A Single Suitcase

Posted on June 29th, 2018 by

A blog post by Director of Collections and Exhibits Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

Last December, we reprinted an article from our journal, Generations (Winter 2002), telling the story of the Weil family and their arduous journey out of Germany in the early days of World War II.  I’d like to add an illustration to that story, in the form of a plain leather suitcase:

Suitcase owned by Theo and Hilde Weil. Gift of Toni Weil Mandel, JMM 1990.119.1

In 1938, Theo and Hilde Weil lived in Freiburg, Germany. Their three young-adult daughters, Toni, Lisa, and Erna, had a clear sense of what was happening to Jews in their country, and urged their parents to begin the lengthy and expensive process of applying for travel papers to the United States. Kristallnacht – and the subsequent arrest and detainment of Theo, which left him bedridden for several weeks after his family rescued him – showed the senior Weils that it was indeed time to leave their home and try to start over in a new country. In addition to moving forward with their visa applications, the family packed up much of their furniture and belongings and shipped them ahead to New York, hoping they’d soon be able to go there themselves.

“The trouble in Germany was things didn’t happen suddenly. It was a little and a little and a little, and you can always take a little more.”  – Toni Weil Mandel  (JMM OH 246)

 Shortly afterward, the three Weil sisters left Germany on their own, working and saving money for some time in England before they secured their US visas. After arriving in Boston in 1940, they learned that the crates of family furniture were being moved from New York to Baltimore; not knowing what else to do, the girls moved here as well, and managed to find work and shelter.

In the meantime, however, their parents in Freiburg were not faring well.  Despite finally receiving clearance to come to the US, the Weils were not permitted to leave Germany. In October of 1940, the Nazis announced that all remaining Jews in Freiburg would be deported, with only an hour’s notice. The Weils were allowed one suitcase in which to pack their things.

This suitcase measures 17” x 29” x 10” – about the same size as my own carry-on bag (it even has an expandable top, like mine, for when you need to cram in just that little bit more).  My carry-on barely holds the clothes, shoes, books, and toiletries I consider ‘essential’ for a few days’ vacation, let alone the things I would want if I suspected I would never see my home again.

While they were packing, Hilde wrote a quick letter to her daughters, which she later managed to shove out of the sealed train. The letter was found and mailed, by an unknown person, to the Weil sisters in Baltimore, who otherwise would have had little or no idea what had happened to their parents.

Hilde and Theo Weil, Hilde’s mother Lina Wachenheimer, several other relatives, and their Jewish neighbors were taken to France and imprisoned in Gurs.  Once the girls discovered what had happened, they began working to secure the release of their parents and grandmother, gathering the money, affidavits, and travel papers necessary to prove that these people – forced to leave their home without identification – were the people they claimed to be, and were, thanks to their earlier visas, permitted to come to the US.  Eventually their efforts succeeded, and in April 1941, the senior Weils arrived in Baltimore … still carrying their single suitcase.  (Lina stayed in New York, with her daughter Sophie.)  It is important to note that most internees at Gurs were not so fortunate.

Theo and Hilde settled in Baltimore with their daughters but, weakened and depressed by their time in the internment camp, their lives were never the same. In an interview, Toni later remembered that her mother was “starved to death” when she got to Baltimore, and that the first shocks of America’s abundance were hard for Hilde to bear: “When we took her the first time to a food market, she asked us to take her out, she couldn’t see that food. She said, what she’d seen in a few seconds would feed that camp for years.” (Toni Weil Mandel, JMM OH 246) Thankfully, the Weils had a community of people who had endured similar experiences; they joined Chevra Ahavas Chesed, a charitable organization and burial society founded by European Jewish refugees in 1940.  They were both naturalized as US citizens in 1947 and lived in Baltimore for the rest of their lives; Hilde died in 1961, at the age of 73, and Theo died in 1970.

Naturalization cards for Hilde and Theo Weil, issued by the US District Court in Baltimore on January 13, 1947.  Via ancestry.com.

Take some time today to put yourself in the shoes of Hilde and Theo Weil in October 1938. Though reluctant to give up their home and lives in Freiburg, they had shipped most of their large belongings off to a country to which they had no assurances they would be able to move. Their lives were in danger. Their daughters were on their own, across an ocean. They were given an hour to pack the remainder of their belongings into a single suitcase, knowing they were about to be sent off to face an uncertain fate. If this happened to you, how would you react? What would you pack? How would you get word to your children?  These are questions that we at the JMM take seriously, as part of our educational mission, and I urge our readers to consider them seriously as well.

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Performance Counts: The Book of Joseph

Posted on May 11th, 2018 by

Our monthly look at JMM “by the numbers” comes to you this week from Director of Collections and Exhibits, Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

Our lobby exhibit The Book of Joseph: Giving Voice to the Hollander Family may take up only a little over sixty square feet of space in the orientation space, but nonetheless it requires many hours to research, write, and install even small displays like this one.

