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Letters reveal voices from the Holocaust

The Baltimore Sun

It was 1986, and Richard Hollander was emotionally spent after cleaning out the home of his parents, who had died suddenly in an automobile accident a few weeks before.

He pulled a nondescript suitcase out of a crawl space and almost threw it on the trash heap with the other luggage. But he felt that there was something inside and opened it.

Inside were row after neat row of envelopes, along with his father's Polish passport and other documents. Each envelope contained a letter written in words he could not understand, Polish and German. But what was on the outside was unmistakable - the swastika and eagle of Nazi Germany.

What he found would lead Hollander on a profound journey of discovery into the story of his father, Joseph - a man he knew so well, yet did not know at all.

It would lead Hollander to learn of the secret dilemma of his father's life - the amazing resilience and persistence that allowed Joseph to escape the Holocaust and live in the United States, and his inability to celebrate that because of what had happened to his family thousands of miles away.

It would lead to a book, Every Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family's Correspondence from Poland, just published by Cambridge University Press.

"I don't feel like I wrote this story," says Hollander, 59, a former journalist who reported for the News American and WBAL-TV. "I am just the conduit for it."

The story contained in the letters was an extraordinary chronicle, offering quiet testimony to the desperate plight of Joseph Hollander's relatives trapped in the Holocaust in Poland and of his tireless efforts to rescue them.

"Dear beloved brother," wrote Mania, one of those trapped, to Joseph. "We all sit like on a volcano, our nerves are almost used up. So many months we live in uncertainty and new worries keep coming up. Please feed us with some good news."

From the day he first viewed the letters, Hollander was aware that he had found a part of his father's past that was almost never talked about in his household as he grew up. Traumatized by his parents' deaths, Hollander was not ready to deal with that.

A decade later, he took the letters to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

"They told me I had an historic treasure," he says.

Guided by Holocaust scholar Christopher Browning of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Hollander began a quest that ultimately uncovered an extraordinary chapter in the life of his father, who manged to get out of Poland after the German invasion and get to America without proper papers at a time when that was considered impossible.

Hollander contacted the National Archives and asked if they happened to have anything about Joseph Arthur Hollander. The surprising answer came back - hundreds of pages. The same was true of the federal court in New York: transcript after transcript of hearings.

It turned out that Joseph Hollander had caused a significant public stir as an illegal Jewish immigrant fighting to stay in the United States as the Holocaust blazed across Europe.

There was a note from Eleanor Roosevelt, letters from a U.S. senator and two congressmen. There were articles from The New York Times.

"One person told me that my father was the Elian Gonzalez of 1940," says Hollander, referring to the Cuban boy whose deportation attracted widespread attention in 2000.

Indeed, Joseph Hollander, a lawyer, had just the training, experience and temperament not only to escape the Nazis, but also to put up an astonishing battle against an American bureaucracy determined to deport him.

Born in 1906, Joseph ran a successful travel agency in Krakow. His passport shows trips to Berlin and London in 1939, perhaps where he saw what would happen to Jews in Hitler's way. When the invasion came, he and his wife, Felicia, went to the border with Romania and got visas.

"He waited there for 10 days, to see if there would be a safe haven in eastern Poland," Browning says. "Once the Russians invaded that part of Poland, he crossed immediately."

By that time, Joseph had arranged transport for other fleeing Jews. He saved scores of lives. But his family had not heeded his warnings. They remained in Krakow.

Joseph and Felicia made their way to Italy, obtained visas for Portugal and boarded an Italian ship sailing to Lisbon. But there they were refused entry, perhaps because they had not paid the right people the right bribes. The ship ended up in New York on Dec. 6, 1939, and Joseph and Felicia became undocumented aliens in the land of the free.

They could easily have been kept on board the ship when it sailed back to Italy. But a relative living in New York went to court. Injunctions were issued. They stayed. Joseph began writing letters, including one to Eleanor Roosevelt. And he put his legal training to work.

