Before witnessing first hand the letters of these people, I personally knew only about World War II and the Holocaust through documentaries, textbooks, and even in entertaining movies for fun like ‘Indiana Jones.’ All these resources granted me knowledge about WWII and it’s atrocities, but they all shared the same mistakes in order to garner the most attention: they only talked about the Nazis. My understanding of WWII was boiled down to the horrible atrocities of Hitler and the Nazis. What I learned was based on shock factor, rather than humanity. Because of this, I only saw the Jewish people as victims and not as people. These letters gave me insight on a small part of their lives, their family, and how they lived.
Moshe Ekhajzer was a husband and father of 5 daughters, two of which were killed. It was April 1943, his factory had been overtaken by Nazis and his family was in hiding, looking for food and work to support themselves within the Warsaw ghettos. In his last letter to his daughters, he left instructions on how to find food and work, how he hopes to find a safe haven, how he is dependent on one person for sanctuary, and how if he doesn’t reply immediately, it’s due to being in a good bunker for a few days. He would then be murdered during the Warsaw uprising on May 7, 1943.
Like Moshe, Elie Sides also wrote from the ghettos detailing the horrible conditions they were in, inquiring about his daughter’s children, and his wishes to unify their family. Often his address would constantly be changed, making communication difficult. Unfortunately, he would be deported to and died in Auschwitz with his wife, other daughter, the Jews of Thessaloniki, and many more.
When analyzing the letters, common themes of hope and the possibility of escaping death were constantly prevalent. Often, the recipients of these letters were showered with positive affirmations of life outside of the ghettos. From an outside perspective, it is hard to understand how hope can be manifested in such a dire situation. Most of the world either was unaware or ignored the discrimination Jews were facing, and the liquidations and concentration camps that these people faced were merely written off as rumours despite the mass amount of propaganda and racism that was witnessed. It is impossible to know what thoughts and words must have transpired in those ghettos, but it begs the question: how does one keep hope in difficulties? Why should a person have hope when all odds are against them? The answer lies within their last letters.
The main reason that Moshe and Elie kept on having hope was of their families. For Moshe, his first priority in his life was to save his daughters. He left instructions for their survival under the “responsibility of a father and husband.” By this particular use of words, he leaves an impression on his family that order and a sense of normalcy can still exist. It also forces them to not give up on their efforts to escape because there is pressure to fulfill promises of living and fleeing. Specifically, he writes, “…on your shoulders rest the responsibility to take care of your mother and sisters.” Despite being far away from his daughter, Elie would always write letters to her, hoping that they would reunite. In his words, he would . He also placed a lot of faith in his distant family to not forget him.
However, despite all the potential futures and tones, there still lingers an undertone of hopelessness and probable failure. Underneath Moshe’s letter, he is aware of the high risks he’s taking. Specifically, he states vaguely to his family that, “Whatever happens – don’t be sorry. I am no more worthy than so many [fellow Jewish] brothers and sisters.” His language insinuates that while there is a potential future for his family, it was both exhausting and draining on him to have such a responsibility. As a father and husband who had already lost children to the war at this time, he “tried to be brave and arrange everything calmly and wisely,” with the overbearing danger of war and the Nazis. In this case, perhaps hope cannot be achieved at all, but instead a false sense of security and a mask must be worn to keep order and focus on escaping. In the preface of Moshe’s letter, it mentions how Miriam “…knew her husband had been killed, but didn’t tell her daughters so that they wouldn’t be too despondent.”
With Elie’s letter, the constant repetition of “Don’t forget us.” and “Don’t be sad.” can be echoed as pleas for his family to take this opportunity to save his memory, if not him. The depressing tones paired with the positive affirmations juxtaposes itself and instead creates the idea that death for them was inevitable. In a sense, this idea was fulfilled since both of these men are now dead. Now with this information, we are left to ask: Was this hope worth it then?
One could argue that these writers’ ages (Moshe being 56 at the time and Elie being approximately late 40s to 50s) played into the factor of them accepting the death that faced them. However, the continuous efforts to ensure that the families would be supported and that they wouldn’t be alone suggests that despite the sweet words of hope. Even Elie admits darkly to his daughter that “this long journey” is bound to end eventually very soon and entrusts his son-in-law to take care of his daughter.
Although it may seem like there is no hope, it should be noted that both of these individuals’ efforts were not in vain. While Moshe and Elie did not survive the war, their efforts and hope they transferred through their letters gave them life. They currently are both survived by family, who did escape the ghettos and the camps. Moshe’s daughters and wife would go on to share his story because without his constant hope for their futures, they might not have had enough courage or enough opportunity to flee.
We won’t ever fully understand if the beliefs each of these men shared were truly hopeful or fake. Yet, even if it was false hope, it still left a lasting impression on their families enough for them to save their words and memories. It also saved lives, as Moshe’s daughters would go on to escape and publish their family’s stories in ‘Michtavim Mehabayit.’ Likewise, Elie’s daughter and her husband would keep and preserve his letters to donate to the Yad Vashem organization to educate others and protect parts of history.
For these men, maintaining hope in the moment of danger was rooted in their focus on family. Subconsciously, they kept onto that selflessness thinking that if they didn’t survive, then at least their families would go on to tell their stories. From these letters, we can learn that hope is not based on current conditions or situations, but it can only be held if the person hoping is thinking of the future and what opportunities could come from the future, like with Moshe’s placing responsibility on his daughters. Even if the hope is baseless, it doesn’t automatically have to fulfilled, as seen by Elie’s delayed remembrance. Hope is always worth chasing because it’s what keeps us living and thriving.