THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
Letter to America
TUCKED AWAY inside the other papers of the grey folder, I found a letter without an envelope, ten fragile yellowing handwritten and typewritten pages from my father's parents, brother and aunt. All the letters were addressed to my father -- "Lieber Erich" -- dated March of 1939. The family had written my dad while he was on the ship to America. He read the letters, sent care of his uncle Leo in New York, when he arrived.
As I can't read German, at first I didn't know what the letter said, but I gasped when I saw the name Friedl (a diminutive of Frieda) on one of the pages. My father, his brother Max, and their parents had all managed to flee Nazi Germany. But my father's beloved Tante Frieda did not survive -- she was killed in Auschwitz in 1942. Along with two photographs, this is the only fragment we have of her.
FRIEDA (far right) LIVED WITH HER SISTER BERTA and family in Mannheim, Germany. From left: Berta, Eric, Kurt and Max Sonnemann; Frieda Berger.
My German-speaking friends and fellow researchers, Steffen Pross, in Germany, and Suse Underwood, in England, kindly translated some of the letters.
"MY DEAR ERICH," wrote his mother. "I hope you are soon at the end of your voyage, hopefully you survived it well. This week we had at night a terrible storm with thunder and I thought of you, if it was also like that at sea, with winds at 11."
"I hope that you aren't seasick," wrote Tante Frieda. "It would be a pity because of the delicious food -- and I know what it's like to be seasick."
THE SHIP MY FATHER TOOK from Holland to America, the Ilsenstein, met with late winter storms that delayed its expected arrival. My father said that everyone, including the captain and crew, suffered from seasickness.
THEY WRITE that they are studying English -- in preparation for their immigration to America -- and they write about their hopes for a visa.
Max, my father's brother (who was then engaged in forced labor on Mannheim's Autobahn), was waiting impatiently for his appointment with the U.S. Consulate. "Everything is confusing," he wrote, "because people with quota number 5,600 had not been summoned, while others with number 6,400 already had been seen."
They also talk of new boarders in the apartment. Max writes that his parents had rented out the apartment too quickly and too cheaply, but adds that the new tenants will pay for their own coal, butter and jam. Berta (Dad's mother) says she knows Erich will be cross that they rented so cheaply, "but you forget that most want central heating and running water and have other demands." Two of the new boarders want to emigrate to Africa, she adds.
AND THERE IS ALSO this poignant message, from my dad's father: "What you wrote in your first letter from Holland, that you are going to do everything you can so that we can soon come, is the only thing sustaining us."