Rebecca Lesses

Rebecca Lesses

Associate Professor and Jewish Studies Coordinator, Jewish Studies
Faculty, School of Humanities and Sciences
Faculty, Medieval and Renaissance Studies
Faculty, Women's and Gender Studies

Letters from the Past

How I received the letters to my grandfather

(Written on June 26, 2003) My grandmother, Helen Rosenman Lesses, died on Friday, June 20, 2003, at the age of 98. She was born in Kielce, Poland, on December 24, 1904, and emigrated to the United States in 1906 with the rest of her family. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in a poor Jewish immigrant family. She attended Western Reserve University (now Case-Western) in Cleveland, studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, then graduated from the University of Michigan in 1926. She met and married my grandfather, Dr. Mark Falcon Lesses, of the Boston area, when she was studying at the New England Conservatory. They had two children, my father (Maurice) and my uncle (Peter). They lived in Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Towards the end of World War II, she trained to become a machinist, but the war ended before she could start her career. After the war, she became active in local politics. She ran twice for the office of Alderman in Newton, perhaps the first woman to do so, but lost both times. Later, she worked at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, the Wellesley College Library and the Fletcher School Library at Tufts. After retiring from Tufts, she decided - in her eighties - to become a real estate broker. She took the license exam (with trepidation), passed easily and then became a successful broker.

She retired fully only when she was in her nineties, and then only because she wanted to spend her winters in Florida. During the last several years of her life she lived in an apartment in the same building as my father and his wife, Eve. She was a smart, independent woman, who read widely and kept up on world news almost until the end, when it began to seem no longer relevant to her concerns. I will miss her. She was my connection to a past world that no longer exists.

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While looking through some of my grandmother's boxes after her death I came across three sets of letters that were written in the 1930s through 1940 to my grandfather Mark Falcon Lesses. They were sent by three people: Sima Shlosberg of Jelgava, Latvia, Mordechai Falkon of Libau (Liepaja), Latvia, and Gittel (Gertrude) Falkon Kagan of Moscow, Russia. Mordechai and Gittel were brother and sister respectively of my great-grandfather and Mark Falcon Lesses's father, Jacob Morris Falcon. Sima Shlosberg is a relative of Mordechai and refers to him and his wife Dobre as "uncle" and "aunt" but I don't know their exact relationship. Mordechai and Sima's letters are in English, while Gittel's letters are in Russian -- two of them are accompanied by English translations, while two are untranslated. The last letter was written by Mordechai, dated March 18, 1940.

Many years ago I had heard that my grandfather had corresponded with European relatives before the Second World War, but that was all the information we had from my grandmother. I found the letters in a box full of my grandfather's personal effects, such as his medical school diploma, and photographs. I certainly did not expect to find them there, forgotten and unknown.

From reading the web site set up by Edward Anders, entitled JEWS IN LIEPAJA/LATVIA, 1941-45, which lists the victims and survivors of the Nazi Holocaust in Liepaja, it seems apparent that Mordechai and his wife and children were murdered in 1941. I do not know what happened to Gittel Kagan and her family. Sima Shlosberg survived the war. In 1941 she escaped from Riga with her parents to Russia and then to Uzbekistan. In 1945 she returned to Riga, and was married in 1955 to a man named Nohum Bruk, with whom she moved to St. Petersburg. She died in 1988. (Information on Sima from a relative of hers who wrote me after I put up the letters on my original website). If Gittel and her family stayed in Moscow they would presumably have escaped the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, but of course could have fallen victim to the Stalinist purges of the 1930s or to sickness or hunger.

For those who would like a glimpse into the lives of these three people, I have transcribed the letters:

Mordechai Falkon

Sima Shlosberg

Gittel Falkon Kagan

I am searching for further information about all three people, especially Sima Shlosberg and Gittel Kagan. Anyone reading this page who has such information, please e-mail me at: rlesses@ithaca.edu.

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Further update:

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, has recently (April 19, 2009) opened an on-line exhibit on the killing fields in the Soviet Union where 1.5 million Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen. It is called "The Untold Stories: The Murder Sites of the Jews in the Occupied Territories of the Former USSR." There is a section devoted to the killings in Liepaja, including a short film made by a German soldier who happened upon the killings one day. The New York Times article on the exhibit says:

One little-known case comes from a German sailor who filmed killings in Liepaja, Latvia. The film has been on view for some years at the Yad Vashem museum. But the new Web site has a forgotten video of a 1981 interview with the sailor, Reinhard Wiener, who said he had been a bystander with a movie camera.

According to part of his account, “After the civilian guards with the yellow armbands shouted once again, I was able to identify them as Latvian home guardsmen. The Jews, whom I was able to recognize by now, were forced to jump over the sides of the truck onto the ground. Among them were crippled and weak people, who were caught by the others.

“At first, they had to line up in a row, before they were chased toward the trench. This was done by SS and Latvian home guardsmen. Then the Jews were forced to jump into the trench and to run along inside it until the end. They had to stand with their back to the firing squad. At that time, the moment they saw the trench, they probably knew what would happen to them. They must have felt it, because underneath there was already a layer of corpses, over which was spread a thin layer of sand.”

The Yad Vashem exhibit can be accessed here. There is a link to the Liepaja pages here.

 

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