Murray Laulicht knew about the correspondence between his parents during the war years. He just didn’t realize until he had his father’s letters translated from Polish, in 1991, that they were documents revealing the impact of the Holocaust and American immigration policies on a family separated by an ocean, war, and fate.
“I thought these would just be love letters,” said Laulicht, a West Orange attorney and key benefactor and leader of Jewish causes. “There were certainly many things to make me cry: how difficult the circumstances were, how brave my parents were, the dilemmas they faced, and the choices they had to make.”
Laulicht shares those letters — along with historical documents reflecting U.S. immigration policies and his own commentary — in Yearning to Breathe Free: My Parents’ Fight to Reunite during the Holocaust, published in January by Gefen.
Laulicht spoke with NJJN about reading the letters for the first time, realizing he was reading evidence of the Holocaust unfolding in real time, and understanding the emotional anguish of his parents.
“It was very, very difficult,” he said.
His mother, Ernestyna Goldwasser, got out of Poland in 1940, thanks to the American citizenship she inherited from her father. Her mother eventually made it to New York as well. But Ernestyna’s husband, Abraham Yecheskel Goldwasser, was not so lucky. Even as Ernestyna tried frantically to get a visa to him, the combination of an American government increasingly hostile to Jewish immigration and deteriorating conditions in Poland became a perfect storm. Chaskel, as she called him, perished in the Holocaust, possibly at Flossenberg, possibly elsewhere — there are no records of his death.
Chaskel never met his son Murray, born in the United States a few months after Ernestyna arrived.
The early letters, full of excitement and hope for the future, include details of a more or less normal life. In the first letter, dated Feb. 1, 1940, Chaskel, living in Nazi-occupied Cracow, writes to Ernestyna: “Try to get us over as soon as possible,” and, “Mother bought a hearing aid for 350 zlotys.” There is some foreshadowing: “I still work for Mr. Anand. I do not know for how much longer.” But also, “Everybody envies you and says that you are a courageous woman to go on such a long, long trip.”
But Laulicht’s parents encounter inexplicable difficulties and obfuscations in their attempts to obtain a visa for Chaskel. On June 17, 1940, Chaskel writes, “Could you please take care of something in Washington, because here we cannot do anything. I already wrote four letters to the consul, and he has not answered.”
Ernestyna receives provisional approval, pending Chaskel’s “formal application” — a nearly impossible obstacle, requiring a Jew in Cracow to travel to Berlin.
It’s clear that Ernestyna wrote often to her husband; he references her letters and photos she sent him in his letters, which also include constant interest in her description of the birth and development of the son he would never see. Of course, those letters were lost.
The separated couple could not have known about the now infamous internal department memo from Breckinridge Long, newly appointed as assistant secretary in charge of the visa division at the U.S. State Department, in June 1940: “We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”
But the unfortunate timing is obvious with hindsight.
The letters detail worsening conditions. In 1941, the Jews of Cracow were ordered into the ghetto, but Chaskel fled to a small town, Radomysl Wielki, where his family had moved the year before. He gives his wife his new address and reveals how many of them are living together. March 17, 1941: “I do not know where to turn. I feel lonely…. Uncle and I slept in the kitchen and I gave my room to Shimeck and Gusta…. Here everything has changed and it is not like it used to be. I would like to be able to live till we will be together.”
On Oct. 13, 1941, Chaskel writes, “Abraham does not earn anything; he is selling everything he has. Maybe we will have less luggage that way.” And on Dec. 20, 1941: “Do not worry, my darling, God will not leave us…. I am going to light some candles for Chanukah, and we managed to get some fat, like we used to.”
The letters, totaling about 70, end in April 1942. In June the German police and SS launched its first “aktion” to liquidate the Cracow ghetto and transport its Jews to slave labor and extermination camps. The same occurred in Radomysl in July.
In his book, Laulicht describes his own efforts to track down documents revealing the rest of his father’s fate, a trail that runs dry in October 1943. He also discusses his mother’s earlier efforts — she looked not only for documents but also sought to contact any individuals who thought they had seen her husband. These eventually suggest that he died of typhus in the Flossenberg concentration camp in December 1944.
Laulicht, now 75, wrote the book because, he said, “I felt I owed it to my parents — all three of them — who went through so much.” Philip Laulicht, Ernestyna’s second husband, adopted Murray when he was 10 years old. Philip Laulicht’s first wife was also murdered in the Holocaust. Murray has his last name, but in Hebrew he still carries Chaskel’s name.
As a philanthropist, Laulicht has committed himself to causes that preserve what was lost in the Shoa and that continue to sustain Jewish life around the world. A past chair of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, he also served, from 1996 to 1999, as president of United Jewish Federation of MetroWest (a precursor to today’s Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ). A member of Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange, he has served on the boards of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and Stern College for Women, an affiliate of Yeshiva University, his alma mater.
For Laulicht, there is a black hole where family should be. “I know nothing about my father’s family. And there’s no one to ask, and no photos. Not knowing any of that is kind of haunting,” he said.