‘Last Letters’ exhibit offers bittersweet memories of Holocaust

On Remembrance Day, Yad Vashem uploads wartime correspondences, providing a window into the final exchanges of 10 families

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

At age 93, Shimon Keller has a hard time remembering certain things, but he can clearly recall saying goodbye to his mother, Berta, at the train station in 1939, when he was just 15 years old.

“She was crying tears of happiness,” said Keller, a distant look in his blue eyes as he sat in his Ramat Gan living room. “She was happy, because I was getting away.”

Keller made it onto the last Youth Aliyah ship, along with other teenagers bound for Haifa, escaping the vast uncertainty of his hometown and country then in the throes of Hitler and his ascension to power. His older brother, Kurt, also made it out of Germany, leaving via Berlin to Sweden, where he ended up living for the rest of his life.

For the first four years of his life in pre-state Palestine, Keller received a letter from his mother every two weeks, tissue-paper thin letters crammed with her cramped, Gothic-style German cursive.

“They went through the censor, she couldn’t tell me certain things,” he said. “But I read between the lines.”

The final letter Shimon Keller received from his mother, Berta Keller, in 1942 (Courtesy Yad Vashem)
The final letter Shimon Keller received from his mother, Berta Keller, in 1942 (Courtesy Yad Vashem)

He received his last letter from Berta in 1942, telling him that she probably wouldn’t write again.

Our beloved children,
You probably received our last farewell postcards. We didn’t know the exact day [of our departure] then.
As dear Father already wrote, we are leaving on the 25th, so it looks as though we will see each other earlier than we anticipated.
We are sending you a picture of us as a parting gift, and hope that you will receive it. After all, I want you get to know dear Father, and we very much hope that it will be soon.
Now darling children, be well and pray for us that dear God will watch over us and protect us and all of you.

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” said Keller’s daughter, Edna Segev, who several years ago helped her father translate the letters into Hebrew before donating the originals to Yad Vashem. “I don’t know if she knew where she was going.”

“I think they didn’t want to understand,” said Vicky Keller, Shimon’s second wife. “They lived in hope, that maybe their mother would survive.”

That original last letter from Berta Keller is now part of Yad Vashem’s new online exhibit, “Last Letters from the Holocaust: 1942,” which will be available as of April 24 at the start of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, along with letters from nine other families.

Yad Vashem accessed its entire archive of documents and artworks, the thousands of personal letters and other documentation collected from survivors for this experiential exhibit, using what it could to visually tell the stories of victims, said Yona Kobo, a researcher of online exhibitions in Yad Vashem’s internet department.

“What’s so emotional about this exhibit is that it’s extremely personal,” said Kobo. “No letter is similar to someone else’s letter, and it’s often the last physical item that they touched from their loved one.”

The online exhibit showcases the stories of the 10 families, using the letters, photographs and several voiceovers to describe what happened to each of the families, who came from towns, cities and villages throughout Europe.

Vicky Keller (left), Shimon Keller and his daughter, Edna Segev, worked together to translate the last letters from Shimon's mother, Berta (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Vicky Keller (left), Shimon Keller and his daughter, Edna Segev, worked together to translate the last letters from Shimon’s mother, Berta (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Shimon Keller is one of the few survivors of these families, thanks to his mother’s prescient decision to send him to Israel.

At home, in his living room, Keller likes to go through the photos in his collection, looking at pictures of himself on school trips back in Germany, as well as those of his family.

In 1938, both of Berta’s sons, Kurt and Siegfried — who later changed his name to Shimon — joined different pioneer training farms, known as Hachsharot, in Germany. Their time at the Hachsharot ended during the November 1938 Kristallnacht, a night Shimon Keller remembers with great clarity, including his own escape from his dormitory, when he jumped from a second-floor window into the yard below.

Both Keller and his brother made it home to their mother in the village of Werden, where she, a single mother, had raised them. Their biological father had died from mustard gas poisoning during World War I.

“We knew we couldn’t stay there for long,” said Keller.

Kurt soon left for Berlin and from there to Sweden. Shimon opted for life in pre-state Israel, but the brothers remained in touch and visited one another regularly.

Berta Keller ended up remarrying in 1940, but despite her new husband’s wealth and connections in the US, they were unable to leave Germany. Shimon Keller found out 20 years later, in 1962, that his mother was first deported to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz in 1943, where she perished.

Shimon Keller, formerly known as Siegfried, during his first days on kibbutz, in pre-state Palestine (Courtesy Yad Vashem)
Shimon Keller, formerly known as Siegfried, during his first days on kibbutz, in pre-state Palestine (Courtesy Yad Vashem)

In Israel, he ended up joining the nascent Israeli police force, recommended by another cousin who had also made it to pre-state Palestine. Part of Keller’s early police service was in Tel Aviv’s Sarona, now a refurbished shopping and restaurant complex, which had been founded by the German Templar community. Keller, then a trainee, guarded the German Templars living there, and with his native German, was often asked to handle the roll call.

“It was a terrible feeling,” he said. “I’m reading these names and I know what’s happening to Jews in Germany right then. And I have some kind of upper hand, because I’m calling their names.”

Keller’s daughter, Edna Segev, said her father didn’t always talk about the war years during her own childhood. Once he had grandchildren, it was very important, though, for him to tell them his stories, recalling his escape during Kristallnacht, as well as what happened to his extended family.

“And he took care of these pages, like a yekke [German Jew known for detail], just outstanding,” she said, thumbing the family’s photocopies of the letters, kept in plastic sleeves and filed away in a series of loose-leaf binders.

“He had a desire to write about this, he spent time writing the story of his life,” said Segev. “And he would open the notebooks and the letters, the originals, on their thin paper, which he had protected since he was 15-years-old. It’s a miracle.”

Berta Keller (left), her sons Siegfried (Shimon) and Kurt, and Berta's aunt Esther, Werden, Germany, 1920s (Courtesy Yad Vashem)
Berta Keller (left), her sons Siegfried (Shimon) and Kurt, and Berta’s aunt Esther, Werden, Germany, 1920s (Courtesy Yad Vashem)

It was Segev who convinced her father to work on a translation of the letters, which were all in German, a language she doesn’t speak. They spent a year working on the project.

“I had goosebumps finally reading these letters,” said Segev, whose older sister, Noga Nabaro, was also involved in the complicated process.

In 2013, Segev and her father, his prayer shawl in hand, made a pilgrimage to Yad Vashem to officially hand over the letters.

“I wanted these in a safe place, because one day, we’ll be gone from this world,” she said. “I wanted to know it would be safe for our future generations — my grandchildren and great-grandchildren — to see and understand.”

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