Letters From Italian Jail Capture Hope, Despair of Auschwitz-bound Jewish Inmate

Newly translated letters showcase the emotions one Italian Jew experienced in a Trieste jail before being transported to Auschwitz in 1944. Seven decades on, his son still can’t read them without bursting into tears.

A photograph of Daniel Israel and some of his letters, smuggled out of an Italian jail during World War II.
Rona Seltzer

In 1944, Daniel Israel managed to send 270 letters to his family hiding in Trieste from his prison cell in the northeastern Italian city. The letters, written in Italian in cramped handwriting, have been well preserved over the ensuing 72 years.

The emotional, sad and often chilling letters, written to his wife, Anna, and two sons, Dario and Vittorio, during his 10 months’ imprisonment before being sent to Auschwitz, told of hope and despair, faith, fear and shattered dreams.

Vittorio, now 81, was only 8 when his father, then 34, was arrested in the upholstery shop he ran in the center of Trieste. It was on December 30, 1943, a few months after the Germans had invaded Italy and started expelling its Jews to Auschwitz with the cooperation of Fascist militias. The two brothers and their mother were already in a hiding place to which their father had sent them a few months before.

In his Givatayim home, Vittorio still has his father’s arrest warrant. The document, written in German, says: “Meant for three people.” Under “religion” is the word “Voljude” – meaning “full Jew,” the highest classification of Jewishness under the Nuremberg Race Laws. At the bottom appear the names and personal details of Daniel Israel, as well as Vittorio’s maternal grandparents. All three were arrested that day and never returned.

“Until October 1944, we continued to maintain contact through letters. He told us about his daily routine in jail and the people he met there,” Vittorio recalls. Daniel managed to smuggle the letters out of prison to his family by opening the collars of shirts he sent to the prison laundry and sewing the letters inside. He had an accomplice in the laundry who then passed the letters to his wife.

“At first he told us he was bored, because everyone else was ‘going to work.’ He didn’t know where the people were being sent, or what his fate was to be,” Vittorio adds.

Despite all the decades that have passed, Vittorio remains emotional and agitated when he speaks of his father’s final months. When he describes one of the last letters they got from him, he bursts into tears. “He wrote that if he doesn’t come out, he wants us to immigrate to the Land of Israel. That was his last will and testament,” Vittorio says.

“Perhaps the devil is not so terrible,” Daniel wrote. “It’s not certain that those who leave for Germany never come back. The suffering will be enormous and many will die, but many will return. I hope to be one of them.

“We always say that God doesn’t abandon us during difficult times, when we need him,” he continued. “Let’s be brave. Anna, don’t cry. Trust in God.” In another letter he wrote his wife, “When I sleep, I dream of you. When I’m awake, I dream of you with open eyes.”

“I envy all those who are getting out through the mouse hole,” he wrote once, when he considered trying to escape from prison. “We are nine Jewish men and four Jewish women. We hear there will soon be a decision about our fate – that is, that we’ll be sent to Germany. I hope that at least it will be a work camp and not a concentration camp. I always say God will do the best, even if it looks like the war is still here and I’m about to go crazy.”

Vittorio Israel (left) and his brother Dario in the former's Givatayim apartment.
Rona Seltzer

In a moment of weakness, he wrote, “Anna, I don’t know how else to advise you. My head is exploding. This horrible war! Be strong, Anna, I want to hope that God will save us from terrible troubles, forgive us our mistakes, and that one day he will reunite us forever. Kisses to all, your Daniel.”

From the letters, it emerges that Anna would send her husband food. “Anna, dear. The food is a very serious problem. I ate the pasta you sent me. Please find a way to bring food more often. If you can, ask my sister to get me some cheese, a little barley and jam for the evenings. I’ll manage with this kind of food, that doesn’t spoil,” he wrote in one letter.

Vittorio saved all the letters his father wrote. They were mounted in an album but were never translated into Hebrew. As a result, Vittorio’s family was unfamiliar with their contents.

A few months ago, though, as part of a research project to map family trees, a researcher named Roi Mandel – who works for the Israeli startup MyHeritage – arrived at Vittorio’s home. Vittorio showed Mandel the letters and the latter immediately realized he had come upon an archival treasure. With the information contained in the letters, he was able to build the Israel family tree, adding it to the 30 million other family trees stored in MyHeritage’s databases.

Dr. Elisabeth Zetland, a colleague of Mandel’s, worked on translating the letters from Italian to Hebrew. “Now my grandchildren can read what their great-grandfather, whom they never knew, felt and wrote,” Vittorio says proudly.

During his imprisonment, Daniel managed to see his wife and children for a brief moment, when they scaled the roof of an adjacent building and looked down at him in the prison yard.

“Toward the end of his incarceration, he started to understand that something wasn’t right,” Vittorio relates, something the letters confirm. “We are living in sad and difficult times. Each day is fraught with risks and suffering. Better we don’t develop too much hope about being reunited,” Daniel wrote in one of the letters.

Shortly afterward, in August 1944, he mentioned the upcoming birthdays of his children. He even sent money with one of the letters so their mother could buy them presents from him.

In another letter he wrote, “The days fly by, but the hours are long. We’re in August. The boys’ birthdays are approaching. I so want to kiss them. When evening comes I’m happy that another day has gone by, and hope that the next day will bring good news. That’s how the weeks and months go by. It seems amazing that seven months have passed the end will come one day, one way or another.”

Until the last moment he moved between hope and despair. “I have so many proofs that God will not abandon me the way I hope he will not abandon you. I will suffer anything. It won’t take long. Give the kids a big kiss and think of me, because I never tire of thinking of you,” he wrote.

That September, Anna’s parents were removed from the prison, and Daniel followed them in October. He sent his last letter from the railcar as he was arriving at Auschwitz. “Here is where hell is, you see the smoke from afar,” he wrote. He gave the note to a railway worker he knew from Trieste, who gave it to the family.

“When we got that letter, there was silence,” Vittorio recalls. “We understood that he hadn’t gone to work.”

After the war, Anna, Vittorio and Dario returned to their home in Trieste. “The house was empty. They had stolen everything; they left nothing. They even took the piano,” says Vittorio.

Acquaintances who returned from Auschwitz told the family they had seen Daniel in the camp only two weeks before liberation. “We went to the Red Cross and asked them to search for him and find out what happened to our father. They told us he was missing,” says Vittorio.

The family stayed in Italy until 1949. “We thought that maybe [Daniel had] reached Russia and he’d still come back. We also considered the possibility that he’d lost his memory,” Vittorio recounts. When they concluded that there was nothing more to wait for, they moved to Israel, where they began their new life in a tent in Be’er Yaakov.

To this day, no one knows what happened to Daniel Israel. “Presumably he couldn’t hold out during a death march,” Vittorio says. His father likely met the same fate as the 7,680 other Italian Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Vittorio recently donated the original letters to Yad Vashem, as part of the museum’s Gathering the Fragments campaign to save personal artifacts from the Holocaust period.