I just finished reading the book titled The Unanswered Letter: One Holocaust Family’s Desperate Plea for Help by Faris Cassell and I have to say that this is the closest I’ve felt to the Holocaust. Normally when I think of the Holocaust, I think about the concentration camps, Hitler and genocide. If none of those terms come to mind, I would urge you to do some research.
I’ve read many books about the Holocaust (Sarah’s Key, Diary of Ann Frank, The Nightingale, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, The Boy in Striped pajamas, The Storyteller, etc) but this was the first time where I felt my own sorrow within the events.
As the title suggests, the book was written when an unanswered letter, from a desperate man in Vienna, lands in the author’s lap. The letter was written in 1939. She was so taken by the mystery of what happened to the man that she investigated and helped heal the pain of the past for one family.
The story was sad but not only because of what this Jewish family endured during the reign of Hitler. It was sad because of how blind people can be without knowing that they are blind at all. This family was ripped apart and forced to take residence in different parts of the world. They had to learn English and hide their country of origin lest they get sent to a concentration camp. Spouses were separated for years with only a few letters to keep hope alive.
The idea of race being a dividing factor began with religion. The messages in the bible were taken to mean that the only way to Heaven was through Christ and the Christian thing to do is to convert everyone. Judaism was singled out (even though the bible does say they are the chosen people) and it was decided that they were beneath. Eventually physical appearance became a way to keep the divide. Add Africans and the divide goes beyond not having blue eyes and blond hair. Now, it’s skin deep. See at first, Jewish people could easily convert to Christianity. But when most of them don’t have blond hair and blue eyes, you can keep them separate. As a black woman, historically, I was not meant to fit in. Centuries before Europeans began trafficking Africans, it was already embedded in the minds and hearts of the people that at first look, I wasn’t even human.
What gets me is that Africa is the cradle of civilization (meaning at the beginning of time, we were all from Africa) yet we ignore science and facts to perpetuate stereotypes, racism and misinformation because… ?
I digress. The story of Alfred Berger felt so close to home. He wrote this letter to a random person in America with the same last name, hoping that they would help him and his wife escape Hitler’s grasp. As the author tried to gain information through government offices, they questioned whether or not he was famous or important. The only reason they would assist her would be if he were known.
That’s, in my eyes, is the problem with the world. We care only for those known, famous or important. I said I felt my sorrow within the pages of this book. I am an amateur genealogist and researching my ancestors usually come up short because my black ancestors were not famous and therefore were not considered important in history. My black ancestors were taken from their tribes in Africa, mixed with other tribes, forced into hard labor and killed if they ran from their captors. Jewish people were forced out of their businesses, their homes and their legacies. Their lives deemed unimportant and not even worthy of life. Their lives extinguished without a second thought.
There is no comparison with Slavery and the Holocaust. Putting a price on a person’s life should never be the job of another human being. But preventing such horrors should be the job of us all. We are quick to stay contained in our bubble but the moment someone is in need, we become blind to what is obviously in front of us.
I tell myself every day that everyone, anyone, has a safe space with me. The way I feel; the way my ancestors felt; the way the Jewish people felt, should never be. We all have gifts to bring to the world. The contributions to society are due to all types of people. When people hate, they do a disservice to the world. You never know what a person can accomplish if given the right opportunity.
I don’t read books about the Holocaust to feel sad. I read them for knowledge, compassion and empathy. Learning about the suffering of others helps to be the safe place for those who need it. Always remember, you are important no matter what role you play in history.