When 'Address Unknown’ Could Only Mean the Worst

Special short letters sent via the International Red Cross let Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe correspond with loved ones in prestate Israel.

Massuah Institute for the Study of the Holocaust

On November 22, 1941, Chawa Berman of 11 Alfasi Street in Jerusalem wrote to Nomi Wachockier and her family at 78/69 Nowolipki Street in Warsaw. “My dear ones! I am finishing my first year of studies. I passed the final exam. I am corresponding with Avraham and see him often. I miss you all. Write to Dad. Kisses, Chawa.”

This brief letter was sent via the International Red Cross from Mandatory Palestine to Nazi-occupied Poland. It is now in the archive of the Massuah Institute for the Study of the Holocaust at Tel Yitzhak, along with thousands of other postal artifacts from the period.

Massuah Institute for the Study of the Holocaust

During World War II, the International Red Cross issued a special type of letter for correspondence among the belligerent countries. Sender and recipient wrote on the same letter; content was restricted to family matters. Twenty-five words was the maximum, or the letter would be returned to sender.

It sometimes took months before a response was received, so the latest situation was not always reflected. The letters from occupied Europe offer a glimpse into Jews’ lives during and immediately after the Holocaust.

The letters were the only way to communicate with the free world; sometimes the writers wrote in code. They described their fears, the deportations and the killings. Survivors wrote about life in displaced-persons camps after the war.

On June 10, 1941, Sara Bystric from Jerusalem wrote to her father Avraham in Slovakia. “We’re all fine. Sara is in school, Esti and the family are on a kibbutz. How are you all? Esti, Beni, Nurit and Sara,” Sara wrote in German. “Write back the way we did,” she added, referring to the word limit.

The most important words were the names in the sign-off, indicating that they were all alive. At the time, many Slovak Jews were being deported to camps. This was also the fate of the Bystric family, which was sent to the Novaky concentration camp, from where Jews were sent to Auschwitz

On August 27, 1941, the return letter arrived from Slovakia. “We’re all in the city… Nandi got his matriculation certificate …. We’re all healthy. Only I am employed. Don’t worry about us. Received your package. Regards from everyone. Dad, Mom, Jolan, Nandi, Izak.” In 1943, the rest of the community was rounded up and sent to work camps. By the fall of 1944, they had all been wiped out, including the Bystric family.

Future famous Israelis

Another letter in the collection was written by Chaim Milsztein of the Givat Hama’apilim youth village in Herzliya. It was sent on July 10, 1942, to Chaim Shlomo Gefilhaus, in the Demblin Ghetto in southern Poland.

Milsztein, a Zionist pioneer, was on a agricultural-training program with friends, whom he called his “brothers and sisters.” “I feel excellent together with my brothers and sisters. We think of you all the time, having faith that all is well. How are you? Answer right away. Blumka is finally finishing school.”

The answer was not sent until May 24, 1943. “I’m alive, working and dreaming only of you all. I don’t know about Hanka and the others. Is Uziel with you? Heartfelt regards, Chaim.”

The Massuah archive also contains letters from future Israeli notables. One is from Izo Herzig (Yitzhak Artzi) of Bucharest to Moshe Kolodny (Moshe Kol) in Tel Aviv. Artzi led the Zionist underground in Romania that helped rescue children. Years later he became a Knesset member. On August 21, 1942, he wrote to Kol, who had immigrated to Israel in 1932 and would go on to become a cabinet member.

“We’re all well. We were happy to hear the news from Leibush,” Artzi wrote. “Where is Coca, Dad, Haim, the children? How’s your material situation? How is everyone?”

That summer, Cecylia Jampel-Speiser of Lvov wrote to her son Baruch Jampel at the Zionist youth kibbutz at Tel Yitzhak. Jampel-Speiser had immigrated to prestate Israel in 1933 and helped found the Tel Yitzhak kibbutz.

“We’re all healthy, working! Write and say how you are. We miss you. Kisses, Jampel Cecylia.” That month, thousands of Jews were deported from Lvov to the death camps. In August, 50,000 were deported to Belzec. Within a year, most of the community had been killed, including Jampel-Speiser's parents and younger brother.

Many letters in the collection are chilling because of their even greater brevity. Yosef Arditi of Haifa corresponded with relatives in Thessaloniki. On May 23, 1942, he wrote to Marie Arditi: “Dear Marie, I received your letter from January. I am well and working. Tell me about the Menashe family. Much affection to everyone. Yossi Arditi.”

In 1943, he received no word from his relatives, who had been sent to Auschwitz. On December 22, 1943, the Red Cross returned his letters with a brief statement: “The addressee has moved to an unknown address.”