You know how you can never notice something that’s always there?
Like, say, a box at your mother’s house? It’s just, like, always there, never opened, never mentioned, out of the way so you don’t trip over it. Not big, not colorful, not covered with exotic tags. Just, you know, there.
There was a box like that at Judy Pitson’s mother’s apartment. It had been in the house where she grew up, in Teaneck before that. But it wasn’t until her mother died, four years ago, and she cleared out her mother’s apartment that she actually realized that the box actually was there. Moreover, there were things inside it.
The box was a trove of documents and letters. About 200 letters. Densely handwritten, in old German lettering, they are lovely as objects but hard to decipher even if you speak and read German. Judy does not.
Her mother had brought it from the DP camp, over the Atlantic, to New York and then to New Jersey, and she had never talked about it. Judy had never noticed it. The box was a bridge between her mother’s life in Germany and in America, but now its planks were broken.
How did Judy feel when she opened the box? “I didn’t know how to feel,” she said. “But I did think that I might throw up.” It was that powerful, that unexpected, and that inexplicable.
Judy’s mother, Ruth Kahn Marx, was one of four children of Leo Louis and Elfriede Baendel Kahn. All four of the children survived the war, each in a different way, all came to the United States, and each went on to live a different life. Leo and Elfriede died in Auschwitz.
The letters tell the story of the relationship between Ruth and her parents, because, counterintuitively enough, French internment camps had a functioning postal system.
Leo and Elfriede, who married in 1922, lived in Sulzberg, a small German town in the Black Forest, near the Swiss border; in the 1800s, reports said, it was almost one-third Jewish. Leo was a cattle broker and a German Army World War I veteran. “He got the Iron Cross,” Judy said.
The Kahns had a normal, happy life, until things started becoming abnormal and unhappy. The Nazis came to town in 1933; by 1936 Jews could not swim in town pools. Judy remembers her mother telling her a story about a Nazi throwing her into a pool; until then she could not swim but taught herself on the spot.
They would hear Hitler on the radio, “but they’d tell themselves that he was just talking,” Judy said. Still, they remembered what he said.
That year, 1936, the Kahns decided to send one of their four children to the United States, where they had aunts. They hoped that not only would that keep the child safe, but also make it easier for the entire family to emigrate later. Ruth, born in 1923, was the oldest, so she was the logical choice, but she didn’t want to go. “My mother was so attached to her parents that she just said ‘I’m not going,’” Judy said. Keep in mind, of course, that she was just 13 years old, and the idea of a solo trip across the continent and then the ocean would be a formidable one.
The next child down, Paula, born in 1924, had no such qualms. She went, and spent the entire war in safety but bothered by irrational but still invasive feelings of guilt, her niece reports.
During Kristallnacht, in 1938, the Kahns’ house was vandalized. The next day, Leo was sent to Dachau. “He was gone for maybe three months, and then they released him,” Judy said. “When they took him, he had black hair. When he got out, it was white.”
In 1939, Elfriede put Ruth and the youngest child, Solly, born in 1929, on a transport to Switzerland; Marga, born in 1927, for some reason stayed home. “In Switzerland, they were separated,” Judy said. “Solly was placed with an Orthodox family who loved and wanted to adopt him, but he said no.” He hoped to go back to his parents, but he never saw them again.
Ruth was placed in an orphanage, and from there sent to a Jewish family “who treated her horribly, like a servant. She worked for them, cooked for them, mended for them. They had a son her age, named Robert, and they wanted her to call him Mr. Robert.” She refused.
“My mother cried and cried and cried,” Judy said. She was miserable. She missed her parents. She loved them overwhelmingly. She was terrified about what would happen to them.
In 1940, Leo, Elfriede, and Marga were deported to France. They were sent to a string of internment camps — Gurs, Rives Salte, Camp de Milles, and Drancy. The camps were gender-segregated — Camp de Milles was only for men, and only Leo went there — and each brought them closer to Auschwitz.
