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Too late

DELAYS, DELAYS, DELAYS. The file contained a flurry of letters to and from the American Friends Service Committee concerning the additional dollar charge for the cable, and connecting the dollar to the information being sought. These letters continued through September.

Meanwhile, the cable that the AFSC had sent  to Marseille at the end of August was also delayed. It was sent back, unanswered. "Returned by censor," someone wrote on top of the copy.  What the censor found objectionable is entirely unclear.



All these delays would have been tragic -- if it had mattered.  Yet the fact that it didn't matter -- wasn't that tragic too?


But it was the next letter in the file -- one that my grandfather sent before the cable came from Marseille -- that bore the full weight of Frieda's tragedy.





AS I READ THE LAST LINE OF THE LETTER on my computer, alone at my desk, I was so stunned and shocked that I screamed aloud. "NO!! TOO LATE!!"


Then I read it several times more, just trying to absorb it. Trying to make sense of it. I couldn't do either one.


My grandfather had written the letter on September 26; the Saturday he referred to when they received news of Frieda's visa was September 24. She had been killed in Auschwitz on August 12 or 13 of that year. That meant that by the time the family heard that Frieda's visa was granted, she had already been dead for more than five weeks. How could that possibly make sense?


It is strange to be angry -- furious even -- at something that happened more than 70 years before. But no matter -- I was angry. I felt betrayed -- although of course it was really Frieda who was betrayed-- by three countries. Germany, her homeland-turned-murderer --well, of course, that goes without saying. Vichy France, the land of her imprisonment and deportation to Auschwitz, carried out with the French government's collaboration. And now the United States, which failed her and forgot her with obstacles and endless delays, granting her a visa only after she was dead.

It was mid-October before the cable arrived from Marseille, with Frieda's name among those "departed unknown destination." Then, on October 16, the American Friends' Service Committee drafted the letter to my grandfather -- and family -- with that painful phrase. Many hundreds or even thousands of families must have received these.

Meanwhile, the family in Chicago believed that there was a good chance to rescue Frieda, now that she had a visa -- if only they knew where she was.

"As you know, I can not pay the passage for Mrs. Berger until her recent whereabouts has been established by your organization."

The letters had crossed in the mail. And one can only imagine how frightened and confused my grandparents and parents were on reading the news from Marseille. My grandfather wrote again, and the last paragraph of the following letter indicates the family's bewilderment at these two contradictory pieces of news.

"Don't you think that the American Consul who has been notified by the Department of State to issue the Visa to Mrs. Berger would have received authentic information as to the whereabouts of Mrs. Berger?"

WHICH WAS IT:  DEPORTATION OR FREEDOM? What, my grandfather asked in the letter, were the "necessary steps which may lead to locate Mrs. Berger?"


In fact, there was never a satisfactory answer to that question. Not in 1942, or 1943 or 1944 or 1945. There were never any steps that could locate Frieda Berger, not even in a grave. Well before my family fully understood that "departed unknown destination"actually meant the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz, there was nothing more to be done.

AT THE END OF THE FILE is a sad form letter sent nearly two years later, in September of 1944, signed by Margaret E. Jones of the AFSC. It was addressed to people who had sent money transfers to relatives or friends interned in Southern France, money that was "never delivered for the reason that the beneficiaries could not be located."


"As you know, we have been anxiously awaiting this information ever since the occupation of Southern France [by Germany and Italy] in November, 1942," Jones continued. Now, with "special authorization of the United States Treasury Department," the money could be refunded, or contributed to Secours Quaker, the relief organization set up by delegates of the American Friends Service Committee when they were compelled to withdraw from France. 












My grandfather sent back the form for the refund of the $10 sent to Frieda on July 1, 1942, money that never reached her.




AT THE BOTTOM OF THE FORM,  my grandfather wrote an apology that he was not able to contribute to Secours Quaker. He also checked the box requesting application forms to register Frieda with the newly established Central Location Index. This agency, set up by various organizations, functioned between 1944 and 1949 to maintain a central list of names of people missing as a result of the Holocaust and the war, whose relatives were searching for them. Although the Central Location Index disbanded in 1949, the work of tracing Holocaust victims for family members continues to this day.

"In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late."     

                                                 --Martin Luther King

I DON'T KNOW WHEN EXACTLY my family knew with certainty what happpened to Frieda. I never saw or heard about a letter from the Central Location Index. By the time my father told me about Frieda, the "departed unknown destination" letter was considered the end of the story.


My father also never told me that Frieda had received a visa after all -- far too late. (She was not the only person to suffer that fate; delay and obstruction thwarted many rescues from Gurs.) For him the more significant and painful ending had come during his visit to the State Department just a month before Frieda was deported to Auschwitz, when officials told him that if his aunt was in an internment camp in France, she must be a Communist. That there was no hope.


Nearing the end of this long search for Frieda, my anger slowly wanes -- though never quite disappears. I try to focus on all that went right with my father's rescue efforts for his brother and parents, and to remember my mother's wise words in her letter to my father: "You will do your best by all of them and if you are successful how glad we shall be, and if you are not, we will at least know we have explored every possibility and exerted every energy."


Now, for me, another question emerged: How could I best remember Frieda Berger?

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