Last letters from an unknown Holocaust victim

26th April 1943: Last letters from an unknown Holocaust victim

In Petrikow it looks like this: before the grave one is stripped naked, then forced to kneel down and wait for the shot. The victims stand in line and await their turn. Moreover, they have to sort the first, the executed, in their graves so that the space is used well and order prevails. The entire procedure does not take long. In half an hour the clothes of the executed return to the camp.

Tarnopol, Poland, German soldiers next to bodies, July 1941.
Tarnopol, Poland, German soldiers next to bodies, July 1941.

The battle surrounding the closing of the Warsaw ghetto, and the accompanying pictures taken by the Germans, has ensured that it is well remembered. Yet at the same time similar actions were taking place all over what was then eastern Poland. All of the Jews in the surrounding countryside had been brought in to the major towns and kept segregated in ghettoes during 1941 and 1942.

Starvation and disease had killed thousands. Hundreds of thousands had been sent by cattle wagon to be murdered in the extermination ‘camps’. But tens of thousands more remained and for most of them there was no possibility of putting up any form of resistance.

As the Nazis accelerated the liquidation of the ghettos of eastern Europe they no longer resorted to subterfuge. It was now clear to all the ghetto residents that they were going to be killed. There was no possibility of escape. The details of how they would meet their end were well known. Yet a desperate hope to somehow survive continued to the end.

These letters were left behind by a young woman in the city of Tarnopol. Little more is known about her or when she finally met her end. Her letters speak for themselves:

Tarnopol 7 April 1943.

Before I leave this world, I want to leave behind a few lines to you, my loved ones. When this letter reaches you one day, I myself will no longer be there, nor will any of us. Our end is drawing near. One feels it, one knows it. Just like the innocent, defenceless Jews already executed, we are all condemned to death. In the very near future it will be our turn, as the small remainder left over from the mass murders. There is no way for us to escape this horrible, ghastly death.

At the very beginning (in June 1941) some 5000 men were killed, among them my husband. After six weeks, following a five-day search between the corpses, I found his body…

Since that day, life has ceased for me. Not even in my girlish dreams could I once have wished for a better and more faithful companion. I was only granted two years and two months of happiness. And now? Tired from so much searching among the bodies, one was ‘glad’ to have found his as well; are there words in which to express these torments?

Tarnopol 26 April 1943.

I am still alive and I want to describe to you what happened from the 7th to this day. Now then, it is told that everyone’s turn comes up next. Galicia should be totally rid of Jews. After all, the ghetto is to be liquidated by the 1st of May. During the last days thousands have been shot. Meeting point was in our camp. Here the human victims are selected.

In Petrikow it looks like this: before the grave one is stripped naked, then forced to kneel down and wait for the shot. The victims stand in line and await their turn. Moreover, they have to sort the first, the executed, in their graves so that the space is used well and order prevails. The entire procedure does not take long. In half an hour the clothes of the executed return to the camp.

After the actions the Jewish council received a bill for 30,000 Zloty to pay for used bullets…

Why can we not cry, why can we not defend ourselves? How can one see so much innocent blood flow and say nothing, do nothing and await the same death oneself? We are compelled to go under so miserably, so pitilessly…

Do you think we want to end this way, die this way? No! No! Despite all these experiences. The urge for self-preservation has now often become greater, the will to live stronger, the closer death is. It is beyond comprehension.

In the Name of the People: Perpetrators of Genocide in the Reflection of Their Post-War Prosecution in West Germany – ‘Euthanasia’ and Aktion Reinhard Trial Cases. Edited by Dick de Mildt

Tarnopol is now a city in the Ukraine. In 1939 it lay in the province of Lvov, in Poland and was home to 18,000 Jews, about 50% of the whole population. Only around 150 Jews survived the war in hiding.

8 thoughts on “Last letters from an unknown Holocaust victim”

  1. The two short was very sad. Also, I was hurt from what these people had to see and do. Additionally it was very sad that in the first story the lady found her dead husband’s body just laying there in all the other 5000 bodies.

