EYE FOR HISTORY: A Chicago Jewish optometrist’s new book tells the story of harrowing Holocaust journeys through the cards and letters of the victims

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Starting young in his passion, Dr. Justin Gordon seems the ideal man to put a fresh take on a well-documented, overriding event like the Holocaust.

At age 8, Gordon took up stamp collecting, a popular pastime of the 20th century whose best-known practitioner was Franklin D. Roosevelt. If examining stamps and tracking their origins doesn’t provide a primer in history, few other things will.

Gordon, now 68, and an optometrist with an office in Lincolnwood, has used his passion to produce “Holocaust Postal History: Harrowing Journeys Revealed through the Letters and Cards of the Victims,” a recently-published book that chronicles letters, envelopes and postcards from Jews in peril just before and during the Holocaust, and the huge Nazi bureaucracy that processed mail.  Gordon’s breakthrough is giving a voice to Jews as they endured a living hell. He also documents a huge misdirection play in which the Germans used the postal system and Jews’ own written words to portray their mass-murder machine as normal to the outside world.

Gordon’s fresh angle are the thoughts, hopes and prayers of Jews as the Holocaust consumed them compared to the vast majority of oral-history, past-tense accounts from survivors and criminal perpetrators.

“For me, this book represents a dual journey —into both the childhood delight of stamp collecting and the adult horrors of Holocaust history,” said Gordon. “I happened upon both worlds in my youth, and Holocaust philately represents the convergence of the two.

“As a child, I encountered stamp collecting through my uncle, who gave me an album. Then I was introduced to the Holocaust by a cantor (prepping Gordon for his bar mitzvah) who had survived Auschwitz. Even though I left the two worlds for a time, they converged years later at a stamp show in Chicago. I came across a philatelic exhibit that contained documents from Nazi-occupied Poland and cards and letters from Auschwitz and the Warsaw ghetto. I knew immediately this would be my avocation once again.”

Gordon grew up in Hartford, Ct. before migrating to Chicago to get his training in optometry in the mid-1970s. Armed with his stamp album, “I went all over the neighborhood, and everyone would save their envelopes, especially from overseas, to give me the stamps,” he said. “Cantor Fishman (who also taught him about the Holocaust) was 14 when he was in Auschwitz. He told the guards he was 16. If you were younger, you were sent to the gas chambers because you couldn’t work. All the elders of the community told the young boys to tell everyone they were 16. Our families were very close. I became interested in the Holocaust.”

But the process of growing up kept Gordon’s interest at a lower level until after his graduation from the Illinois College of Optometry. He attended a 1976 stamp show at the old Sherman House hotel downtown. The show included an exhibit of mail from the General Government of Poland, the Nazi-administrated region that included millions of Jews and the most infamous death camps.

“I saw letters from the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz,” he said. “So for the last 40 years, I have had correspondence all over the world with different stamp dealers, different collectible people and families who would send me photocopies of letters and cards. The first seven years of collecting, I’d get anything I could get from the concentration camps.”

The “people person” in Gordon, caring for both his patients squirming through eye drops and the memories of victims, likely was passed down from his father. Yale Gordon was denied entry into the medical school at Tufts University around 1941 because of his religion – a common practice of the time with strict Jewish quotas at private colleges nationwide. But when the U.S. Navy needed physicians with World War II raging two years later, Yale Gordon overcame the discrimination at Tufts with the backing of Uncle Sam.

Setting up a private practice after the war, the elder Gordon was swept up in the “doctor draft” as the Korean War broke out in 1950. He was assigned to a forward surgical unit popularized in both the M*A*S*H movie and 1972-83 Alan Alda-helmed TV show. Interestingly, Gordon declined to watch the program – he had been there and done it.

Lt. Gordon practiced tikkun olam to its fullest. Working sometimes days in a row without sleep treating GIs, he likely needed amphetamines to stay awake. When the flow of wounded slowed, Gordon journeyed to a nearby Korean village to treat people who likely had never seen a doctor.

The emphasis on people over the colder aspects of medicine was an influence on the younger Gordon in finally putting his materials together in one book.

“Stamp collecting is, on the surface, about journeys of paper,” Gordon said. “But on a deeper level is about the lives of people. As a postal historian, I collect postal covers (envelopes and cards) with all their markings, enclosures, and attachments. I research these elements to find out more about the cover: its origin, where it was sent, and whether or not it arrived. These markings document the object’s journey and provide clues about those who sent and received it. 

“Over the past 30 years I’ve made hundreds of presentations about these covers. My website, www.holocaustjourney.com, was my first attempt to bring together all of that information. This book is intended to be a permanent, physical record of those talks. 

“As I worked on the first draft of the book, I realized that an important dimension was missing: details about the people who sent or received the covers. I then began the painstaking process of researching the individuals represented in the cards and letters. “Holocaust Postal History,” therefore, is a convergence of its own, documenting not only a dark period in Jewish history, but also the victims’ personal histories.”

