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Hidden Letters: Keeping Alive The Message Of The Holocaust

November 6, 2013 1:45 p.m.


Deborah Slier Shine and Ian Shine, authors, Hidden Letters

Related Story: Hidden Letters: Keeping Alive The Message Of The Holocaust


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The story of the Holocaust of World War II was told in many different ways, it's told agonizing numbers of dead and in the remains of the concrete concentration camps. It is told in movies and in museums, but it's only rarely is it told by one of the victims of the Holocaust. Just over fifteen years ago a cache of letters was discovered in the ceiling of an old house in Amsterdam. In those hidden letters a story unfolded for one teenage boy and his family. All of whom were swept up in the Nazi terror in the 1940s. I would like to introduce Deborah Slier Shine and her husband Ian Shine, co-authors and annotators of the book ìHidden Letters.î Welcome to the program. Deborah, tell us who found his letters, and how you got them?

DEBORAH SHINE: In 1997 in a house in Amsterdam, the house where we lived was being demolished. We went to interview with him and he said as the crane lifted up the third floor ceiling, two bundles fell down and he picked them up and took them home and read them over two nights and found they were written by an eighteen-year-old boy in a forced labor camp with his parents and as he read them he could feel the boy's increasing fear. He did not know what to do with the letters that he eventually give them to the Dutch war archives and they eventually came to me. Because Flip was my first cousin and his father and my brother were brothers and my father was the sole survivor of his family.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You both received this package of letters, I wonder if you could tell us what was your reaction when you got these letters and postcards, this information from a lost member of your family?

DEBORAH SHINE: Well, I'm a book publisher and I felt that these letters needed to be known. I knew that the whole family had gone, but I never knew the circumstances and there was one boy telling what happened. This was a good story. Nobody really knows about about it and we all know Anne Frank, but here was a working-class boy who is hungry all the time and very concerned about his parents and also I was struck by the fact that not many teenagers wrote home nightly as he did.

IAN SHINE: He made the comment about the letters saying they're almost unbearable to read but is important that we do so.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And is unbearable to read because we know what happens. But the letters themselves are sometimes upbeat.

IAN SHINE: Upbeat and cheerful.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Maybe you can give our audience a bit of each one this was early on when Flip was taken away from his family and sent to a Nazi camp and when he arrived there in his letter he sent to his parents.

DEBORAH SHINE: He had been in slightly less than a month, and this was on May 4, 1942. It was a postcard: ìdear father and mother again a few words to reassure you today. We began work very hard and I came home dead tired, but I quickly washed myself over and feel refreshed again. I also washed two pairs of socks and a towel but next time I will send my dirty washing home. Last night we had fun putting on a show. I did the poem about the unknown soldier and it was well received, and I had a good time. Harry is also in here with us and he sings beautifully.î

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In the book you tell us who Harry, he was a radio personality and a singer at the time and he was also in this war, one of things that I learned from reading through this book is that I think that the we have this idea that people were taken and immediately sent to a camp somewhere. What happened here in Amsterdam and Holland is like a vice closing, first people were taken from their homes and sent to work, they were able to write home and then slowly the Nazi vice caught up everybody. The parents had to leave and he was transferred, is that what we discovered?

DEBORAH SHINE: Exactly so. The Jewish Council in Amsterdam said that at first the Nazis and the Germans didn't seem hostile at all.

IAN SHINE: Initially yes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What happened to your family members in Holland?

DEBORAH SHINE: I knew the Dutch family very well by letters and photographs.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Your family lived in South Africa?

DEBORAH SHINE: Yes my father kept in closely in touch with his family and I knew the names. In his stories were always of Holland and is in patient was always to die and go to Holland ñ die and go to heaven. It's true. I remember him getting a letter or postcard saying I'm in a camp, I'm well but please send food, and you could say send Red Cross parcels and this is from my brother. And then I remember at the end of the war we're running around and playing and my mother said be quiet because daddy is very sad and he has got a letter from the Red Cross. He sent food and the Red Cross sent a letter back that his whole family had been wiped out. Two nephews and two third-generation children and he turned around, and he said I can understand the Germans killing my brothers but my mother was eighty-six. What harm could she do? What harm could an old woman do? That day I saw him cry and it was imprinted forever in my mind.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering when Deborah received the letters, was this going to open up a journey where you and Deborah were going to find what kind of life Flip had?

IAN SHINE: I urged Deborah not to touch it and have made it under errors of judgment in my life and politics and everything else and this was one of the ones that I thought was a silly adventure. I assured her not to do it and she had more insights than me and carried on. Before long I was affected and realized there was much more to it than I saw. If you just read the first few letters, which we did, they seem rather happy, and he liked food and clothes and life and it did not seem that there's anything wrong. When you understand the circumstances and the association for that suddenly comes to life and we both worked together for many years on the project and am very pleased that we did.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes because you have re-created the whole atmosphere of the time that will identify people in charge and friends. You met one of Flip's first girlfriends.

IAN SHINE: We did.

DEBORAH SHINE: Went about ten times looking for people and she was in her 80s and very large and scrappy hair and I listened to her. And she said he was crazy about me, crazy! And she said that we broke up in 1940 and he wrote a poem for me and we sat there sixty years later and recited the poem and cried together.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I wonder if I could ask you to read an excerpt from Flip's last letter in the work camp before he was transferred. Does he knows that his family's going to be forced to leave as well?

DEBORAH SHINE: Everybody was being lined up and I think in one of the letters discussion about them going into hiding but the mother doesn't want to. This is September 14 1942: ìDear parents, don't think unkindly of me if I didn't go with you. I thought it all through thoroughly and then asked the cook for information. He strongly discouraged all of us and said there was no way we would be together. Send several of my things of any value here, Pa also I would like to know where he with whom you have asked of you do understand me well. So in case it might be become necessary I can take the session of it. Yes how much I would love to see you again, but there is a small chance that we will get to meet by now. We'll wait and see with it. One of the mothers has been here to help us with everything. She is like a mother to us, so kind and loving we can never be grateful enough to her. Her father also likes the Allies. I don't know much more now. I end this letter with a big kiss and wishes for strength from Flip. Be strong, in any case get everything ready. Many kisses and a strong embrace.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And that's his last letter? Do we know what happened and where he ultimately met his fate?

DEBORAH SHINE: Let me just explain. Flip ran away from the camp and a family helped him and gave Flip a suit's that way he can go to Amsterdam. I think he needed papers and he went into hiding. His friend Carl said that he died his hair red and got false papers and was working in Amsterdam. There is a plan for him to get to Switzerland on the sort of underground railways and something went wrong because we know he was arrested at the Amsterdam railway station, and we know that there was a fight because the rest papers say he has a wound on his mouth, and he was then sent to punishment in Holland. From there he was sent with a punishment lock as the family had been before him and he was put on a train to a death camp and beyond that we don't know whether he was pulled off as a worker or was immediately gassed when he got there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I wanted want to thank you both for speaking with me. I have been speaking with Deborah Ian Shine. Thank you so much.