mail you half a pound of bread. Don’t worry about us. We are praying to G-d for the mother, but don’t cry, she’s not alone… Don’t write silly things, just be healthy, and with Hashem's help you’ll return home.
Although at first the family in the ghetto somehow managed to send Suri packages, eventually the situation worsened and she, as well as her sister Sima, ended up sending their family in the ghetto both money and ration cards to keep starvation at bay.
… Yesterday, we received the 29 Reich marks that you sent us [Suri knit socks and gloves and sent the money she earned to her family in the ghetto]… Here we receive only four Reich Marks for our work… How many times have I asked you for the name of the pills that we used to take for pain [Shmuel Eliyahu suffered from a terrible toothache and was hinting that she send him this medicine]. Maybe today or tomorrow we’ll be able to send you a package. It’s been four months since we received a letter from your brother.
….If the redemption doesn't come immediately, we'll never see it…
Excerpt of a letter written by Suri's older sister, Rochelle, in the
ghetto. She and her husband, Wolff, and their children were all killed by the Nazis. Sosnowiec
February 21, 1943
We’re living through terrible times. You asked why I was at the police station. I can’t write everything, but thank G-d we're still here… we have no idea what will be in the end and we need a tremendous yeshua. That's why I'm writing you now. Remain calm... Hashem will not leave us. We're not alone. All the Yidden have the same tzuros. I am only worried about my children. If not for them, my husband and I would go to a work camp, but we want to go [she realized where they would be sent] together with our children. I can just hope that they will not take them away from us. Therefore, I beg you to always remember us… Be calm, we all send you our heartfelt regards. Be healthy. Our sister-in-law, Necha [she was married to Ephraim. He made a pidyon haben for his son while in the labor camp. He survived the war and went on to build a frum family. His wife and baby were murdered], gave birth to a son, and may it bring mazel to all of us.
At the bottom of the postcard, Rochelle's husband, Wolff, added:
… every day I think that they will take me away, may Hashem help that this will be the end of our suffering… Let's hope that we will continue to be together until the yeshua. The children are wonderful Avrumala [age 3] is already a grown up boy and Yisrael Moshe is charming… Hashem should help that we can be mechanech them easily, everything is for the best…
The last postcard sent by Shmuel Eliyahu was dated July, 14, 1943.
My dearest Surela,
I am already considered healthy, thank G-d, and with G-d's help I will soon be able to leave the hospital. The doctor told me that I can have the bandages changed at the clinic, and therefore I don't need to be in the hospital. Hertzka is in Gleiwitz [a subcamp of
Auschwitz. The oldest sibling, he survived and went on to remarry and raise a wonderful, frum family]. We received regards from him a few days ago, and he signed on the card. Hudji and her dear children and Chaya Rechel with her husband and dear children are all well. We need the yeshua. We hope it will be immediately. We live with in great fear, may G-d have rachmanus on us and may we be helped with everything that is good. We have not yet received the money that you sent us. What address did you send it to? Be healthy and strong. We send you lots of kisses and regards with our whole hearts. With blessings that the help will come immediately,
Shmuel Eliyahu Minzer.
PS we just received regards from Michael [an unmarried brother. He survived the war and went on to build a frum family].
"When I was growing up," Raizel said, "my parents rarely spoke about those years and whenever my mother did mention her parents, her eyes would well with tears. Like most holocaust survivors, my parents were busy building and creating, and didn't want to dwell in the past. They hid the postcards' existence from us. The only time that I ever saw them was on an erev Yom Kippur, when I was eleven, but I didn't understand their significance. I walked into the house to find my mother sitting at the table, crying, while reading some old postcards. I asked her what had happened. She replied that it was nothing as she quickly put the envelope containing the cards away. Although I realized that she was hiding something, I had no idea what.
"I first heard of the postcards ten years ago, when my mother gave them to me as a yerusha," Raizel continued. "She was seventy five years old at the time and recovering from major surgery. I had traveled from my home in
Jerusalem to to spend time with her. During that visit, my mother also showed me the diary that she had kept before the war and read excerpts of it to me, as well as the siddur that she had brought with her into the camp. Both the siddur and the diary remained in New York and I have no idea what happened to them. They probably got lost when my parents' moved." New York
"After my mother passed away," Raizel continued, "my father and I began deciphering the postcards. Many of the postcards alluded to things taking place either in the ghetto or in the work camp. Since my father was also my mother's first cousin [and his brother married my mother's older sister, Sima] he knew many of the people personally. Since my mother shared her experiences with him, he knew was able to understand what the postcards were alluding to."
