A tri-fold conceals the words while revealing the force of a typewriter: bold abstracted letters raised in reverse. Unfolding the letter, I find the date, a year before my birth, and read the first echoes of Silvia’s voice. “I am sorry to learn about your obviously misguided feelings…”
Tatta-tat-tat-tat-tat. Tat-tat-tat. Ding. Krrrrrk. Tat-tat-tat-tatta-tat. Ding. Krrrrrk.
Silvia’s fingers strike the levered keys of her Underwood Typemaster without hesitation, typing a sequence of words in furious contempt. One letter and then the next erupts in short staccato, lining up like a battalion, but in words, firing off a sentence she couldn’t have known would help a woman, yet to be born, tell her story.
They are the words I have returned to when lost in a dead-end search. For me, they are the first words.
“No doubt, you…will also find justification to your correcting the mistake that happened when I managed to save my life from the hands of Russians and Germans and a violently insane husband smashing up the place with a sledgehammer…”
In my hand, her letter holds stark, raw facts. Silvia, the fierce survivor: quartering no pity and brooking no threat.
Light streams through the window, illuminating the translucent paper, as the implications of her words force inside me to lodge. On reading the letter, I thought I knew what Silvia meant by the Germans, and on the fourth anniversary of Silvia’s death, I wrote a piece that included a previously published obituary that stated she had been imprisoned in Auschwitz. In my piece, In Remembrance I wrote, “With the Soviet invasion, in the autumn of 1944, Silvia, along with 70,000 refugees, fled Estonia. Silvia was separated from her family but escaped into Germany where refugee camps were established. Not long after arriving in German-occupied territory, Silvia was taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp.”
Then the messages arrived with doubts.
I appreciated the conversations that questioned Silvia’s imprisonment at Auschwitz, as the writing of Silvia’s story is, in part, a process of research, including its progress as well as its missteps in my search to find Silvia. For the past few months, I took the doubts quite seriously, hour-upon-hour of examining what information I had, seeking the truth of the matter. Even now I do not have conclusive certainty about her experience, but I do have enough evidence to indicate she was not in an Auschwitz labor camp.
When I first went to Silvia’s house to save the plants she loved, it was a neighbor who told me she had survived the Holocaust, her arm marked. It was a revelation impossible to brush aside while digging the soil and placing her plants in my garden: each bulb, each root, a living life. In part, it was this revelation that compelled me to learn of her life.
I spoke with others in my little town who told me she had talked with them about the camps. I sought out neighbors from her Gould Hill neighborhood who remembered slight mention of the war years. Was she making a lever device? Possibly a munitions factory?
I returned to the letter; the Germans tried to kill her.
Although not commonly known, Auschwitz was the only camp where prisoners were stripped of their names and identities in the grim system of numeric identification, a single barbed punch that tattooed unwilling arms with a growing number. So I began a detailed and painful examination of the list of Auschwitz’s “forgotten” sub-camps, searching for forced labor camps that imprisoned women and worked with any munitions. The list of Auschwitz camps is lengthy, with three main camps and 45 subcamps in all, each with a description, and in many cases a link with the heartbreaking testimonies of survivors. In this grim list, there was only one camp, Hindenburg in Zabrze, Poland that aligned with the information I had gathered.
Hindenburg was established late in the war, with prisoners arriving in August of 1944. It primarily imprisoned women to work in the Donnersmark mill, making weapons and ammunition. In the testimony of Anna Pieczonkowa, women from many nationalities were forced to work in the camp, which was in operation for five months. With the deterioration of the Eastern front, the women were forced on foot to Gliwice in January 1945. Those who survived the march were moved by rail to Gross Rosen, as the Nazis began to dismantle camps and destroy evidence.
My conjecture at the time was that Silvia had left Tartu where her family had a farm, before the arrival of the Soviets in that area in mid-to-late August of 1944. With this timeframe, Hindenburg appeared most likely and seemed to be corroborated when I received documents, pertaining to Silvia, from the International Tracing Services Archives (ITS), an archive established immediately following the war by the Allies in Bad Arolson, Germany. Although the files I received did not include any reference to Silvia’s wartime location, they did include her registration as a displaced person (refugee) in 1945 at the displaced persons (DP) camp in Memmingen, located in the American zone in southern Germany. This made an Eastern European location during the war quite probable.
Yet the question remained: Why? Why was Silvia, an Estonian, sent to a labor camp? Had she been in the wrong place at the wrong time, the random chance of which a few Baltic refugee survivors write? Or was it her surname, connected to a father who was considered a Communist and had served in the brief, transitional government backed by the Soviets in 1940? Had someone with authority recognized her name? Was she considered a political prisoner? Yet, for all the questions, I lacked an answer.
I continued to return to Silvia: the Germans tried.
I contacted her neighbors and friends from Gould Hill Road once again, none of whom remembered seeing a tattoo. I spoke with her doctor, who told me a wartime story, but he couldn’t remember mention of a concentration camp, nor had he seen an indelible mark on her arm. I also spoke with a woman at the office of the mortician who remembered Silvia distinctly. That November day was her first day at the office and a sad one. Without a known family, the only story told about Silvia was her survival in the camps. In Silvia’s file, there is a small notation written at the bottom: “Holocaust survivor.” They had not looked for the numbered mark of Auschwitz.
