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Letters penned during a horrifying time in history and safeguarded in a wooden box became not just the basis of this writer’s master’s thesis. They explain a legacy of love and fear.

Some years ago, as I was helping my parents clean out their basement, I discovered a small wooden box, inside of which were dozens of letters, written on onionskin paper in fading ink – letters from my great-grandmother, Frieda Weiss, to my grandmother, Ilse.

In 1938, Ilse and her husband and their daughter, my mother, emigrated from Langenlonsheim, Germany, to Milwaukee. My grandfather’s best friend, as it happened, was in the S.S., and he had warned them – you have to leave now. The Nazis were going to accuse my grandfather of being a communist and come for him. They managed to get out. The rest of the family stayed behind. From 1938 through 1941 they tried, with the increasing desperation of German Jews on the cusp of World War II, to leave.

I could barely decipher a word of the letters, and neither could my mother, who had worked as a German translator. My great-grandmother wrote in old-fashioned German script called Fraktur, which was taught until the early 20th century, and briefly resurrected during the Nazi era, when it was considered a pure, authentic German script. Very few people can still read it. It looked, to my eyes, like a series of loops and slashes.

I was in graduate school, at the University of Minnesota, when I found the letters, and my search for a translator led me to a German professor there who took a personal interest in my project. Every week I would go to his office with a few letters, and he would read them out loud, in English, into my little tape recorder. Later, on my own, I would transcribe them. It took us two years to get through them all.

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Professor Weiss (no relation) told me once that he felt like he was getting to know my family. I felt the same way. Through her anxiety and worry, my great-grandmother wrote again and again about how much she missed her granddaughter, but how glad she was that they were gone from Germany, safe. Frieda’s letters explained a piece of my own heart to me – in them, I heard all the echoes of enormous love and fear that were handed down to me. The letters became the basis of my master’s thesis. I was so immersed in the project that sometimes I would come home at the end of the day and half expect to find a letter from my great-grandmother in my mailbox.

June 10, 1938

This morning we received your dear letter and picture from New York. I’m terribly homesick for my little child.

I think that things don’t look too good here.

October 12, 1939

I hardly sleep anymore and you, my dear ones, write that you think we will be with you in the spring. There is no possible way of thinking about that. We will sell our house now very soon and the Fuchses will permit us to stay on in the apartment.

I myself am no longer what I used to be.

When I finished my thesis, I didn’t want to think about what had happened to my family anymore. I had read the story of their futile attempt to escape Nazi Germany slowly, over the course of two years, and I was exhausted by the end of it. I let go of those letters for a long time.

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But perhaps not surprisingly, they’ve come knocking again, demanding my attention. Frieda’s words reflect what happens when the hatred that exists in the shadows of a culture is watered and fed, given permission to blossom.

The letters illuminate the unraveling of a regular life, the pulsing anxiety of a woman who has said goodbye to her beloved daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, and knows that she is in the process of slowly losing everything in a country she thought was her home. We all know how the story ends. But I also know this: I’m here because my grandparents and mother got out of Germany just in time – and because the United States welcomed three refugees to safety. ◆

Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” Sept. 13 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.

‘Letters From the Past’ appears in the September 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning August 28, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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