by Farris Cassell
Reviewed in Kirkus, August 1, 2020.
A moving account of the search for two Holocaust victims.
In 2000, journalist Cassell’s husband, a physician, brought home a letter given to him by an elderly patient and dated Aug. 7, 1939. The return address was in Vienna, then under Nazi rule. The letter began, “You are surely informed about the situation of all Jews in Central Europe,” and went on to beg the recipient to enable him and his wife to immigrate by filing an official “affidavit of support.” This was essential because U.S. policy aggressively discouraged Jewish refugees. Berger was the name of both sender and recipient, but the American Bergers were not Jewish nor related to the sender; apparently, the writer had found the name by accident. Cassell’s husband’s patient, she learned, had received the letter from an aunt and uncle after their death, but they had not answered it. Yielding to her journalistic instincts, the author proceeded to track down the story of the letter writer, a task that required a decade of research and travel. Thanks to the German obsession with paperwork, archives and government offices turned up a trove of information about Albert and Hedwig Berger and their large extended family whose descendants, now scattered to North and South America and Israel, delivered their letters and photographs. Many joined Cassell in Vienna to visit their ancestral homes as she completed her research. Though the narrative contains more information on an undistinguished Viennese couple than most readers want to know, the author vividly portrays a rich culture’s unspeakably cruel destruction. Long settled in Vienna, the Bergers were stunned at the sudden Nazi takeover. Greeting it enthusiastically, Austrians embraced German anti-Semitic law. Jews were repeatedly assaulted, robbed, taxed, and fined, and most lost their jobs. Cassell records the painful details as most tried to emigrate. Many succeeded, but not the Bergers; Albert died in an accident in 1942, and Hedwig was deported and killed.
Though often grim, the story is a historical treasure.