Gordon’s reproduction of letters, cards and envelopes is compelling. Letters and postcards themselves rivet the attention for their seeming normalcy. Gordon said the intent of the Nazis in compelling Jews to pen ordinary correspondence was to prevent unrest in the receiving countries, including enemies such as the United States, if the true nature of the writers’ condition was revealed.

One heart-rending postcard was authored on or about March 2, 1944 by Auschwitz family-camp prisoner Mina Mandler of Pilsen, addressed to a “Frau Marianne Lederer” in her hometown. Her guards ordered her to date the card March 25 to provide time for censors’ review. On March 8, Mandler was gassed to death. But her cards continued to be sent out after her death.

She wrote to Lederer:

“Greetings to Beck!

“It has been such a long time since I’ve heard from you. I hope you’re in good health – I can report the same about us. We are very happy to have your weekly messages. In keeping with your wish, I can confirm the contents of the latest package: 1/3 kg bread, gingerbread, lard, honey, butter, sugar, cheese. Looking forward to your weekly news, I send you greetings.”

On March 10, 1942, attorney Aaron Blum addressed a typed postcard from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Kreh brothers, businessmen with whom he dealt in Genoa, Italy. Blum later died in the ghetto:

“In reference to our correspondence of 1940, your letter of June 10, 1940, permit me to ask the following of you. Perhaps it will be possible for you to send a number of citrons and palms. I don’t know if I will be able to immediately pay the bill, as I must have the permission of the exchange office, but I will certainly attempt to do it. At the same time, I will turn to Mr. Sneerson (Gordon’s note: Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch) concerning this matter. If you agree, perhaps you could send me a smaller package gratis.

“I will be most thankful for the fulfilling of my wishes. In any case, I await your answer.”

In the Hagibor camp near Prague, prison of Jews with non-Jewish spouses, postcard writers were limited to just 30 words. Writers had to count each word, recording the increasing individual number as the message proceeded. Franz Schleissner wrote to relative Marta Schleissner in Pilsen at exactly the proscribed word count:

“Dear Marta,

“Many thanks for package with shoes. Everything in order arrived. Await news of how things for you are going. Am healthy. Have with Mrs. Skala spoken. Thousand greetings and kisses, Franz.”

The reproduction of envelopes and postcards shows the procession of the Holocaust from abject discrimination of Jews in Germany to the cover-up of genocide. By 1938, Jews who had not left Germany were forced to adopt “Israel” and “Sara” as their middle names to identify them by religion. Those names were printed on the return addresses of envelopes. Often Jews mailed letters with commemorative stamps of Adolf Hitler affixed.

The Nazis permitted international mail out of the death camps. The mail was processed through neutral countries such as Switzerland to its destinations to German enemies. Censors only permitted letters from camps to be written in German, so the wording could be checked. If the writer authored his work in Hebrew or Yiddish, the letter was returned to the sender. Gordon’s displays showed postal cancellations after the censors had opened the mail and re-sealed the envelope after examination.

Gordon said the expansive camp bureaucracy could not operate without skilled Jews. In Auschwitz, the Gestapo employed between 80 and 90 German-speaking Jewish women as secretaries. The Nazis preferred these women because they knew a number of languages, could type and likely would never see freedom again. But Gordon reported that many of them survived. In addition to having “more hygienic surroundings” than other inmates, the women were permitted to write and send letters through the general postal system.

In assembling “Holocaust Postal History,” Gordon found his Judaism shaken to a degree. “It has to be shaken a little bit,” Gordon said. “My faith has been shaken by reading this stuff.” But, he said, what’s most important to him is that “these people are being remembered.”

Gordon’s project likely was spurred by his own increased dedication to Judaism as a teen-ager. Yale Gordon had grown up in a religious family, but moved away from orthodoxy as he got older. His son said the elder Gordon worked on the High Holidays as an Army combat-zone physician — very much allowed as he was in the vital business of saving lives.

“Back in the Sixties, I needed some discipline,” he said. “I attended NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth) and other Jewish groups. I became interested in the discipline of Judaism. I started, my brother followed and then my parents followed to become religious.”

Once again, Gordon followed a father who practiced what was preached.

“My father was a doctor and he treated everybody,” he said. “Even if you couldn’t pay, he would treat you. He made house calls (including on Shabbat) to the end.”

He did not experience the blood and guts of war as his father did. But the words of his letter-writers, and their fates, led him to ask a few questions about all the attendant meanings of history.

“It’s a memory to the people who perished in the Holocaust,” he said. “It’s a different way to portray the history of the Holocaust by the letters and cards by the people who perished. In many cases, this is the last document they wrote.”

Gordon said he will continue to collect postal documents, beyond the end of his optometry career — whenever.

“Maybe someday there will be a second book,” he said.

Gordon will speak about his book at 1 p.m. on June 30 at Mather Lifeways, 7143 W. Higgins in Chicago; at 7 p.m. on Sept. 11, at the Skokie Public Library, 5215 W. Oakton; and at 2 p.m. on Sept. 17, at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St. “Holocaust Postal History” is available for purchase in the gift shop of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.


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