When Andrew Schapiro’s family cleared out his grandmother‘s attic after she died in 1990, they came upon the correspondence between his grandparents and relatives left behind in Prague during WWII. The letters tell the story of the Nazi occupation, written by Czech Jews confronted by increasing racism and ever-changing rules as they desperately tried to escape.
“The letters must have been too painful for my grandmother,” Andrew Schapiro told his audience when he came to NYU Prague to share stories and photos. His family published the correspondence in 1992 in a book entitled Letters from Prague 1939-1941. When Mr. Schapiro became the US Ambassador to Prague in 2014, interest in a Czech edition emerged. The letters were recently published in Czech and were edited by NYU Prague professor Katerina Capkova.
The correspondence begins in 1939, when Mr. Schapiro’s grandparents got three exit visas to the USA – for a family of five. This left them with a heart-wrenching decision: whom to leave behind? Two of their three children (including Andrew’s mother, aged 5) stayed in Prague in the care of their grandmother (Paula) and their Uncle Erwin. The first half of the book is about the complications in getting the girls visas so they could join their family in St. Louis. Finally, shortly after Germany Poland and the war began, the girls left for the USA.
“That would have been the happy end,” said Mr. Schapiro. “if it weren’t for the family left behind.” The second half of the book is an increasingly desperate first-hand account of assimilated Czech Jews trapped. “Uncle Erwin was a successful doctor – one of the leading gastronetrologists in Europe. It makes me sad that people who might have been able to help didn’t stick their necks out.” The last letter in the book is from 1942 – a postcard sent by his great-grandmother to her sister:
I must tell you that on Monday I [depart – crossed out] am boarding [the train] . God bless us all, farewell. Your Paula.
Neither Paula nor Uncle Erwin survived.
As Ambassador in Prague, Andrew Schapiro lived only a few blocks away from where his mother had lived as a child, and when he moved to Prague, suddenly so many of the references in the letters came to life. His office in the Embassy also evoked memories. It was there that visas for his mother and aunt had been issued. But it was also there that Uncle Erwin’s request for a visa was delayed. One of the very few documents to survive the war was a letter from the US Embassy from 1939 saying it would take several years for them to process his request for a visa. “I had mixed feelings as the US Ambassador. I represented a country that had saved our lives but had also shut out so many people.”
Mr. Schapiro remarked on some of the parallels that refugees trying to escape war are confronting today. He reminded students of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
This post comes to us from Leah Gaffen of NYU Prague.