A Letter from the Holocaust
While working in Northampton Community College's (NCC) Student Life Services and managing its social media pages, Christina Turissini received an unusual private Facebook message. In it, a woman named Ann Trombly asked for help contacting Esther Bauer, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor who has given talks all over the world, including one at NCC on March 5, 2013.
Why did Trombly want to contact Bauer? While Trombly and her sister were going through a family stamp collection in 2010, they discovered an empty, stamped, addressed envelope mailed on June 16, 1940 from Hamburg, 20, Woldsenweg 5, Germany, by Drs. Alberto and Marie Jonas to Archibald and Ida Silverman of Providence, Rhode Island. Alberto had the name Israel and Marie the name Sara added to their real first names, a measure required by the Nazis to intimidate and identify Jews with "non-Jewish" names. The letter was typewritten except for the name Marie Sara, in pen.
"I almost fell over when I pulled out an envelope with Nazi insignia on it," Trombly, an 8th-grade special education teacher in the Dudley-Charlton school district, in Massachusetts, says. She remembered that Mr. Silverman had employed her great-aunt Esther Kavanagh in his office. The Silvermans had given Kavanagh the envelope for her stamp collection. Trombly already possessed postcards to Kavanagh from the Silvermans, sent from Europe and Israel.
"On the one-in-a-million chance that I might be able to find out something about the sender of the letter, I Googled the name and address," Trombly says. "I was shocked to find out that the Jonases were very important people." Marie Anna, a physician, had received a Cross of Honor in Germany for her work with the Red Cross during World War I. A square in Hamburg-Eppendorf was named in her honor in 2009 and a memorial stone laid in the pavement in front of her house. Alberto Jonas was the principal of a Jewish girls' school. Esther Bauer was their only child.
In 1933, when Bauer was nine, Adolf Hitler rose to power as the dictator of Germany. Within months, he and the Nazi party began to act upon the vicious anti-Semitism they had practiced for years and that had pervaded Europe for millennia. They began the persecution with a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, followed by expulsions of Jews from professions, schools, parks, theaters, and other public places. On Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass," an organized, state-sponsored program throughout Germany and Austria, one hundred Jews were murdered, many more taken to concentration camps, and synagogues and Jewish-owned stores and homes shattered and torched. The attacks included Hamburg.
By July 16, 1940, the date on Trombly's envelope, the Nazis had already invaded and conquered most of Europe. In 1941, the regime closed Alberto Jonas's school. Nazis seized the Jonas apartment, displacing them to a "Jewish" building. Two years and three days after the date on the envelope, Bauer, then eighteen, and her parents were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, in Czechoslovakia. Her father died six weeks later of meningitis. Along with her mother and husband, Bauer was later sent to Auschwitz, where her husband and mother were murdered. Bauer barely survived forced labor at a munitions factory in Freiburg and later at the Mauthausen death camp. Toward the end of the war, American troops liberated her and nursed her back to health from near-starvation.
In 1946, Bauer came to New York, eventually remarrying, and having a son and grandchildren.
Trombly began her quest to find Bauer by researching the Silvermans. She learned that they had been well-known civic leaders and philanthropists who raised funds for Rhode Island hospitals, championed the fledgling state of Israel, assisted Jewish immigrants and refugees, and founded more than 100 synagogues throughout the world. Coincidentally, Kavanagh had received a postcard from the Silvermans describing the "nice people," probably the Jonases, she was meeting at the spa. Having worked in London as an au pair, Marie Jonas spoke fluent English.
It seemed possible to Trombly that the Jonases had written to the Silvermans for help escaping Germany. "They seemed like the kind of people Esther's parents may have written to for help," Trombly says. In fact, the Silvermans did write an affidavit of support for the Jonases. Tragically, the application for an exit permit to enter the United States was submitted far too late.
Believing that the envelope might mean something to the Jonases' daughter, Trombly sent e-mails to all the organizations where Bauer had spoken, but received no responses. "I thought that being such a famous person, Esther would have received lots of papers more important than an empty envelope, and I let it go. Over the years, I got very involved in my own Irish family genealogy research and realized that every tiny piece of the puzzle is important and became convinced that I needed to contact Esther." So, in August 2014, she again sent e-mails, this time including a picture of Bauer. Then, at last, success! She heard back from all but one of her e-mails. After Trombly contacted NCC, Turissini forwarded the e-mails to Greg Bura, who manages Bauer's speaking engagements. Bura gave Trombly Bauer's address. Trombly and Bauer exchanged e-mails, and Bauer recognized the name Archibald Silverman as someone her mother had met at the Carlsbad Spa in Czechoslovakia. She believed that the envelope to the Silvermans once contained a letter asking for help in escaping Germany.
Bauer sent Trombly a movie about her life, "Einfach Esther." (Translated as "Simply Esther.") Trombly and her husband attended a talk by Bauer in Fall River, Massachusetts, and went to dinner afterward with Bauer and her friend, Bill. "What an amazing night and what an incredible, incredible woman! Trombly says. Trombly and Bauer continue to keep in touch by e-mail. All of Bauer's messages include a "hug."
Turissini, now a student success specialist in Career Services and an adjunct professor of student success, is pleased that she was able to connect Trombly and Bauer. "Playing a small role in this story is an honor. In a time when social media is often recognized for its negative aspects, it's great to see it being used for good," she says.
Trombly grew up in Auburn, Massachusetts and now lives in Oxford, Massachusetts. Her recognition of the envelope's importance and her persistence and determination to send the envelope to Esther Bauer preserved a part of one family's struggle during the Holocaust that could easily been lost.