The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, November 23, 2021 1:00 am

Suitcase full of memories

Grandmother's letters provide history lesson

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

Irv Adler has to move several things out of the way in a closet of his southwest home to get to the small, leather-bound suitcase.

It was his mother's. There's nothing special about the outside, but the inside contained what was left of his family archives, including a bundle of letters that were written from his grandmother to his mother.

Most everything Adler knows about his grandmother came from those letters – 102 of them.

Everything else he found out through a remarkable chain of events and years of research.

Adler's mother, Elsa, never spoke about her mother, Clara Bader Nichtern, who Adler knew had been killed during the Holocaust. He says his mother hardly spoke about her life in Vienna, the Nazi occupation after the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938 – and her mother and other relatives who died in the Holocaust.

He believes his mother had survivor's guilt because she was able to escape Vienna through a visa program that allowed her to acquire a domestic position in England. She was 27 when she left in September 1938. She would never see her mother again.

Adler discovered the letters after a trip to Vienna in 2010. It was that trip that launched his yearslong research of his grandmother and maternal family and prompted him to write a self-published book, “Then and Now,” which details the reconnection of a family he never knew existed.

The book is an interesting tale of what life was like in Vienna during the Nazi occupation, told through conversations between a mother and daughter.

“It's a story, but it has historical aspects,” Adler says.

The discovery of the letters and his grandmother's life was serendipitous. 

It really started in 1996, when Adler's father passed away. It was decided that his mother should move into an independent-living facility. During the move, Adler came across the leather-bound suitcase, which contained photos, citizenship papers, passports, birth certificates and a small, tight bundle of papers in an old and yellowed plastic pouch. 

During a visit in 1998, Adler and his mother went through the suitcase and she began to provide more details about her family and people in the photos. Adler's mother also mentioned the letters from her mother that she had kept.

Adler took the suitcase back to Fort Wayne with him. His mother passed away in 2003, but other than occasionally looking through the suitcase for documents he needed, he put the suitcase with the letters in the back of his closet where it sat for almost seven years.

It was during that trip to Vienna when Adler was able to find out how his grandmother was killed.

After visiting a Holocaust museum, Adler and his wife, Fran, discovered a small museum that had pamphlets about the Viennese Jewish community. Through a conversation, Adler was directed to the Center for the Documentation of Austrian Resistance where he discovered that his grandmother was killed at Maly Trostinec, an extermination camp in Minsk, Belarus. She was deported from Vienna on June 9, 1942, to the camp, and killed June 15.

That trip also led Adler to pull the old suitcase back out of the closet and reexamine the letters he previously hadn't given much thought.

“I never would have looked through those records,” says Adler, referring to the items in the suitcase. “If I hadn't had made that connection, none of this would've happened.”

The letters were written from 1938 to 1941 from Clara to her daughter Elsa. Many of them were from his grandmother, but other relatives also contributed to the letters. The last letter was written by Elsa to her mother, Clara, in November 1941. It was returned in July 1942 – a month after Clara was killed.

The letters are preserved between plastic sleeves in giant, black binders. This month, Adler showed a visitor the binders, spreading them open on a dining room table and flipping through the pages as he pointed out the writings that are more than 80 years old.

The first half of the letters were written in an old form of German handwriting called Kurrentschrift. The letters written from June 1940 to 1941 were written in Lateinschrift.

Adler couldn't read them, so he spent quite a bit of time trying to find someone who could translate them. He eventually found a Fort Wayne woman, Joy Gieschen, who had an undergraduate degree in German and had just returned from Austria. She was able to translate the later versions of the letters, and another woman, a volunteer with the Leo Baeck Institute in New York and Holocaust survivor from Germany helped translate the older script. The translations were finally completed in 2014.

The writings gave Adler an idea of what his grandmother's life was like during that time, as well as introduced him to relatives he never knew. Adler spent many years believing that all of his relatives were dead. However, through his research he discovered a cousin living in Israel. Shaul Spielmann survived the Holocaust, although his parents were killed. Adler later was able to contact and visit his cousin.

Finding out more about his grandmother Clara has been bittersweet for Adler. 

While the letters offered Adler an idea of what his grandmother's life was like during that time, the writings also amazed him as his grandmother always seemed to put a positive spin on her situation. She never mentioned having to wear the Jewish star. She had little money and food was difficult to get, but she still tried to make things seem normal in her letters, Adler says.

However, the one thing that she could not make normal was the fact she was unable to see her daughter. Adler says the letters often included, “Even if I could see you just one more time,” many times and in various ways.

Adler's story is a stark difference from that of his wife, Fran, who grew up knowing her family history, which included relatives who died in the Holocaust.

Adler also discovered more information about his father's survival of being imprisoned at the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps and his ability to get his parents out of Vienna, eventually moving to the U.S. It was one more piece to his family history that he never knew because “My parents didn't talk about it,” Adler says.

His parents married in 1941. Adler was born in 1943 in New York City. He went to New York University in 1965 and then to grad school at the University of Michigan. After graduating, he decided to stay in the Midwest, working at Essex until he retired and then later doing consulting work. He and Fran married in 2004.

Adler talks about how first-person stories of the Holocaust are getting fewer. His research of the letters was not only to know more about his grandmother, but to also remember the Jewish community in Vienna.

Adler doesn't want people to forget about those who died, including his grandmother.

In 2014, he was able to do a Stone of Remembrance for his grandmother at the Konradgasse 1 collection apartment building, where a number of Viennese Jews lived. It represented the gravestone that many of them never had.

“You want to have something to say these people existed,” Fran Adler says.

Which is why the 78-year-old is planning to give the letters to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “I have to,” he says about deciding to give them up.

His hope is that the letters will show future generations the plight of the Jews in Vienna through the eyes of his grandmother.

Terri Richardson writes about area residents and happenings that affect their lives in this column that publishes every other week. Email her at or call 461-8304.

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