When Ruth Schreiber’s Aunt Esther died in 2004, she left behind a piece of family history Schreiber didn’t know existed.
Discovered in a box were approximately 200 letters and postcards written by Schreiber’s grandparents, Mina Merel and Samuel — Esther’s parents — between 1939 and 1942 as Hitler rose to power.
The letters were addressed to three of their five children, who they managed to send to England in 1939. Two of the three, Schreiber’s father and her Aunt Esther, traveled via Kindertransport. The third reached England as a nurse trainee.
The remaining children were smuggled out of Rivesaltes, a Vichy French camp, and eventually found their way to safety in Switzerland in 1943. The five children reunited in London in 1945.
Through their efforts, their children survived, but Mina and Samuel did not. Mina died after reaching southern France with their two youngest daughters, and Samuel was sent to several camps before being gassed in Auschwitz.
But Mina and Samuel’s story lives on through the letters they wrote, now archived at Yad Vashem.
“My cousins found the letters after my Aunt Esther, their mother, died and they were cleaning out her apartment. One cousin [her daughter Minna] thought she’d heard mention of them but none of us had seen them. Esther kept them since they were written … All the letters were intended for all three children in [the] U.K.,” Schreiber wrote in an email.
Once the letters were discovered, Schreiber, who was born in London and lives in Jerusalem where she works as a docent at the Israel Museum, had them translated and published in a book. She also created a series of related multimedia works, which can be seen at the Gershman Y through March 30.
Letters from My Grandparents: The Art of Ruth Schreiber features screen prints, drawings, photographs and sculptures, among other works.
When Schreiber found out about the letters, it took her a while to come to terms with it. Eventually, she decided to have them translated from the German, French and Yiddish in which they were written, which was no easy task.
“It took me three years to decide to get them translated,” she wrote. “I was nervous of what the contents would be, and it was a major job to get 200 letters and postcards, written in cramped style often, in poor German and Yiddish, etc., translated — the work of a year [part-time]. I felt that I was getting to know my grandparents and I felt, and still believe, that they were very brave, selfless and noble in the most challenging of circumstances. I published the book of letters for myself and my family, and it has become an important window into an unknown period for us all.”
The works she created that are on display at the Gershman Y are a part of a larger Holocaust Remembrance Project. She had been working with masks at the time she found out about the letters, which seemed to her a “natural continuation.”
The project is based on the letters and pieces seen at the Gershman Y and expanded from there. The rest can be seen on her website, ruthschreiber.com.
Through the letters, she learned about her grandparents’ bravery. In 1939, they moved from Bavaria, Germany, to Brussels to escape persecution, leaving them impoverished. Then in 1940, they left Belgium for southern France and were separated; Mina was with the daughters who reached safety in Switzerland.
Reading their story through their letters, Schreiber learned “how poor but positive and hopeful they were.”
She hopes that people who visit the exhibit see the many forms that bravery and courage can take.
“I feel that I am giving a voice to my silenced, demeaned, suffering, brave grandparents, for my family and others, and to millions like them,” she wrote, “and I hope that people who visit will stop to think about what happened in the Shoah, how fortunate we are today — and to realise that courage takes many forms.”
It seems that exhibit-goers have gotten that message, noted Maxine Gaiber, executive director of the Gershman Y.
She pointed to the notes left in the exhibit’s visitor book from people who have come to see it from as far away as California.
“Fantastic that these original words are preserved and shared with the public. Their story is our story,” wrote one.
Gaiber appreciates the contemporary and multimedia artistic interpretation of the letters that Schreiber created.
“It’s an interesting interpretation that kind of combines the best of contemporary art in that Ruth works with lots of different media and she’s very adept in working at all of them,” she said. “There are masks, which I understand are actually casts of her children’s faces so it brings it from one generation to the next, and there are ceramic pieces in the show and there’s a piece on fabric and there are prints that she’s done and drawings — it tells a story, but it doesn’t kind of hit you over the head with it. You have to discover the story. It kind of unfolds.”
The message of the story is one of resilience and optimism despite the tragic circumstances.
“It’s a very sad story and a very poignant story and a story parents can really identify with in terms of having to give up what’s most precious to you to allow us to survive, and it’s fascinating in that all the children survived through the efforts of the parents and the parents did not. So the children learned about this whole story as they were adults and have shared it with their own children,” she said. “It’s a tragic story yet it’s an optimistic, hopeful story because the children survived.”
The masks in the exhibit in particular stuck out to Gaiber because they signify unity and a reminder that some families still face similar circumstances today.
“They’re a combination of every single one of them looking different from one another but when you see them as a group,” she said, “there’s kind of a shared humanity that reminds us of how many millions of people are involved in a Holocaust story and how many people are still living these lives and having to make these decisions about staying where they are or being brave and leaving where they are and families being broken up. So it’s still a story that, unfortunately, resonates with what’s happening around the world today.”
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