From the time she was a child growing up in Princeton in the late 1960s, Deborah Dwork was intrigued by the stories her aunt and uncle told about surviving the Nazi Holocaust.
“There was never a time when I did not know they were survivors,” she told NJ Jewish News in an April 20 phone interview. “I learned about their experiences in a very gentle way while I was growing up, and the messages I got were all about love and loyalty.”
Those messages have been at the center of Dwork’s lifelong writings and academic studies. She is Rose Professor of Holocaust History and director of Clark University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Worcester, Mass.
The project she is now working on involves more than 1,000 pieces of correspondence from a cache of letters belonging to a Swiss woman who served as a “go-between” for Jewish children and their parents who had been forced to separate during the war.
Some of the youngsters had been sent to safety on the Kindertransport or by private arrangements with friends in other countries deemed to be “safe,” Dwork told NJJN, while many of their mothers and fathers were rounded up and interned in concentration camps.
In some cases, parents in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia exchanged letters with children they had sent to France, the Netherlands, and England. But after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and war was declared, postal systems ceased. At that point, Dwork said, the parents and children “turned to a middle-aged, middle-class, very Christian lady named Elisabeth Luz in a town outside Zurich, Switzerland,” Dwork told NJJN. “The letters went to her. She copied every letter and sent them on to their recipients. All of the original letters were given to me by her nephew.”
The letters will be the basis of Dwork’s next book, Dear Tante Elisabeth, and of a talk she will deliver at Temple Beth Am in Parsippany. She will present “Holding on Through Letters: Jewish Families During the Holocaust,” this year’s annual Joseph Gotthelf Holocaust Memorial Lecture, after Shabbat services on Friday evening, April 29.
She said her talk “is all about what they spoke about in their letters. What did the parents and children want the other to know about? What did they not want them to know about?”
Dear Tante Elisabeth is the 11th book Dwork has written during an academic career that included being an undergraduate at Princeton and earning a master’s degree in history from Yale University and a PhD from University College in London. Dwork left her teaching post in the Yale University History Department in 1996, to teach at Clark.
Among her other Shoa-related works are Children With a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe (1991); Auschwitz (1996), which she coauthored with Robert Jan van Pelt; Voices and Views: A History of the Holocaust (2002); The Terezin Album of Marianka Zadikow (2008); and In Flight from the Reich (2009). She has also been working on Saints and Liars, a look at the American Quakers, Unitarians, Jews, and others who risked their lives to rescue people targeted by the Nazis and their allies.
Although her parents managed to reach the United States before the war, her aunt and uncle were less fortunate. “There is no question about it,” Dwork said. “My aunt and uncle’s story influenced my career path.”
Her mother’s sister, Sara Wejl, met and married Menek Grossman while they were both confined to the Lodz ghetto in Poland.
“When I was a girl he told me, ‘I married her to save shoe leather’ because she lived at one end of the ghetto and he at the other before they moved in together,” Dwork said. “When I grew older and learned how difficult it was for people in the ghetto to get all kinds of goods, especially shoes, I knew he wasn’t joking.”
Dwork’s uncle was incarcerated at Auschwitz, then was sent to do slave labor in nearby coal mines. Her aunt survived the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Before Sara Grossman died of dementia six years ago, Dwork debriefed her in an oral history. “I was very glad we recorded her when she had memory, but because of her later dementia she had no pain from the Holocaust. She couldn’t remember it,” said Dwork. Menek Grossman died in the early 1980s.
When she still had an active memory, Dwork’s aunt “did not feel an imperative to share her memories with the world, She was not someone who went to classrooms to talk to students. It was not part of her personality, but she was utterly supportive of my using her story for my learning and utterly supportive of my work as a Holocaust historian,” said Dwork.
For the most part her aunt did not dwell on her own horror-filled experiences. “It is just a question of character. She would have been an appreciative person had there not been the Holocaust. I think the Holocaust made people exactly who they are, but more so,” said Dwork.
In addition to family influence, the need for greater Holocaust education is a factor that drives Dwork’s work.
When she was an undergraduate at Princeton in the 1970s, “there was not one single course offered on the history of the Holocaust, and courses on modern European history did not include the Holocaust, even though there were members of the faculty who were either survivors or refugee Jews.”
“Twenty years later I taught courses on it at Yale, but the history department would not have thought, ‘We have to make sure we have a course on the history of the Holocaust.’” It took the combined efforts of Dwork and a colleague on the faculty, the late Paula Hyman, to make sure the subject was taught adequately, at least as effectively as it is in lower schools.
“More than 50 percent of American school-age children live in states with mandated or recommended education in this area. Many students who had been introduced to the subject in middle school and high school came to college wanting to take a course in Holocaust studies and found there was not one offered. The school systems were ahead of colleges and universities,” she said.
“Change happens at universities because someone or some group is eager to effect that change. Otherwise it just won’t happen.”