  2. This is crazy how Germany started to take over the other places and they killed people and they died and the other place started to take their places back and basically Germany killed thode people for no reason.

  3. This made me think a lot about life and how things where when i was not alive.So i just want to thank you for the letters and to say sorry to all those people who died in the holocaust.

  4. I think we are, to some extent, acclimatized to detail of the holocaust. We see and learn so much about it that images of piles of naked, emaciated corpses no longer shock the way they did in 1945.

    But just occasionally, somebody succeeds in penetrating the complacency. Right now, having read those letters, my eyes are burning, and I am furious.

  5. I am puzzled by David Levine making such a distinction between what he calls death camps and concentration camps. Auschwitz and particularly Bergen Belsen were not just concentration camps, they were death camps. My grandmother died on the day she arrived at Auschwitz (January 14, 1943). The gas chambers were in constant use and the chimneys belched smoke around the clock. The reason for the creation of the gas chambers was that the shooting of the Jews was taking a toll on the shooters who apparently had enough vestiges of humanity left in them to be increasingly disturbed by the endless shooting, the face to face murders of babies and little children and screaming mothers. That’s why zyklon B was come up with as a less personal form of killing.

  6. Martin: Great post

    One of the things that needs to become more widely known is that Holocaust was actually not the Holocaust of concentration camps like Auschwitz or Bergen Belsen. In fact, the period from Sep 1939 to the invasion of the the USSR in June 1941 did not really see – yet – mass killing of Jews. Jews in the General Gouvernment were herded into ghettos where many surely died but at that point death was not the “final solution.” The idea then was still to send them to Madagascar or, once the USSR was defeated, push to the Urals.

    The real Holocaust – that is the Final Solution being death – really got underway with the invasion of the USSR in June 1941. The Madagascar option was closed and Hitler blamed the Jews for the World War. As he had prophesied, the Jews would be destroyed if “they” started a World War. It was in the part of Poland occupied by the USSR, and then the Baltics and the Western USSR, where the state was completely destroyed, that the Germans instituted the Holocaust. The einsatzgruppen killed by bullets about 2 million Jews in this area in 1941 and 1942. For Jews in this area, the arrival of the Germans meant death by bullets, most often as soon as the Germans arrived. No large movements to ghettos in most towns. Some ghettos were established, like in Minsk, but in many cases the Germans showed up and shot them all.

    Kiev is another good example. The massacre at Babi Yar has lost it’s historical context in its elevation to an ur-example of the holocaust. When the Germans occupied Kiev, the Soviets left many timed bombs and KGB operatives. A number German HQ’s where blown up. Since the Soviets, the British, and the Americans were controlled by the Jews, who had started the war, and since The USSR government was controlled by the Jews (in Hitler’s fantasy), the response to the bombings was to punish the “perpetrators” i.e., the Jews. It was in that context that Kiev’s Jews were marched to Babi Yar, that in supposed direct retribution for the bombings of German HQ.

    The Holocaust of the death camps came about in response to the logistical difficulty of shooting. It also happened once the Germans learned they could just kill the Jews. Then there were two types of camps: death camps like Treblinka or Madjanek and concentration camps like Auschwitz or Bergen Belsen. We have so many stories from Auschwitz because your odds of survival were far greater at a concentration camp than a death camp. Your odds of survival as a Jew were also greater if you lived in a state that was occupied by the Germans (like France or Dennmark) rather than destroyed (like Poland or the lands to the east).

    So if the caption above is really from 1941, this is the early stages of the Einsatzgruppen in the part of Poland that the USSR had occupied and beginning of the “Holocaust of Bullets.” The woman who writes in 1943 has survived in the ghetto kept for “neceasssary Jews”, as workers, but by that time the job of liquidation in this part of Poland of the majority of Jews was long over.

    Timothy Snyder is the expert on this argument and he just gave a brilliant talk at Stanford University which is linked below.

    Best regards, David

    Timothy Snyder – Rene Girard Lecture Stanford University 13 March 2013

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