Until six weeks ago, Ann Bernstein never looked inside the piano bench that had belonged to her mother, Ruth Sherman, who died in 1987.
But when Bernstein at last opened the bench in January to store a favorite song, “Every Time We Say Goodbye” by Cole Porter, she discovered something quite unexpected.
“I came upon an old, brown manila envelope which said, ‘Berl Munz Letters.’ The minute I saw it, I knew exactly what I was going to find in there,” she told NJ Jewish News on March 4 in an interview from her home in Mendham.
Munz, her mother’s cousin, had been stranded in Cracow, Poland, trying desperately to help his family survive the Nazi occupation. The letters, spanning a period from 1934 to 1947, chronicle the family’s increasing loss and isolation under German persecution, the family’s frank appeals to their American relatives for help, and their difficult exile as refugees in French-controlled Morocco.
Seeing the envelope transported Bernstein back more than 60 years, to the war years and immediately afterward. She said she can still recall going with her mother to the South Orange Post Office to ship packages overseas.
“I was amazed she had saved those letters for all these years,” said Bernstein. “She never spoke about them, but she never threw them out. Why, I don’t know.”
Most of the letters were written in German and most were mailed from Cracow. Bernstein asked one of her cousins, Hans Zeller, to translate them, and she shared their contents with NJJN.
The correspondence began with an unsigned note dated Aug. 8, 1934.
The writer, possibly Munz’s father, begged Ruth Sherman to send letters and family photographs.
A second one was sent from Cracow five years later, on June 8, 1939, and was signed by Munz.
He began by pointing out that “relatives with the same blood flowing in the veins always come to help others,” according to an English translation of the letters Bernstein provided to NJJN.
Munz said that “no one could guess that Hitler would steal Czechoslovakia…. The people there live always in fear of prison and concentration camps…. Short and brief, to live in Czechoslovakia is to live on a volcano.”
In his letters, Munz urged his cousin to send affidavits, presumably statements that her family would sponsor him, his wife, his sister, and his sister’s husband for entry into the United States.
“The situation of the Jews in Poland has not improved since we are just on the edge of war with Germany,” he wrote.
Bernstein said that her mother had written back to her relatives that her family was working to sponsor his immigration to the United States. It apparently never happened.
There are no letters dated between 1939 and March 16, 1945, when Munz wrote again from Cracow. He was “alive, but it is a life without joy,” he wrote. His parents and sister “were murdered by the hysterical beasts” and his wife had been missing for a year.
He described himself as “hungry, homeless, and downtrodden.” He spoke of surviving three months of “bestial occupation” in a slave labor camp, then 13 months of hiding in a farmer’s basement.
Munz asked his cousin to send him clothes and help him immigrate to America.
By December 1945, he had found his wife alive in a German refugee camp. A month later, he wrote, “I earn our daily bread, but we want to emigrate because here there are too many painful and unforgettable memories. If one of these days we were to meet, we would probably need 1,001 nights to tell all the cruelties we suffered.”
Bernstein’s mother heard from Munz again in November 1946. This time, his letter was postmarked “Tangiers.” He begged her to help him find him a job as a sales representative there.
A month later he wrote again, expressing doubt that he and his wife would remain in Morocco, then a French colony, “since we are not accustomed to a colonial lifestyle.” He noted that “Palestine has the same restrictions as America” for those who wished to immigrate there. “America is the best solution,” he wrote. “We would like to live like humans again.”
In subsequent letters from 1947, Munz asked Sherman to send vitamins and nylon stockings for his wife, and expressed interest in returning to work in postwar Poland. “For an immigrant there are not possibilities to earn a living in Tangiers,” he wrote.
On March 27, 1947, he thanked Sherman for gifts she had sent. “We came to Tangiers and we did not suppose that that the climate would be so hard to bear. Perhaps all we had to suffer during the war weakened us so much,” he wrote.
That was the last letter in the cache of correspondence, and six decades later, Ann Bernstein remains puzzled.
“We don’t know how his story ends,” she said. “What we always presumed was that maybe they tried to get to Palestine and were on a ship the British sank…. But we don’t know. There are some questions that don’t have answers.”
Bernstein does know that Munz and her mother had relatives named Widerspan. “I went on line and found some Widerspans in Brooklyn and one in California,” she said.
That is where Bernstein’s pursuit of the mystery came to an end.
“I’m not going to intrude on someone’s life after 50 years,” she said. “My mother never did. She never looked into these relatives. I am not going to. I don’t want to intrude on their privacy. I would not want anyone to intrude on mine.”
Nevertheless, she has loaned the letters to the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest. Its executive director, Linda Forgosh, is placing them on display as part of “From Memory to History,” an exhibit by the Holocaust Council of MetroWest that opens on March 14 on the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
“The letters will be a wonderful part of the exhibit,” said Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council. “They highlight the hope and frustrations of people who were not able to get out, even though they had family here who were willing to take them in.”
“Who knows what happened in Tangiers?” said Wind. “Illness and suicide claimed a lot of Holocaust survivors in the immediate aftermath of the war. The frustration of ‘the world knows what happened and they still won’t let us in’ may have affected many of them.
“One of the things we will be talking about with students and others who visit the exhibit is that by not allowing immigration here, these people didn’t have a chance.”