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October 26, 2021



WWII-era letters from Prague by relatives of former US ambassador describe the advancing Holocaust

20.4.2017 11:12
Andrew Schapiro
Andrew Schapiro

A book of letters describing the onset of the Holocaust and the gradual introduction of prohibitions for the Jewish population of Prague was launched yesterday at the Lucerna Palace by the editors together with former US Ambassador to the Czech Republic Andrew Schapiro. The letters were written from 1939 through 1941 by his family members, who remained behind in occupied Prague, to their adult children who had managed to move to the USA.

Some of the family's grandchildren also remained in occupied Prague, one of whom was Raya Czerner Schapiro, the mother of the future ambassador. She and her sister later arranged for annotated English translations of the letters to be published as "Letters from Prague 1939-1941". 

The letters describe everyday life in Prague prior to the authors' deportations and are written in a language of familial love, hope, and intimacy, according to the publisher. The Czech-language edition of the book is edited by historian Kateřina Čapková and published as "Dopisy z Prahy 1939-1941".

Schapiro's grandparents, the Czerners, who lived in Prague with their three children, attempted to emigrate after the Nazis invaded. They offered their large apartment to a German officer in exchange for permission for five people to leave the German Reich.

The officer, however, brought them just three exit visas instead of five. The parents left with their young son, while five-year-old Raya and seven-year-old Helga remained behind in Prague with their Uncle Edwin and their aunt, Mrs Czerner's sister.

The American consul in Prague promised at the time to send both girls to their parents soon. However, the USA had quotas for refugees that had already been filled in the case of Czech applicants.

At the last moment, thanks to their father's ethnic origin, both girls managed to fit into the quota for "Russian" refugees. They were reunited with their family in the United States.

Raya earned a medical degree, married, and gave birth to her son Andrew. In 2014 he became the American ambassador and arrived in Prague, the city his mother had left while still a preschooler.

Helga and Raya's mother died in 1990, after which they discovered a box of 77 letters written by their grandmother and grandfather in Prague to their mother in the US. Bearing the stamp of the German censor, the letters had been sent from Prague to America between 1939 and 1941.

The first letters describe the grandparents' anxiety over how to get their granddaughters to their parents in America. The letters are intermingled with reports of concerns about the Jewish population and how the Czech authorities and Hitler were treating them.

The letters describe how one official decree followed another and how the process that led to the destruction of Jewish people in Europe was begun. Helga and Raya then had the letters translated into English and offered them to the world, with annotations, as authentic testimonies to the injustices committed in the name of antisemitism and Nazism against their close relatives and all of their co-religionists.

ČTK, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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