A sticker has been affixed to an envelope postmarked October 19, 1926, an envelope used for literal back-of-the-envelope calculations. At first glance it is innocuous, then the swastika catches one’s eye. The heavy Fraktur font reads: Kauft nicht bei Juden und nicht in ihren Warenhäusern. “Don’t buy from Jews or shop in their businesses.”
A closer look reveals that the monument at the far right is the Niederwalddenkmal, situated above the village of Rüdesheim on the Rhine river. Built in the 1870s and topped by the statue Germania, under the Nazis this monument became a symbol of pan-Germanic nationalism.
Positioned at the traditional French border, Germania was a symbol of German resistance to invaders. (The song the Nazis sing in Casablanca, “Die Wacht am Rhein,” is about this statue.) To the left of the river, the ruin of Schloß Ehrenfels gestures to Germany’s idealized feudal past, the ship to its mercantile present, which the party would “Aryanize” by seizing Jewish businesses or forcing their sale.
As Justin Gordon notes in his book, Holocaust Postal History, “the growing hatred of the Jews was reflected in the anti-Semitic labels that people placed on envelopes sent through the mail.” Holocaust Postal History explores how stamps and the paper they traveled on create a historical record of the Holocaust, capturing, for instance, “the exact historical moment when one person reached out in desperation to another in the hopes of receiving help, encouragement, or simply news that a loved one was still alive.”
“My dear, good child!” Emilie Singer in Slovakia writes to her daughter Margit Singer, using the address for the Frauenlager, the women’s camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. “I haven’t had any news from you in a long time. Are you in good health? I’ve been reading your card countless times a day.” Singer worked in Auschwitz’s Gestapo office, along with some 80 German-speaking Jewish women who were chosen to work as secretaries. As Gordon notes, “The SS preferred using Jewish women as secretaries because they were well-educated, knew a number of languages, could type, and would never see freedom again and thus would not be able to divulge any secrets.” From the ghettos to the camps, these slips of paper may be “the only remaining fragments” of a person’s life.
On January 19, 1947 a young rabbi named Emil Fackenheim got behind a microphone to give a searing radio address about the Jewish refugees from Europe. He himself had been one only four years earlier.
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi predicted a day when the historian would give his task over to the poet. A retrospective look at his writings show his own struggle between the claims of academic history and Jewish memory.
At the heart of Benjamin D. Sommer’s project is a contrast between the stenographic theory of revelation and what he calls the “participatory” theory, which “puts a premium on human agency and gives witness to the grandeur of a God who accomplishes a providential task through the free will of human subjects under God’s authority.”
Peter Berger listened to me patiently, and then he said, “You can come to see me, but”—and here he spoke with heavy emphasis—“it sounds like you have read my books . . . and I haven’t thought of anything new.”