Holocaust-era Letters Donated to Penn State

The Kirschner Family Holocaust-Era Letter Collection includes letters, such as this excerpt from a writer with the surname Wallis from Schönengrund, Switzerland, addressed to Isadore Kirschner on Feb. 24, 1940, is a gift to Penn State University Libraries’ Eberly Family Special Collections Library from brothers and Penn State alumni Michael and Fred Kirschner. | Photo provided by Penn State
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Sixty handwritten and typed letters from 1939 to 1941 reveal a snapshot of Jewish history.

These letters, part of a larger collection from the Kirschner family, show Isadore Kirschner’s attempts to resettle European Jews threatened by the Holocaust. Mostly, these letters contain appeals for sponsorship from individuals who wanted to immigrate to the United States.

Along with these letters about their father Isadore, brothers Michael and Fred Kirschner donated letters between their grandfather, Michael, and a childhood friend from Russia, Itzhak Rabinowitz, whose family name would eventually be changed to Harkavi. The two friends fled the pogroms — Michael to Philadelphia, and Rabinowitz to South America — and kept in touch for decades.

“The importance is not the name Kirschner,” Michael Kirschner said. “The importance is that academics and scholars have access to these letters, which tell an incredible story.”

The brothers, both Pennsylvania State University alumni, decided to donate this lettercollection to the Penn State University Libraries’ Eberly Family Special Collections Library. The library is processing the collection, which is available for viewing upon request and will eventually be made more accessible to the public.

The Kirschner brothers said they always knew about their father’s role in helping resettle European Jews in the United States, but these letters, which Fred Kirschner found decades ago, provided proof. While helping their father move, Fred Kirschner found a file of these letters.

The brothers said the urgency expressed in the letters can only be understood by reading them.

In total, the brothers said, their father sponsored thousands of people to come to the United States. Fred Kirschner said these letters are relevant today, considering the Syrian refugee crisis.

“What happened then, both in the immigration story and life in America, should not be forgotten,” Michael Kirschner said. “What happened in the United States should be memorialized.”

They also found a letter addressed to their grandfather in an envelope from Itzhak Harkavi from Sante Fe, Argentina.

This letter inspired Isadore Kirschner to track down Harkavi. He never found him, but he did find Harkavi’s son, who was working as Israel’s ambassador to Brazil. They two met in Israel and exchanged the letters they had from each other’s fathers.

The letters from their grandfather detailed life in 1930s Philadelphia.

“They didn’t have Skype or Instagram, but they had to move,” Fred Kirschner said. “They were Jews in a land that didn’t want Jews.”

For years, Fred Kirschner retained the collection of letters, wanting to keep them just in their family. Michael Kirschner eventually convinced him to donate them.

The two specifically chose Penn State, not just because they were alumni, but because more academics would be able to access them compared to other organizations they considered.

Athena N. Jackson, Dorothy Foehr Huck Chair and head of special collections at the library, said the letters fit well into the library’s larger military history collection.

“These kinds of collections that deal with the human side, the interactions of populations and people, complement the more typical collections related to military history, like ephemera and photographs,” Jackson said. “It just gives us a sense of documenting an important historical era that we’ve already been focusing on in military history.”

The collection also has an interdisciplinary angle, Jackson said. They can help people study family life, immigration history and Jewish history, among other topics.

The fact that many of the letters are handwritten provides another avenue of interdisciplinary study as well, she said.

“To connect with the person through their handwriting is also a very visceral experience that students rarely have,” Jackson said.

Fred Kirschner said he encourages everyone to learn about their own family history.

“We’re not unique,” Fred Kirschner said. “There are lots of families in Philadelphia that have documents, that have relatives who were still alive back then. … I challenge them to go back and to investigate what people have in drawers, what they have in their filing cabinets. Once these people die, no one’s going to be able to tell them what was in there. Get your parents and your grandparents and your tape recorder and get them to document your family history.”

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