I had the privilege of looking over the primary source material, reading the book based on the family story, watching the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s production of the play, and talking to Richard Hollander, whose family’s story is told through all these different media.

In 1939, Joseph Hollander and his wife left Poland just days before the Germans invaded, and after an arduous journey through Europe, they ended up – accidentally – in New York. While they were fighting to keep from being deported, Joseph’s family in Cracow wrote hundreds of letters to him about the worsening conditions under which they were suffering. Despite his work to secure them safe passage, and later attempts – after the letters stopped in 1942 – to find them, Joseph never learned the fate of his family. Nor did he tell the full story to his son Richard, instead carefully storing all the letters, photos, and other memories away in a briefcase.

Richard only discovered the case, and the stories it contained, after his father’s death.

Some years later, he delved into the material, had the letters translated, and with scholar Christopher Browning wrote the book Every Day Lasts a Year. Playwright Karen Hartman then turned the family’s story into the play “The Book of Joseph,” first produced by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and enjoying its East Coast premiere at the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore.

In order to narrow this history – relating the lives of 14 people, over the course of six years – down into something that could be conveyed in a small exhibition, the full story had to be known.

To that end, I cataloged 157 letters and postcards written between 1940 and 1942 by the Hollanders in Poland to Joseph Hollander in the U.S.; matched those letters up to the translations in the book; and selected letters that could best illustrate important elements of the family’s story, even to those visitors unable to read German or Polish.

Even though each letter tells its own small piece of the story, only 23 of those letters ended up in the exhibit itself. (If you haven’t had the chance to read the English translations of the full collection in the book Every Day Lasts a Year, I strongly encourage you to do so.)

In addition to the exhibit itself, I and our Marketing Manager, Rachel Kassman, have been collecting and developing additional content to augment the story, including an interview with playwright Karen Hartman and Joseph Hollander, blog posts highlighting individual letters not included in the exhibit, and news coverage related to both the exhibit and the play. You can check out that bonus content here.

To celebrate the opening of the exhibit, three actors from Everyman Theatre’s upcoming production of “The Book of Joseph,” along with the play’s director, and Richard Hollander himself, joined us at the JMM on April 26th for a special reading of two scenes, and a question-and-answer session with the audience. 89 people attended this unique opportunity to compare two very different ways of experiencing this poignant story: through the original handwritten letters themselves, and through spoken, dramatic interpretation.

The Book of Joseph: Giving Voice to the Hollander Family is on view at the Museum through June 3, 2018. “The Book of Joseph” is now open at Everyman Theatre and runs through June 10th.

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The censors make their shadowy presence known

Posted on April 25th, 2018 by

Curators have to make choices: not everything can make it into an exhibit, and there’s seldom enough space to share every interesting fact about the things that are on display. That’s where social media comes in! Here’s a closer look at another  letter in the Hollander family collection. Written by JMM Director of Collections and Exhibits and The Book of Joseph: Giving Voice to the Hollander Family curator Joanna Church. To see more Book of Joseph extras, click here.


In this April 23, 1941 letter from Joseph’s nieces Genka (top portion) and Lusia (bottom portion), both girls described their circumstances in not-terribly-hopeful terms. Genka’s note was more despairing than her sister’s, telling her uncle “I didn’t change much outside but inside I feel like I am a quarter of a century older.” Even cheerful Lusia, after assuring Joseph she is “healthy, joyful and full of good hopes,” could only summarize the family’s overall situation with “it’s going somehow.”

Noteworthy about this letter are several things:

Genka provided the Wimisner family’s Berlin registration numbers; at the bottom, one of the girls added their “current address,” now that they’ve moved to the Podgórze neighborhood… that is, the new Cracow ghetto; and, inside the envelope, added by a Nazi censor, is this small printed notice:

Im Interesse der Sache ist es dringend erwünscht, daß Name und Adresse des Briefempfängers und Absenders nicht nur auf den Umschlag, sondern auch auf eine jede Briefeinlage gesetzt werden.
                                                                   Die Auslandsbriefprüfstelle.

Translation:

In the interest of the matter at hand, it is strongly desired that the name and address of the recipient and sender be set not only on the envelope, but also on each letter enclosed.

                       The foreign letter inspection office.

The girls added their uncle’s address by hand to the top of the letter itself, as requested – probably doing this after the letter was returned to them for their failure to follow a rule of which they may have been unaware. The rules for letters changed frequently and arbitrarily, adding to the uncertainty of communication with the outside world.

Genka and Lusia Wimisner to Joseph Hollander. Polish, typed/handwritten. April 23, 1941.

The translation of this letter appears in Every Day Lasts a Year on pages 243-244.

On loan from Rich Hollander and his family, Baltimore. JMM L2018.003.014.045

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