Letters reveal voices from the Holocaust

Old suitcase leads a son to the story of his father's attempt to rescue his family during World War II

November 02, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN REPORTER

It was 1986, and Richard Hollander was emotionally spent after cleaning out the home of his parents, who had died suddenly in an automobile accident a few weeks before.

He pulled a nondescript suitcase out of a crawl space and almost threw it on the trash heap with the other luggage. But he felt that there was something inside and opened it.

Inside were row after neat row of envelopes, along with his father's Polish passport and other documents. Each envelope contained a letter written in words he could not understand, Polish and German. But what was on the outside was unmistakable - the swastika and eagle of Nazi Germany.

What he found would lead Hollander on a profound journey of discovery into the story of his father, Joseph - a man he knew so well, yet did not know at all.

It would lead Hollander to learn of the secret dilemma of his father's life - the amazing resilience and persistence that allowed Joseph to escape the Holocaust and live in the United States, and his inability to celebrate that because of what had happened to his family thousands of miles away.

It would lead to a book, Every Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family's Correspondence from Poland, just published by Cambridge University Press.

"I don't feel like I wrote this story," says Hollander, 59, a former journalist who reported for the News American and WBAL-TV. "I am just the conduit for it."

The story contained in the letters was an extraordinary chronicle, offering quiet testimony to the desperate plight of Joseph Hollander's relatives trapped in the Holocaust in Poland and of his tireless efforts to rescue them.

"Dear beloved brother," wrote Mania, one of those trapped, to Joseph. "We all sit like on a volcano, our nerves are almost used up. So many months we live in uncertainty and new worries keep coming up. Please feed us with some good news."

From the day he first viewed the letters, Hollander was aware that he had found a part of his father's past that was almost never talked about in his household as he grew up. Traumatized by his parents' deaths, Hollander was not ready to deal with that.

A decade later, he took the letters to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

"They told me I had an historic treasure," he says.

Guided by Holocaust scholar Christopher Browning of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Hollander began a quest that ultimately uncovered an extraordinary chapter in the life of his father, who manged to get out of Poland after the German invasion and get to America without proper papers at a time when that was considered impossible.

Hollander contacted the National Archives and asked if they happened to have anything about Joseph Arthur Hollander. The surprising answer came back - hundreds of pages. The same was true of the federal court in New York: transcript after transcript of hearings.

It turned out that Joseph Hollander had caused a significant public stir as an illegal Jewish immigrant fighting to stay in the United States as the Holocaust blazed across Europe.

There was a note from Eleanor Roosevelt, letters from a U.S. senator and two congressmen. There were articles from The New York Times.

"One person told me that my father was the Elian Gonzalez of 1940," says Hollander, referring to the Cuban boy whose deportation attracted widespread attention in 2000.

Indeed, Joseph Hollander, a lawyer, had just the training, experience and temperament not only to escape the Nazis, but also to put up an astonishing battle against an American bureaucracy determined to deport him.

Born in 1906, Joseph ran a successful travel agency in Krakow. His passport shows trips to Berlin and London in 1939, perhaps where he saw what would happen to Jews in Hitler's way. When the invasion came, he and his wife, Felicia, went to the border with Romania and got visas.

"He waited there for 10 days, to see if there would be a safe haven in eastern Poland," Browning says. "Once the Russians invaded that part of Poland, he crossed immediately."

By that time, Joseph had arranged transport for other fleeing Jews. He saved scores of lives. But his family had not heeded his warnings. They remained in Krakow.

Joseph and Felicia made their way to Italy, obtained visas for Portugal and boarded an Italian ship sailing to Lisbon. But there they were refused entry, perhaps because they had not paid the right people the right bribes. The ship ended up in New York on Dec. 6, 1939, and Joseph and Felicia became undocumented aliens in the land of the free.

They could easily have been kept on board the ship when it sailed back to Italy. But a relative living in New York went to court. Injunctions were issued. They stayed. Joseph began writing letters, including one to Eleanor Roosevelt. And he put his legal training to work.

"He quickly became adept in the American legal system," says Browning.

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