A story that will move any reader, “The Unanswered Letter” is a poignant reminder that love and hope never dies.
In 1939, as the Nazi’s closed in, Alfred Berger mailed a desperate letter to an American stranger who happened to share his last name, He and his wife, Viennese Jews, had found escape routes for their daughters, but their money, connections and emotional energy were exhausted. Desperate for a sponsor, Alfred wrote to the stranger: “You are surely informed about the situation of all Jews in Central Europe … By pure chance, I got your address … My daughter and her husband will go to America …. Help us follow our children … It is our last and only hope.”
The stranger who received that letter did nothing to help Berger, but he did keep that letter in his attic for the next 60 years, until it made its way to investigative journalist Faris Cassell’s hands. Cassell, a Christian, is married to a Jewish doctor, whose family members perished in the Holocaust. She was desperate to find out what happened to Alfred Berger and his wife, Hedwig.
She set out to search for any of Berger’s surviving family members, who became like family to the author. The book is a chronicle of their journey as they pour through more than 100 original letters from the Bergers as they pore out their joys, fears, hopes and struggles to each other as they scatter across the world fleeing the Nazis.
Through these pages, Alfred and Hedwig become not just names on an old letter, but living, breathing people. The author and the Berger family travel to Austria, the Czech Republic, Belarus and Israel in search of living descendants and answers, even speaking to people who living alongside the Bergers and survived the Holocaust.
The book is riveting, revealing the devolving conditions in Vienna, the desperate attempts to get their children out of harm’s way, and the heartbreaking realization that Alfred and Hedwig would be left behind.
The Bergers left no stone unturned in their attempts to flee the Nazis. Reading about all this family went through — the triumphs and challenges of those who got away — and they heartache and horror endured by the Bergers, gives readers a new perspective about how difficult the world made it for Jews to escape their persecutors. At the same time, meeting Aflred and Hedwig’s surviving descendants and the lives they’ve built for themselves shows readers that this family flourished, despite the Nazis — although Alfred and Hedwig could not share in their joys and success.
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