Thursday, July 03, 2003

Letters from the Past

It's been a while since I posted anything. I went home after my grandmother's death and spent a few days with my family. While there, I went over to my grandmother's apartment and looked through her boxes. Among other things, I found some short stories she had written (one, called "The Messiah," is set in the Cleveland of her youth, before WWI), and in addition, letters that my grandfather had received from European relatives before World War II. In my family, I remember hearing about these letters when I was much younger, from my grandmother, but we had no idea that they had been preserved. My great-grandfather emigrated to the U.S. either from the city of Libau (now called Liepaja), which was at that time in the Russian Empire, or through Libau, which is a port city (now in Latvia). In any case, in his naturalization papers he listed himself as coming from Libau.

His son, my grandfather Mark Falcon Lesses, married my grandmother, Helen Rosenman. In the 1930s my grandfather received letters from three people -- his aunt Gittel (Falkon) Kagan, living then in Moscow with her family; from his uncle Mordechai, living in Libau with his family; and from a cousin, Sima Shlosberg, living in Jelgava, another city in Latvia. The first letter in the collection was from his aunt Gittel writing in 1934, and it seems from reading her letter that she had not heard from any relatives in the United States for many years. She writes about her love for her brother Jacob (my great-grandfather), who had died many years before, in 1912. The letters from Gittel and Mordechai that are dated in the early to mid-1930s talk about how they are doing, how their families are doing, etc. Sima's first letter is from 1938, and already mentions the difficult situation that the Jews of Latvia are living in. Her letters reveal far more awareness of the vulnerable political position that Jews in Europe are living in than Mordechai's letters do. In 1939 she writes to my grandfather to ask him for help in emigrating to the United States. Her last letter, dated January 19, 1940, has information that he will need to put in an affidavit to send to her so she can enter the United States. One of Mordechai's last letters also mentions the affidavit that my grandfather had sent on his behalf, but Mordechai's last letter, from March 18, 1940, says that he does not want to leave Latvia as long as his situation seems fairly stable.

I do not know what happened with Gittel and her family -- I still need to do more family research on them. Her last letter is from 1938. We do know what happened to Mordechai and his family in Libau, on the other hand. Latvia was under Soviet occupation from June 1940 until the Nazi invasion in June of 1941. Latvia was quickly overrun, and when the Nazis occupied each town, they took a census of its Jewish inhabitants. Mordechai, his wife Dobre, their son Abram and his two children show up in the 1941 census. Starting very early in the Nazi occupation they and their Latvian collaborators began to kill the Jews of Libau (as they did the vast majority of the Latvian Jewish population). Mordechai was probably shot in July, 1941, while Dobre was probably killed in mid-December, 1941, when many of the surviving women and children were murdered. Their son, his wife, and their grandchildren were also killed. Sima, in Jelgava, was probably also killed in the summer of 1941, with almost all of the other Jews in that city. It's harder to know what happened to her, because the genealogical research on the fate of the Jews in Jelgava in the Holocaust is much less advanced than the work on the Libau Jews.

Most of this information I gathered from the letters -- which can be found on my web site. There is extensive information on the Jews of Libau, including a listing of almost all those living in the city when the Nazis invaded, available at a web site set up by Edward Anders, who survived the Nazi occupation and came to the United States in 1949. He became a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago and since his retirement has been working on the genealogy of the Jews of Libau.

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