"He quickly became adept in the American legal system," says Browning.

Years of litigation followed. "It is amazing how much time and money the United States government invested in trying to send this Jew back to Poland where - and no one disputed this - he faced certain death," Hollander says.

Meanwhile, the correspondence with his family in Poland began. What did not survive are Joseph's letters to them. But their replies make clear the enormous efforts he was going through to try to get them out.

"To have a complete run of letters from an entire family, from three generations, almost intact, for a period of more than two years during the Holocaust is a real rarity," says Browning.

"It is a portrait of a family's response to what the Germans were doing, of their attempt to cope with an impossible situation," says Nechama Tec, a sociologist who has written on the Holocaust and contributed to Every Day Lasts a Year.

The title comes from a letter written by Berta Hollander, Joseph's mother, on May 26, 1941, lamenting the wait for another letter from her son.

The letters - there are more than 300 entries from different people, some on the same sheet of paper - begin within days of Joseph's escape. The last was sent Dec. 23, 1941. Besides his mother, other correspondents include Joseph's three sisters, their husbands and two nieces.

Many of the letters are about mundane family matters. Some contain coded references to the Nazis and the Russians. There is a subtle but growing sense of desperation - and hunger - as the correspondence goes on. All along, Joseph is doing everything he can to secure an escape for his family.

"One question is what the correspondence did to those who were writing the letters," says Tec, author of Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, a book about Jews who fought the Nazis from a base in Belorussia.

"I think what they got out of it was hope, the feeling that they would be protected," says Tec who, as a young girl lived with a Catholic family in Poland to survive the Holocaust. "[Hope] is a very precious commodity."

That is evident in this letter, written on Dec. 9, 1940, by Joseph's niece, Genka, after he had secured visas to Nicaragua for his family.

Dear Uncle,

These papers fell like stars from the sky! Viva Nicaragua! We simply lost our heads out of joy. ... I would like to know something more specific about the land of our future. Is it a land that flows with milk and honey? What language do they speak there? Everybody congratulates us and is jealous that we have such an Uncle. You deserve a million kisses from the whole family.


In a few weeks, the family learned that the occupation government would not recognize the visas.

As he wrote, Joseph kept up his own fight. Coming to his aid was a regulation that said he must be returned on a ship of the same nationality as the one he arrived on. Once Italy became entangled in World War II, no Italian ships called on New York.

Eventually, Joseph took advantage of a new regulation and secured his legal status by joining the U.S. Army in 1943. His marriage to Felicia had broken up. In 1945, just before shipping overseas, Joseph married Vita Fischman, Richard's mother.

Joseph returned to Europe as a soldier. He reached Berlin, where he went into Hitler's office and smashed a corner off the dictator's desk for a souvenir. He wrote letters to Vita that almost celebrated the destruction of Germany.

Mainly, he searched for his relatives. "It's like trying to find a small object in an ocean," he wrote his wife.

Joseph did learn that his mother had died of natural causes in Krakow, with her family at her side. He went to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where he had heard one of his sisters had been taken. "I will spare you and therefore not write about all that I learned and I saw," he wrote in one letter. In another, he wrote, "I can't say everything in a letter. Just one remark, poor people and poor world, where this can happen."

In the end, he found none of his family. They all perished.

When Hollander began his quest, Browning had asked him a question: How had Joseph reconciled himself to his failure to get his family out? There was no real answer.

"I think it was my mother," Hollander says. "She screened everything that came into the house about the Holocaust - books, magazines, newspapers, movies - and kept it from him if she thought it wasn't right."

Joseph went on to be a successful travel agent in a small town north of New York City. No one knows why their car - Vita was driving - veered off the road and crashed into a storefront, killing them instantly on Oct. 22, 1986. Richard was their only child.

"He saved these letters for a reason," Richard says. "He could have thrown them away. But I think he wanted this story told. It was up to me to see that it was."

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