The Brown Box

It is a simple, undecorated brown wooden box, about 10 inches wide and 6 inches deep. The box used to be piled high with handwritten papers but I don't remember being interested in them at all during my childhood. There were prettier boxes in the house, smaller, with carved decoration, and these contained ancient photographs which I loved to riffle through. Only after my mother's death, many years later, did I decide to look at the contents of that big brown box. As far as I could remember, I had never seen my mother open it in all those years.

The box turned out to contain letters, mostly in German, some typed, most written in a variety of hands of varying legibility. I looked at the signatures and felt a shiver go through me. These were the names of the almost legendary characters who had populated my mother's stories: Great Aunt Hania and her daughter Sarna, Aunt Fela, Iotka and Berek. And there was someone who signed himself Menyu and who surely had to be my grandfather Emmanuel. Suddenly they had become real people. I knew then that these letters had to be translated.

Within the first hour of trying to translate one of them, I knew that I would need a computer. It was just not possible to write down the translation in a normal linear sequence because so many of the words were indecipherable. I needed to write what I could, a word here and a couple of words there, and leave flexible spaces in between, which I could then fill recursively by deduction. Only a virtual representation would allow for that kind of flexibility.

I had used computers at work for some time but had always told my mother that I would not have one in the house because they were addictive. However I needed one now. A classified advertisement in the local paper led to my buying a cheap, second-hand machine which had MS Word on it and I was able to get to work in earnest.

The first job was to sort the letters into chronological order. Fortunately most of them were dated. They covered the years 1939 to early 1942. I translated them in the order in which they were written. Each translation was sketchy at first but, going over it repeatedly, I was able to fill in more and more words. In the early stages of working on a letter, I translated each word literally without worrying about trying to achieve good idiomatic English. Here too the flexibility of the computer helped a lot; I was able at a later stage to rearrange phrases quite easily. None of this would have been possible on paper.

I had a German friend who took an interest in the project and she would come to my house every Thursday to go over the letters I had managed to translate during the week. There were often still gaps in them, but she (being a native speaker) could recognise words or standard abbreviations that I would not have thought of. Only occasionally did we have to leave a word rendered as "[illegible]".

My friend, who is not Jewish, admitted to me during the project that she suffered from "holocaust guilt" and saw the work that we were doing as a form of atonement. I told her that many Germans had more reason to feel guilty than she did. Her family in fact had an excellent record of resistance to Hitler. Her father had been a pastor of the Confessing Church and a friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and she herself had never been in the Bund Deutscher Maedel as most of her contemporaries had. Maybe we should remember that a lot of German gentiles are also, in their own way, the "second generation" and carry their own scars.

The most difficult letters to translate were those from my grandfather, as he wrote in the gothic script which he had learned in his youth. I was familiar with printed gothic, which was used for most German books and newspapers before 1945, but I had never before come across the handwritten form. I decided to start a character translation list on paper. First I identified some common German words ("ist", "der", "die", "und" and the like) and wrote the gothic characters from them alongside their Roman equivalents. This allowed me to tackle other words that contained those characters, and so to identify other gothic letters and add them to the list. It was rather like one of those codeword puzzles that you see in newspapers. By the end of the project, I had memorised most of the symbols my grandfather used and could read his letters without too much difficulty.

Once the war had broken out, communication between the United Kingdom and the occupied countries was hampered. However, everyone was able to send letters to neutral Switzerland. A cousin called Elsa Gasser (whom I had met when she was an old woman) lived near Zurich and was able to act as a family postbox, receiving letters from both sides and sending them on. Her own letters and cards to my mother were mostly written in English as they passed more swiftly through the censors' office that way. Letters from Poland were often enclosed. Other letters in the collection came from America and from Palestine, then under British administration. But the core of the family was still in Cracow, the original home of the Blanksteins: my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, and all the great-aunts and their children. They had all returned from Vienna to Poland because it was considered safe; after all its independence was guaranteed by the UK and France.

Gradually I found that the letters were crystallising into a narrative of gradually darkening shadows, and the central figure of it turned out to be my little half-brother Michi. I had always known about him of course. My father was my mother's second husband. Her first (who had also contributed some rather self-pitying letters to the collection) had run out on her, leaving her literally "holding the baby". She had brought up Michi by herself in Vienna until the anschluss. She was able to come to England only on a special visa as a domestic servant and she was not allowed to bring the child with her. However she was given to understand that she could bring him into the UK afterwards, a promise that, in the event, was not kept.

I knew that Michi had been transferred to the care of my mother's sister Fela (Felicia), who was a doctor, a paediatrician. She had never married since, in those days, marriage was not compatible with a woman having a career. Michi had probably become for her the child she could never have. Now I discovered that Fela had actually adopted Michi. It was apparently the only legal way to get him out of the German Reich and into free Poland. A copy of the adoption certificate was included among the papers. There were many letters from Fela reporting lovingly on the child's progress. One included a lock of his hair. And there were increasingly desperate reports of the attempts to procure a visa for him to come to England (or failing that, to America where another branch of the family had established itself). Meanwhile Poland was invaded. Communication with the family in Cracow was interrupted, then re-established. Finally they were all expelled and transported to a town called Szcucin when Cracow was made "Judenrein". Michi of course went with them. In 1942, they all vanished.

The last letter but one is from Michi himself. It was written in 1942, in Polish. He was six years old and apparently dictated the letter to Fela. He had been living in Poland for three years and, in the manner of small children, had probably forgotten that he had once spoken a different language. I was able to find someone to translate it for me:

Dearest Mummy!

I love you very much. I ride on the sledge which Haneczka gave me from Aunt Sala. Sometimes I push the sledge and Ninka sits in it and sometimes she pushes and I sit, and sometimes Auntie pulls me.

When it is cold I dress warmly. I have a coat with padding and gloves and 2 scarves and leggings from Vienna. I wish Mummy could come here.

I miss you lots and greet you,


My translation of the Blankstein letters is now in the Wiener Library in London, but I took the originals to a cousin in Israel many years ago along with all the old family photographs. I have no children to leave them to, and I could not bear the thought that, if anything were to happen to me and they were still in my possession, the people who cleared the house would throw them away, not knowing or caring what they were. I believe they have been transferred to the Yad Vashem museum, which is probably the best place for them.

But I kept the brown box.
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