Correspondence is a lost art,” says Judith Cohen, director of the Photographic Reference Collection Curatorial Affairs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In an era of e-cards and text messages, the Rosh Hashanah card has taken on less formality.
But during the 20th century, sending Rosh Hashanah cards was proper etiquette and the primary means of updating family and friends. The New Year’s cards that survived World War II offer a glimpse into the conditions and perseverance of the Jews of Europe.
Cards, particularly before the war, were quite elaborate, Cohen says. They featured embossed borders with gold leaf, colorful depictions of flowers and doves and L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu written out in gorgeous calligraphy. Portraits were a prominent feature, much like the popular glossy holiday cards of today.
“It’s very personal,” says Teresa Pollin, curator of Art and Artifacts at the USHMM, of the prevalence of photographs.
“It was a dispersed community. Immigration started before the war. A lot of people had families who went to Palestine and the United States and it was an opportunity to say, ‘Here’s the baby you’ve never met,’” explains Cohen.
It is precisely because the cards were mailed to destinations outside of Europe, particularly to the United States, that so many have been preserved. After the United States entered the war, said Cohen, it became more difficult for Jews in Europe to get mail out. They often had to send mail through a neutral country and hope their contact there could send it on to its intended destination. It could take more than six months for a card to arrive.
Not surprisingly, post-war cards make up a sizeable portion of the collection, but the museum and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research have stunning examples of cards created in the ghettos and even one card with the portrait of Fajga Erlich, a Polish Jew, that survived Auschwitz tucked away with other photographs and writings in a small suitcase. YIVO in New York possesses heartbreaking cards made by schoolchildren for Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski, leader of the Lodz Ghetto, who is most remembered for his “Give Me Your Children” speech.
In a rare departure from the typical portraiture based card, Israel Lichtenstein’s 1942 Rosh Hashanah card features an illustration of the barracks, guard tower and fence surrounding the Beaune-la-Rolande French-run internment camp. Lichtenstein’s father was sent to the internment camp and then to Auschwitz where he died. Lichtenstein survived the war and eventually immigrated to Israel.
Photographs became more prominent after the war, as a testament of, “Here we are. We have survived,” Pollin says.
Children especially wanted their photographs taken.
The USHMM has a striking collection of Rosh Hashanah cards from the Selvino children’s home in Italy, which housed approximately 800 Jewish orphans of the Holocaust following the war. Each card follows the same formula: the image of the child inset into a photo of the Sciesopoli house with the symbol and motto of the Zionist pioneering youth group Gordonia plastered on the left hand side.
Zionist themes dominate post-war New Year’s cards.
Searching through the digital archives, Pollin pulls up a dozen examples featuring ships, as in the card sent by Jeshahu (Shaya) Sitzer from the Berlin-Schlachtensee displaced persons camp.
“Here we are with a ship to Palestine. There are so many with ships to Palestine — there’s something very aspirational,” says Cohen, even for those European Jews whose ultimate destination was North America.
Other cards feature illustrations of workers plowing fields and men with rifles standing guard under a waving flag emblazoned with a Star of David.
Max Netzer, formerly Schanzer, was among those European Jews who made it to Palestine just months before Israel’s founding. He provided a striking holiday card featuring a photograph of himself and Moniek Wild to the USHMM.
According to the biographical information provided by the museum, Netzer was born in 1926 in Essen to Josef and Bertha Schanzer. Though born in Germany, Netzer and his older brother Bernd were considered Polish citizens. After experiencing increasing hardship and violence under the Nazi regime, the brothers and their parents were deported to the Polish border in October 1938.
They traveled on foot to Zbaszyn, a small Polish town, where they were then interned. When the Schanzer family was granted permission to leave in 1939, they traveled to Bielsko to stay with Josef’s sister. The war broke out not long after; the family fled east to Komarno and later to Soviet-controlled Lvov.
Bernd joined a youth Zionist organization and fled with its members to Vilna. Six months later, the elder brother was able to immigrate to Palestine with Youth Aliyah. Netzer and his parents were less fortunate. They were arrested by the Soviets in the spring of 1940 and were sent to Siberia for forced labor. They regained their freedom in 1941 and journeyed to Kazakhstan. In 1946, they repatriated to Poland and were later brought by the Bricha — the underground network that helped Jews in displaced persons camps reach Palestine — to the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp, where the photo of Netzer and Wild was taken in September 1947. Netzer arrived in Palestine in February 1948 on board the Transylvania.
But despite his travails, Netzer, like so many others, took the time to wish his friends and family a Happy New Year.