Marga developed jaundice while she was in Rives Salte; she was sent to a hospital, although it seems that she had to forage leftovers to feed herself. Somehow, the underground group called Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants — known as OSE — smuggled her out of the camp and into a convent, under an assumed name. “She was so devout,” Judy said. “She refused to kneel. Somehow she kept track of the dates, and during Passover she would eat only potatoes.
“Then the OSE heard that one of the Nazis groups was coming for her, so they got her a ticket and put her and 10 other kids on a train heading for the Swiss border. Some of the kids didn’t even have shoes. They were told that when the train stops at the border, they should get off the train, hide in the high grass, watch the guards, and when they are asleep run run run RUN RUN RUN! Just keep running. When they crossed the border they heard guards say “halt” and they thought that they were back in Germany, but they were in Switzerland, and the Swiss let them stay.
Leo and Elfreida were murdered in Auschwitz in 1942.
Eventually the three siblings were reunited, and they made their way to New York, Ruth and Marga by ship and Solly by plane because, family lore has it, he refused to come by ship because it was scheduled to land in New York on Shabbat.
Once in the United States, Marga went to live in Kiryas Joel, the Satmar enclave in Orange County, New York. Solly also is chasidic; he lives in Brooklyn, where he has eight children, 80 grandchildren, and so far 140 great grandchildren. Paula “went the other way,” her niece said. “She became Reform, and she refused to speak German.” She also rid herself of her German accent. She became a WAC — a member of the Women’s Air Corps — and like Marga and Ruth married and had kids. She lived in Cherry Hill, and died recently.
“She regretted rarely writing to her parents,” Judy said of Paula. Her mother had told her about the time that they got a very rare letter from Paula, who for some reason was in Iowa.
The siblings didn’t see each other for many things once they were in this country, “except at weddings,” Judy said. “Which was every other second.”
This story, though, mainly is about the letters.
When she was in Switzerland, “My mother saved every penny she made,” Judy said. “She sent her parents pre-addressed envelopes with cards inside, so they could write back.” The family was very close.
She has no idea how her mother learned her parents’ addresses, which often changed, and she does not know why the postal system operated as it did, but she does know that in 1942, Ruth’s parents wrote to tell her that they were “going away.” That was the last she heard from them.
The box that held the letters and documents was labeled “Parents Letters,” Judy said. “I opened it and saw hundreds of original handwritten letters, with envelopes, for the most part in chronological order.
“She had periodically spoken to me about how she would read the letters from her parents, but as close as we were, she never showed them to me. For that matter, I had assumed that she was talking about how she read them while she was in Switzerland.” But no. Ruth had meant that she reread them in New York and then in New Jersey, decades after her parents died. She treasured them because they were her last connection to her parents, whom she had loved so much.
Ruth Kahn went on to marry Gunther Marx, a German Jew who had escaped to Switzerland. Her daughter, Judy, married Isaac Pitson, a Greek Jew born in Salonica, which had been a thriving, overwhelmingly Jewish city until the Nazis took it over and killed almost all of its Jews. “My father-in-law had the numbers on his arm, and he never talked about it,” Judy said. The Pitsons had three daughters; Isaac died in 2016, at 66.
Soon after Judy discovered the letters and documents, she gave most of them to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., although she kept a few, because there is something so powerful about them that you can feel it when you touch one. She decided to do that, she said, because she knows that she would treasure them, and so would her daughters, but it is hard to know what would happen to them after that. Some generation of descendants who had no memories of her, much less of her parents, might handle them carelessly, or even decide that they had to go. That would be unbearable.
When the museum took Judy’s trove — it was the largest such collection its curators had seen, they told her — they took high-quality, high-resolution photos, and gave them to her. But no one there has translated all of them yet — it’s a hard slog, given the density of the writing, the ornate nature of the lettering, and some of the ink has faded.
The small number of letters that have been rendered in English are brave descriptions of increasingly difficult situations, filled with love, at first scattered with hope and with valiant attempts at stiff-upper-lip-ness, with despair occasionally coming through, as well it might.
But Judy is hoping to get them all translated, so that she can read the messages that her grandparents sent her mother as their world was devastated; the words that her mother took with her into her new life.