Author and investigative journalist, Faris Cassell takes us on an incredible journey as she uncovers layers of history in The Unanswered Letter.
In 1939, a Jewish man in Vienna mailed a letter to a woman in California with the same last name. The letter was a desperate plea to help him and his wife get out of the country to be able to escape the Nazis and follow their children. The letter went unanswered but was saved and recently found by a family member who gave it to the author’s husband. He passed it along to her and she became determined to research the Bergers from Vienna to see what happened to them. Cassell uncovered numerous heartbreaking and shocking stories and tracked relatives and descendants all over the world.
The Unanswered Letter tells the history of one Jewish family during the Holocaust and is an important book to read. Knowing about the past is imperative so the atrocities committed against the Jews never happen again.
MICHAEL BERENBAUM’S INTERVIEW WITH FARIS CASSELL
In 1939, Alfred Berger in Vienna sent a letter to a Mrs. Clarence Berger in California pleading for help. The Nazis had occupied Austria the year prior and the letter was written just days before World War ll broke out in Germany. Alfred and his wife Hedwig were in need of an affidavit to leave the country and follow their daughter and her husband who had already obtained the proper paperwork. As the situation in Vienna progressed, the chances of escape dwindled. During those treacherous years of war, there were innumerable barriers, rules, quotas, long lines and continual obstacles preventing Alfred and his wife from a quick escape. The desperate letter had been saved by the west coast Berger family for 60 years and ultimately it made its way to Faris Cassell.
Cassell tracked down and contacted Alfred Berger’s granddaughter, and after initially being suspicious, she agreed to talk to the journalist. Together they learned more about Alfred and Hedwig, and they sought out and connected with other family members around the world. Most of the family had not researched where they came from, and as a group, they learned about their ancestors. Miraculously, Cassell led them as they all traveled to Vienna together to walk the path of their grandparents, visiting apartments, restaurants and shops where their relatives had been.
Michael Berenbaum (top) and Faris Cassell showing the actual letter from 1939.
Bits and pieces of the Berger’s history came together to create a clear picture — 30 pages of a timeline were developed to show where each family member lived during the war and where they ultimately settled. Disturbing stories about loved ones were uncovered with details regarding deportations, unsanitary conditions and executions. Research revealed that the Nazis were worried their followers would feel pity for the Jews so they loaded them on nice trains for the people in town to see. At the Russian border, they transferred everyone to cattle cars that traveled to a stark location where they were each shot in the back with a single bullet and pushed into a pit in the ground. The deceit the Nazis exhibited was shocking and the support the government had from the people was a disgrace. We also learned one of the cousins was left alone with a gun in a room with Adolf Hitler but passed on the opportunity to shoot him.
Faris Cassell said this letter has had a huge impact on her and has changed her life. She is not Jewish and had known very little about the Holocaust, mostly about Ann Frank, prior to this project. Her husband is Jewish, and during the research process, they also learned about his family history and visited the village where his ancestors lived. The book took about a decade to write and it reveals much about Vienna and the Jews as well as an overview of the world during the Holocaust.
I highly recommend The Unanswered Letter. Not only does it tell the story of the Berger family, but it also provides a greater understanding of what many Jewish families endured at the hands of the Nazis, governments and other countries in the late 1930s and 1940s. When reading a book like this that reminds us of the history of hatred, persecution and inhumane behaviors directed and supported by leaders, governments and the general population toward the Jews, the importance of Israel as a safe haven for the Jewish people is reiterated. It makes me think about the idea that if you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem. Never again.
Faris Cassell was a feature writer/weekly book reviewer for Eugene’s daily newspaper, The Register-Guard (circulation then about 80,000) for ten years. She received her M.S. in Journalism from the University of Oregon and her B.A. in History from Mt. Holyoke College.
Jennifer Gans Blankfein is a freelance marketing consultant and book reviewer. She graduated from Lehigh University with a Psychology degree and has a background in advertising. Her experience includes event coordination and fundraising along with editing a weekly, local, small business newsletter. Jennifer loves to talk about books, is an avid reader, and currently writes a book blog, Book Nation by Jen. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, two sons and black lab.