After receiving the archival documents from ITS, I spoke with an Estonian woman in Vermont who had fled from the Soviets with her family as a young girl, arriving in Danzig (Gdansk, Poland) in the autumn of 1944. Of the nearly 80,000 Estonian refugees, 40,000 people escaped to Germany; some fled by boat, others on foot, by car, bicycle or horse-drawn wagon. Behind them was the rear guard. Burdened with the numbness of fear and grief, as well as their packs of essentials, refugees crossed lethal waters and many borders, leaving behind far more than their personal belongings in the chaos.
Upon arrival in Germany, refugees were sorted in screening camps where Nazis sought out any of the remaining Baltic Jews of which there were precious few. As refugees, she tells me, they were screened according to labor skills and sent in all directions to bolster the desperate war economy. When I mentioned that Silvia was, most likely, in Czechoslovakia at war’s end, she recalled her mother’s distinct horror at the possibility of being sent in that direction, and the desperate measures everyone took to avoid such a fate; on no account did they want to go there.
I returned to the first letter, puzzled and frustrated: the Germans.
Then, Silvia’s voice spoke clearly through the doubts. Her writing, the journals and papers thought lost, came to light. Silvia wrote much of her life story as autobiographical fiction, as well as personal history. Some of the narratives detail her movement out of Estonia on August 23, 1944, and into Germany on November 15, 1944, skipping over the bleak winter months until May 8, 1945 when she writes about a small town, in Czechoslovakia, situated on the Western side of the Elbe, far from any bridges. I begin to look for this town on the map following the destroyed bridges of WWII along the Elbe: images of refugees precariously crossing on twisted metal, tanks and soldiers on pontoon bridges engineered as makeshift crossings, American and Russian troops are shaking hands, sharing cigarettes. I find nothing. I pour over Silvia’s writing, her outlines, and sketches for any additional clues.
And then I find the small Czech town standing alone in notation on one of Silvia’s outlines: Lobositz (Lovosice, Czech Republic). An online search reveals that the town’s historical narrative for May 8, 1945, corresponds with Silvia’s, exactly. She is walking through the town square when the painted red stars rumble in unexpectedly. The tanks roll through the square, freezing her in place with fear. She writes of Germans, the Germans firing at the tanks from the clock tower and from a train as it moves from the station. She writes of the Germans firing into the village square: firing at her, firing at Silvia standing in the crossfire.
I had found her letter: the Russians and the Germans tried.
The search for the Germans was over. The Russians and the Germans had tried. They had tried on the last day of the war in Europe, VE day, May 8, 1945.
The fighting in Europe had formally ceased, but for Silvia, and the millions of people who had survived the concentration camps or had fled their occupied homeland, uncertainty and anxiety would remain for many years in the DP camps. For the next four years Silvia would live and work in the camps, which were established initially by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), and later run by the International Refugee Organization (IRO). The main tasks of these organizations were screening for Nazis and collaborators attempting to pass as civilians, as well as the repatriation of the millions of people who had survived the concentration camps or had fled their countries during the war. For Silvia and many other Baltic refugees, whose countries were occupied by the Soviets, repatriation was adamantly refused.
Silvia addresses a confusion about the camps that occurred in the early eighties after speaking to a class of seventh-grade students about her life. The students sent her a list of questions, one of which asked; “What was a concentration camp like?” In response, she writes, “I am sure I never said I have been in a concentration camp, yet several of you seem to have had the impression that I did.” She continues to discuss the realities of the concentration camps but from the point of study, not experience.
With the new information I have gathered, including Silvia’s timeline as a refugee, Hindenburg is improbable. Instead, her outlines point first to Berlin and then Czechoslovakia, near Lobositz, and her location there does not indicate a forced labor camp. In Lobositz, she writes of her lodgings and is allowed a freedom of movement only longed for in the labor camps. She had the ability, as well as the energy to write her memoirs during the months before war’s end and kept her war diaries with her during the long winter. Most conclusively, the Germans she wrote of in the “first letter” were the “Russians and Germans” of Lobositz.
With Silvia’s writing, I have discovered these facts, but Silvia’s story is more than the facts.
In a letter to a friend Silvia writes, “It would be easy to tell the facts of my life and leave out the emotions. I remember enough of them to make for an interesting adventure story, lively enough to sell, but would it be my story? The story I must tell you? …I did not have the courage to touch the emotions. But now I must.”
In following Silvia’s path, for the past few months, I have come to realize that her story is more unusual than I could have possibly imagined when her flowers took root in my garden. Her story is in part an Estonian story, with some commonalities to others of her place and time. Yet, for all the shared similarities, the story remains distinctly Silvia’s, unique to her values and personal feelings, as she navigated the experiences of her life. I continue to seek out the facts in my desire to understand Silvia and her story — a story evocative with emotion.
“I am just writing my story to clarify events and feelings for myself and to tell of a different time and age to those younger than I. The story will not be published in my lifetime.”
My promise to Silvia has been to tell her story in my lifetime. Now, with Silvia, I must.
All italicized quotes are from the Silvia Narma papers.
More will be written about this time period in Silvia’s life in future posts.
There are numerous online resources pertaining to the Holocaust. Sites I found most helpful in the Silvia research can be found on the Online Resources page.
Anna Pieczonkowa’s testimony is found at the Auschwitz Study Group.
The first tank that arrived in Lovositz on May 8, 1949, from the Czech Republic State Archives.
The scheme showing movements of Estonians in Germany, Austria and Czech areas from January to May in 1945.F. Kool. DP Kroonika. Eesti Arhiiv Ühendriikides, 1999, page 9. An online exhibition of Camps in Germany (1944 – 1951) for Refugees of Baltic Countries.
The railroad crossing at the town square with the clock tower, from the Czech Republic Sate Archives.