A letter sent by Dr Hedwig Leibetseder while imprisoned in Lichtenberg Concentration Camp, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections

Correspondence shows how families exchanged messages across borders, in the midst of destruction – and reveals how much they understood about the genocide unfolding

Etan Smallman

At first glance, the folded piece of paper crammed from margin to margin with immaculate black slanted handwriting looks like a love letter or an excited dispatch from a holiday. Two things give the darker truth away.

The red stamped letterhead makes clear the message, dated 22 December, 1938, hails from Konzentrationslager Lichtenburg – Lichtenburg concentration camp in eastern Germany. And the sign off contains an exhortation to Hedwig Leibetseder’s family to save themselves, which she hoped might elude the hurried eyes of any Nazi guard who examined the text before it reached its destination, looking to censor any message within: ‘Ilove you, kiss and hug you. Stay brave and healthy. Emigrate. And write’.

Dr Leibetseder, writing from inside the concentration camp, was right to be so cautious. Another of her notes indicates how closely they were being monitored – a surgical gap in the paper is where scissors excised a section lost to history, but which clearly gave too much away.

This letter is just one of the items in Holocaust Letters, a new exhibition at London’s Wiener Holocaust Library, which reveals how much Jews understood what was happening to them as the genocide unfolded in Nazi Germany. Their personal correspondence shows how they exchanged messages across borders, in defiance and in the midst of chaos and destruction.

The mail was a vital way for families to share their fragments of knowledge, to plead for help, and to urge each other not to lose hope.

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