Suri's family had to find original ways to get delicate messages past the German censor. Suri had always been a finicky eater, so in his letters, Suri's father, Shmuel Eliyahu, was constantly urging her to eat everything so that she would remain healthy and survive. Suri, on the other hand, continuously begged him to send her additional packages. Since Shmuel Eliyahu couldn't possibly write her the truth -- that the situation in the ghetto was desperate and the family was starving – he responded, "I'm not sending you now, but I will when I can. Baruch Hashem we have tons of food here. We're eating lukshen with chicken soup [shechita was not allowed and no meat was available, therefore it was obvious to the Suri that there was nothing to eat] and salami with butter." In a different letter, Shmuel Eliyahu writes, "Here we eat mizelach-lechem" -- mice-bread, in other words, enough bread to satiate a mouse. Elsewhere, he writes, "We consume fresh air for breakfast…"
Several postcards were in response to the Germans offer to allow the girls at the Hannsdorf work camp to pay for the privilege of visiting the ghetto. Suri begged her father to send her the money, but he was unable to do so. Meanwhile, Suri managed to get hold of some wool and started knitting gloves and hats and selling them to the other girls in the camp with the hope of eventually earning enough to money to be able to return home for a few days. But when the first group of girls arrived at the ghetto gate, the Nazis immediately murdered them. Shmuel Eliyahu was frantic; he knew how much his daughter wanted to visit the family and he had to warn her not to. So he wrote her that the girls had arrived – and he named most of them – and that they were "warmly greeted by their mothers, who came out to meet them," hoping that since Suri knew that the girls' mothers had all been killed, she would grasp what he was trying to tell her. But just to make sure that she got the hint, he continued, "We hear that the food in the camp is great, that if you want, they give you a double portion. You lead a life of luxury, so don't even think of coming home!" Since Shmuel Eliyahu could only send one postcard every two weeks, he asked other people, who had no one to whom to send a postcard, if they, too, could warn her of the danger. In the end, Suri received three different postcards, all mailed within hours of each other. Considering what it must have taken for Shmuel Eliyahu to track down people willing to give up their precious postcard – he probably had to pay for it too – we can catch a glimpse of the overriding terror he must have felt.
THE POSTCARDS SURVIVE
Suri received her last postcard on July, 14, 1943. Two weeks later, on August 1, 1943, the
ghetto was liquidated. Since there was no need to continue pretending that life was normal, the Germans confiscated the girls' personal belongings and placed them in the attic. Sosnowiec
Toward the end of the war, the Germans liquidated most of the camps and forced the inmates to evade liberation with the infamous death march. The lagger fehrer, the gentile woman who headed the Hannsdorf concentration camp, did not want the girls to leave and convinced the camp commander that the German Army still needed the items that they were producing. She continued delaying the death march until the Russian forces liberated the camp.
"On the morning of May 8, 1945," Raizel Lipka continued, "the girls went outside for roll call as they did every morning and discovered that all the Germans had fled. They desperately started searching the camp for food. In one of the building's attics, instead of food they discovered boxes containing all the things that they had brought when they first arrived—their clothes, letters, my mothers siddur and her diary. It was a real miracle."
Suri, her sister Sima, and her three brothers, Hertzka, Ephraim and Michael survived the war and went on to create beautiful Torah families. Suri married her first cousin, Ephraim Minzer, and her sister, Sima, married Shmuel Minzer, Ephraim Minzer's brother Suri passed away 20 Adar Bais, 2003 at the age of 78.
During the last few weeks of Suri's life, she continually told her daughter that she’d live ‘biz ah hindred.’ She died few minutes after her hundredth descendent was born. All her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are G-d-fearing Jews. Those many strong links in the golden chain of Klal Yisrael are her true legacy. The postcards she left behind will assure her that her descendants, and all of Klal Yisrael, never forget the mesirus nefesh, emunah and bitachon, the spiritual valor and trust in G-d, which are the foundations of our eternal people.
Very little has been written about
's complex network of Nazi labor camps. Until the summer of 1943, the inmates were allowed to keep their belongings, wear their own clothes and even earn money, which they were able to send back to their families in the ghettoes. By Fall of 1943, Operation Reinhard, the code name for the Nazi plan to murder Polish Jewry came to an end and there was no one left for the inmates to send their postcards to. Poland
Although at first people pitied those who had been grabbed by the Nazis and incarcerated the labor camps, as the situation in the ghetto degenerated and people began to realize where the trains were headed, the Jews in the ghetto vied for the privilege of being sent to a labor camp rather than forced to board the train to
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