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'New and Extraordinary Circumstances'

September 7, 2006 By:
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The sisters discovered the bundle of letters nearly 20 years ago in their parents' Chicago apartment, soon after their father's death. Raya Schapiro and Helga Weinberg recognized immediately "the delicate Old German script" and "the brisk Czech writing" of two relatives who'd once been extremely close to them: their maternal grandmother Paula Froelich and her son, their uncle Erwin.

These were the relatives who'd had to stay behind in Prague, both of whom were eventually murdered in the Holocaust, and these letters had been written to family members in America -- Schapiro and Weinberg's parents -- who'd managed to flee before the Nazis cut off all possible means of escape.

But there's an added twist to the story: When many of the earliest of these letters were written in the spring of 1939, Schapiro and Weinberg, 5 and 7 years old respectively, were still in Prague, waiting to be reunited with their father, mother and 5-month-old baby brother who'd managed to make it to America.

These early letters deal both with the details of life in Prague as the Nazis began tightening the noose, as well as with the difficulties of getting the little girls safely out of Europe. It took six anxiety-ridden months before the children's visas materialized as promised, and they could make the journey to America and the welcoming arms of their waiting parents.

The remaining letters deal with how Paula Froelich and her son, a respected physician, fought desperately to secure their own emigration papers.

Left Behind

Upon discovering the letters, Shapiro (a physician in Chicago) and Weinberg (a teacher of literature in the Chicago suburbs) approached Academy Chicago Publishers about the possibility of doing a private printing of some of the material for the benefit of family members.

The editors, struck by the power of the letters, convinced the sisters that there was a larger market for the book, which appeared in 1992, as Letters From Prague 1939-1941. A new edition, with a new introduction, has appeared from Academy Chicago, and justifies the editors' sense of the importance of these documents.

In the new introduction, as in the original, the sisters sketch in how it was they were left behind. Once German tanks rolled into Prague on March 15, 1939, Irma and Max Czerner, the girls' parents, began the "frantic struggle for visas, exit permits and affidavits." The children overheard the "tense late-night discussions," and saw the "frightened faces" that suddenly became staples among the once "serene" adults surrounding them.

Their father feared, rightly, that prominent Jews might be targeted, and since he was general director of Shell Oil, he imagined that his name might be high on a list. "Therefore, at the risk of death if he were betrayed or discovered, our father entered into clandestine negotiations with a German officer who wanted our apartment for his secret Czech mistress. Exit visas would be provided to our family, and the vacated apartment would be discreetly confiscated.

"At the very last moment, however, the German officer produced only three of the five exit visas needed."

But the American consul, a friend of the Czerners who lived in the same apartment building, assured Max that two visas would be available within days, and that the girls would be on their way. The children were left in the care of their grandmother, a widow since 1936, and their uncle.

These relatives had always been a part of the girls' lives, so there was nothing odd about staying with them. They had all lived in the same area of the city, and the children were used to seeing their grandmother every day when she came to visit. (Their uncle they saw somewhat less, since he had a busy practice.)

Things did not look good, however, for getting these two beloved older relatives out of Czechoslovakia. The sisters write: "Entry to the U.S. was possible for our Russian-born father and his immediate family because the Russian quota was wide open; the Czech quota, however, was extremely small and entry was almost impossible for our Czech-born maternal relatives. It turned out that our parents' departure deprived us of the benefit of the Russian quota. Therefore, although exit visas were available for us, months passed as various emigration plans were considered for us: to travel to relative safety in England with a boatload of children ... or to England or Holland or Trieste, where our father would meet us and take us to America under the Russian quota -- many, many plans over many months."

In the end, the girls were taken by their father's Russian-born brother Elisha and his family. They left on Yom Kippur eve, Sept. 22, 1939, after a tearful goodbye with their grandmother and uncle. "From the feeling of sadness we recall to this day," the women write, "it is certain that not one of us believed the empty phrases we were repeating about seeing each other again soon."

Paula and Erwin wrote 50 letters over 27 months. Erwin's usually deal with the frantic search for an escape hatch, and express growing frustration with the "ever-changing" U.S. visa requirements. All his efforts to enter other countries -- England, Chile, Bolivia, Cuba, Palestine and China -- were thwarted. Paula speaks of what their daily lives are like "under new and extraordinary circumstances."

As the sisters note, since their grandmother wrote the bulk of the letters, her personality comes through with great clarity. "In spite of the mounting danger in Prague, she continues to worry about her daughter in a new country, and, in her over-protective way, to reassure her that all is well back home. Her curiosity and interest in every detail of life in America is so characteristic: for instance, her pleased amazement that music and art were part of the grade school curriculum in America. The aspects of American life and culture about which our mother chose to write back are interesting too: roller skates, snow suits, 'house coats' and the cult of birthday parties for children -- all unheard-of in Europe at the time."

But tension and anxiety leak through the lines in these letters, especially when a correspondent uses the family code, "Tanti Steffi," chosen to refer to the "Nazis." In one of the later letters comes this sentence: "Please rescue us -- Tanti Steffi is getting very nasty."

The final postcard Paula writes to her sister, Malva, is remarkably cheery considering what we learn once we read the epilogue of the book, which follows it immediately:

 

"My Dears,

I am writing to tell you that on Monday I (the word "travel" is crossed out but legible) report. Be well -- I don't know what will be with dear Erwin, I must go alone. He wants to come with me. So -- goodbye -- until we meet again --

Yours,

Paula"

 

In April 1946, a cousin wrote from Prague to tell Irma of the fate of her mother and brother:

 

"Aunt Paula was deported a half-year before dear Erwin. Erwin wanted very much to go with his dear mother, although as a physician he did not yet have to. He stayed only after long arguments with and at the wishes of dear Aunt Paula. During that time he visited us very often. He also used to go quite often to a Mrs. Pohle in Smichov. Do you know her? Her husband Dr. Pohle was later with me in Terezin.

"Erwin was deported about half a year later. He left at that time with a transport of Jewish physicians. After the departure of Erwin, just as after that of Aunt Paula, we never heard another word."

 

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