At the age of sixty, Helen Waldstein Wilkes opened a box that contained letters her parents had received when she was a child. Written by members of her extended family who remained in Europe after Waldstein Wilkes and her parents left Strobnitz, and later Prague, to join her aunt and uncle in Canada in 1939, this deeply personal collection of letters describes the effects of Nazism on everyday life, the constraints of censorship, and the attempts at emigration that were undertaken by those who stayed behind. Strikingly, the post-war correspondence in the collection, a series of five letters written by one of Waldstein Wilkes’ only surviving relatives, describes life in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, the fates of the individuals whose voices are preserved in the previous correspondence, and his attempts to rebuild his life. Letters from the Lost includes transcriptions of the letters in the box, which range from April 1939 to September 1945, as well as family photographs, imagined accounts of the thoughts and actions of the author’s deceased family members, and accounts of her journeys to the places where the letters were written. In this way, Waldstein Wilkes examines not only what can be learned from the voices that have been passed down to us, but also the immense scope of what was lost.
Sarah Shewchuk holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Alberta.