WWII-era letters in German - help needed!! (long)

I don’t know if this is the right sub-forum (or even the right forum at all) for this request, but given its (mostly) high cerebral caliber I thought it would be worth a try.

Sitting in my family’s safe deposit box are a packet of 67 documents, mostly letters and postcards with some photographs, passed down to me from my mother. The dates are from 1915 to 1951, but the vast majority of the correspondence is between 1940 and 1946. As far as I can tell, they represent my (American) grandmother and great aunt’s attempts to find, keep touch with and in some tragic cases try to help their family in Europe during and after the war. Some of the correspondence is from ghettoes in Nazi-occupied Poland (via an intermediary in Switzerland) from family members who did not survive the war, with the postdates preceding their deportation by only a few days. Other correspondence is from relatives who have fled to (then-) Palestine, England, and Italy.

As is probably clear, these letters mean a lot to me, and I think they potentially are highly valuable as historical documents. Even without being able to translate them they look to me like a microcosm of the twentieth century Jewish diaspora. I scanned them all into high-quality .jpgs a few years ago and that’s what I’m working with, though the originals can be accessed if necessary. I do speak a little German, so translation isn’t as much an issue as transcription; it’s mostly in a variety of cursive hands that I have trouble making out.

If anybody out there is good at reading old German handwriting and wants to try to give transcription/translation a shot, I would be very very very happy to send you a few scans to try your hand at. This is a big project, and will probably take a long time, but it’s a compelling one, and I’d be glad for even a little bit of help from someone more skilled at this sort of thing.

If anyone’s interested, please PM me for my email address.

I sent you a PM with an email address. Please feel free to contact me if you still need help with this.

Strange- I emailed you earlier today already. Did you not receive it?

Let us know what interesting tidbits you discover !

Yes, I sent a couple of translations back to you this morning.

Shirley Ujest, I think we’ll leave it to the OP to share as he feels comfortable with/appropriate. I know you probably meant that, but since you brought it up, it’s a good time to reassure everyone that I will respect his family’s privacy and not post any of my results here.

Just wanted to say that whatever you find in those letters, it is going to be of historic significance, no matter what is written. You are very fortunate indeed! I think any written-about event from long ago somehow brings that person “back”, and lets you imagine what they must have been like.

No experience at all with this writing style, but I have seen examples, and boy! That’s some intricate writing!

I have, in my safe deposit box, a letter written by my Mom to my Dad’s parents and even though it isn’t in Old German, one notices right away the care she took in getting every letter (symmetrically?) perfect.

In addition to languages, I find penmanship fascinating.

Good luck!


Thanks for everyone’s help so far; a handful are already translated. I’m in the process of setting up a blog-type format to post translations as they come in; once I do I’ll be sure to put up the URL.

Gam Zeh Yaavor, there’s two more letters underway that I managed to translate. I’m just posting here to say that I’ve been lucky enough to share in this immensely intriguing (if at times disturbing and saddening) project, I’ve managed to translate a limited number of letters and postcards and I really find it a wonderful way to be in touch with history. If any of you guys and gals know and/or are German and have any interest in dealing with first-hand history, I wholeheartedly recommend that you put yourself in touch with GZY.

If GZY is so forthcoming as to offer to share these letters with us, then I will be first in line to read your blog. A PM is on the way!



I would LOVE a link to this blog when it’s up. This sounds just amazing.

I’m still here, thinking this sounds like a History Channel program in the making, if you want to take it that far, GZY!



I’ve put up a group of scanned documents on my flickr page at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/44263726@N03/

This handful of documents (letters and photos) are those from the collection that are obviously and directly connected to the Elfenbein family. There are about 50 other letters, many of which are by family in the UK and Palestine; it seems to make sense to try to work through them one part at a time rather than just dumping all 67 documents in one giant pile.

I can’t express my gratitude enough for everybody who has already helped out. I put up a few of the tentative translations in the “comments” fields; if anybody has any input please don’t hesitate to add.

For anybody interested, here’s what I do know about the Elfenbeins: they were from Vienna (1080 Wien, Alserstrasse 55/17, in case anyone’s in Vienna with a camera right now) and were transported to the ghetto in Opole, occupied Poland in February 1941. The official paper trail ends there, and so they were presumably killed at Belzec or Sobibor in early 1942, along with the rest of the ghetto, although it seems from two of the translated postcards that one of them died in the ghetto.

This is heavy stuff, folks. I don’t think/hope that the majority of these letters will be so tragic, but this probably won’t be the end of the sorrow here. The strangest thing is that even though I’m several degrees removed from any of the people mentioned in the letters, I seem to feel how the events in them still shaped me: the war and its effects on her family deeply and fundamentally changed my grandmother, influencing how my mother developed; even in my not-long-ago childhood the war was still reverberating.

I’ll keep everyone posted when the next group of scans is added to the flickr account; should be within a few days.

Wow, that’s unspeakably sad. It sends a chill up my spine.


Those are some really nice letters. I have a few from my great grandmother, one about a month before she died. She was very sick and says something about it, even saying she might not live for another year. It’s both sad and intriguing all at the same time. I hope you can get all of your letters translated as it’s both a great personal and historical find, even if only for your family.


A new group of documents has been added to the Flickr page (linked above). These are the contents of all the letters sent from Palestine, from a variety of senders, with dates from 1941-45. There’s a little Hebrew in these as well, if anybody is keen to tackle those.

Got the links today, GZY and I am happy to help however I can.:slight_smile:

I must, however, offer the following “caveat”.

As I was only 11 when we left Germany, I do still speak the language, but I’m not sure of the grammar/syntax sometimes, so I defer to my more learned friends here on The Dope for that, ja?

I will continue to peruse the contents of these documents, but if you get a translation which makes more sense than mine, then please accept that one, okay?

I have a LOT of time on my hands these days and will enjoy a little bit of “Das Heimland”. Thanks for sharing!


I’m working on No. 40 under “Elfenbein” (the typewritten one). So as not to duplicate our efforts, if anyone else is already doing that one, please let me know by PM.

I was just about to see what I could do on Google Earth but then remembered my seemingly eternal lament: Damn the resistance to Street View throughout the German speaking countries!. To my knowledge there isn’t yet a single Austrian, German or Swiss city on Street View.

40 and 34 are a bit of a mystery since at this point I have no idea who David April was, or what his relationship to the other was. I’m eager to hear anything you get out of it; gotta wonder how Havana enters into the equation.

My mother’s side of the family is from what is now Western Ukraine. I believe that most of them spent their last days in Sobibor. I site where the translations are is blocked at work but I am very interested to read them when I get home.