Non­fic­tion

The Last Let­ter: A Father’s Strug­gle, a Daughter’s Quest, and the Long Shad­ow of the Holocaust

Karen Baum Gordon

  • Review
By – December 20, 2021

Many books explore Holo­caust survivor’s guilt, a cost­ly mal­a­dy that has a vic­tim silent­ly ask why he or she lives while oth­ers died. The Last Let­ter is a unique vari­a­tion on this theme, in that its main sub­ject is not a Holo­caust sur­vivor, but one who nev­er­the­less lived with an unbear­able degree of survivor’s guilt.

Rudy Baum, a nat­u­ral­ized Ger­man-Jew­ish Amer­i­can, had upper mid­dle-class par­ents in Frank­furt, Ger­many. Their lives were cru­el­ly stolen by the Nazis in 1936, five years after he had fled to Amer­i­ca as a twen­ty-one-year-old refugee. Rudy lived to eighty-six, mask­ing ago­niz­ing despair over not hav­ing been able to mirac­u­lous­ly res­cue his par­ents from Lodz Ghet­to in Poland. There, in 1941, his father died from mal­nu­tri­tion, and ten weeks lat­er his ema­ci­at­ed moth­er hung her­self, heart-wrench­ing facts uncov­ered through thir­teen years of ardu­ous, com­pre­hen­sive research by Rudy’s daugh­ter, Karen Baum Gor­don, the book’s author.

After Rudy’s death in 2007 Ms. Gor­don set out to uncov­er every­thing pos­si­ble about the lives of her father’s ill-fat­ed par­ents. She learned about pre­ced­ing gen­er­a­tions of a dis­tin­guished fam­i­ly line that dat­ed in Ger­many back to 1632, all in the hope of illu­mi­nat­ing Rudy’s anguish. This involved archivists, his­to­ri­ans, orga­ni­za­tions and schol­ars, as well as sev­en­ty-five web­sites, and led to the book’s 225 foot­notes and fifty-one illus­tra­tions. She made many vis­its to Euro­pean ceme­ter­ies, ghet­tos, memo­ri­als, Holo­caust muse­ums, and Nazi camp sites.

Through­out WWII, Rudy, an enlist­ed mem­ber of the U.S. Army, came to con­demn all Ger­mans with hatred and con­tempt as unfor­giv­able war crim­i­nals. He was among the first Amer­i­can troops in 1945 to enter Buchen­wald Con­cen­tra­tion Camp, the site of unimag­in­able hor­rors. Rudy lat­er wrote, Noth­ing I have expe­ri­enced in my entire life can com­pare with the impact Buchen­wald has had on me.”

Iron­i­cal­ly, as a Ger­man-speak­ing Army offi­cer, Rudy was ordered to head a unit assigned to nur­ture pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues in Mar­burg, a small near­by city. Lat­er many anti-Nazi Ger­man upstanders there could not thank him enough. That expe­ri­ence helped him renounce col­lec­tive guilt in favor of judg­ing indi­vid­ual respon­si­bil­i­ty, although he could nev­er for­get or for­give crimes against humanity.

Dur­ing his retire­ment, Rudy spoke often in schools and syn­a­gogues about the lessons and loss­es of the Holo­caust. His daugh­ter, intent on blunt­ing her own anger and bit­ter­ness over the toll of the Holo­caust, chose in 2013 to become a Ger­man cit­i­zen as part of her own rec­on­cil­i­a­tion effort.

The task the writer set her­self was for­mi­da­ble, as it entailed draw­ing on schol­ar­ship about anti­semitism, psy­cho­analy­sis, and the Shoah, as well as her own fam­i­ly his­to­ry. Giv­en the dis­parate con­tent and lan­guage, her writ­ing is adroit and often art­ful. She clar­i­fies and enlivens a very com­plex story.

The Last Let­ter makes a sin­gu­lar con­tri­bu­tion to the field of lit­er­ary schol­ar­ship on the Shoah. Ear­ly on, Karen Baum Gor­don cites William Faulkner’s guid­ing truth: The past is nev­er dead. It’s not even past.” Her work makes clear how much val­ue we can gain from out­stand­ing explorato­ry research, ably guid­ed by this time­less truism.

Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Soci­ol­o­gy, Pro­fes­sor Arthur B. Shostak is the author in 2017 of Stealth Altru­ism: For­bid­den Care as Jew­ish Resis­tance in the Holo­caust. Since his 2003 retire­ment from 43 years teach­ing soci­ol­o­gy he has spe­cial­ized in Holo­caust studies.

Discussion Questions