Around the Mall & Beyond

In 1939 Moritz Schoenberger, a Hungarian Jew living in Vienna, wanted to join his family in America. His ordeal is told at the National Postal Museum

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Soon after arrival in Long Island, he changed his name to Morris and opened a sign studio. He applied for U.S. citizenship in December 1945 and, in the following year, at last became an American citizen.

To give you an idea of the difficulties he and his wife faced in communicating with each other during a world war, the exhibit features an envelope addressed to Helene Schoenberger in Jackson Heights, Long Island, mailed in Marseilles, France, on April 30, 1942. A Vichy censor opened the letter, taped it shut and stamped it, sending it on through Spain to Lisbon, Portugal, to be flown to the Azores by PanAmerican Clipper and then to Hamilton, Bermuda, where a British censor reopened it and resealed it. Finally it was allowed to proceed to New York.

Schoenberger rarely talked about his experience. He was forever looking ahead, even from the prison camps, which he regarded "with a good deal of humor and fatalism. That is our good luck having such a nature . . . we hope, that the time for our reuniting must be reached gives me the necessary power to endure."

To his daughter he wrote, "Keep our courage and keep first of all further brave, take the life as it is and endeavor yourself to enjoy your young life as well as the circumstances permit."

Schoenberger died on October 31, 1956; he was 52.

It was his granddaughter Julie Klein who discovered the letters and other documents in a box in a closet at her mother's house. She had heard only a few details of her grandfather's battle to be reunited with his family.

"I was only 3 when my grandfather died," Klein recalled last September after the exhibit opened. "The subject was taboo in the family." Her parents didn't let her study German or buy German products, a not unusual reaction by victims of the Nazis, and when she opened the box of mementos —a diary, passports, tickets, telegrams and snapshots —she couldn't understand what most of it said.

Because of Schoenberger's lifelong habit of looking on the bright side, there was little in the way of hardship in the letters. He tells Helene, "I do not know any news, what would be interesting enough for you, although there are some internal matters which are interesting for our further fate." Explaining that everybody under 55 had to work "somewhat" in a labor detachment, whether "in a factory or at the forestry or at the agricultry" —and that if they didn't volunteer for such jobs they would be moved to another camp for quarry labor or road construction —he then adds, "I am content having my occupation which prevents me for such involuntary works."

"But I do not want to trouble you with our internal life," writes Moritz Schoenberger. "I still remain more than ever with good hope and with an imperturbable belief to bring our disaster to a happy end."

He doesn't have to spell out in detail the life in a Nazi work camp. The message we can take home from these quietly optimistic letters is that whatever the circumstances, you must never give up, never quit being who you are.


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