Many books explore Holocaust survivor’s guilt, a costly malady that has a victim silently ask why he or she lives while others died. The Last Letter is a unique variation on this theme, in that its main subject is not a Holocaust survivor, but one who nevertheless lived with an unbearable degree of survivor’s guilt.
Rudy Baum, a naturalized German-Jewish American, had upper middle-class parents in Frankfurt, Germany. Their lives were cruelly stolen by the Nazis in 1936, five years after he had fled to America as a twenty-one-year-old refugee. Rudy lived to eighty-six, masking agonizing despair over not having been able to miraculously rescue his parents from Lodz Ghetto in Poland. There, in 1941, his father died from malnutrition, and ten weeks later his emaciated mother hung herself, heart-wrenching facts uncovered through thirteen years of arduous, comprehensive research by Rudy’s daughter, Karen Baum Gordon, the book’s author.
After Rudy’s death in 2007 Ms. Gordon set out to uncover everything possible about the lives of her father’s ill-fated parents. She learned about preceding generations of a distinguished family line that dated in Germany back to 1632, all in the hope of illuminating Rudy’s anguish. This involved archivists, historians, organizations and scholars, as well as seventy-five websites, and led to the book’s 225 footnotes and fifty-one illustrations. She made many visits to European cemeteries, ghettos, memorials, Holocaust museums, and Nazi camp sites.
Throughout WWII, Rudy, an enlisted member of the U.S. Army, came to condemn all Germans with hatred and contempt as unforgivable war criminals. He was among the first American troops in 1945 to enter Buchenwald Concentration Camp, the site of unimaginable horrors. Rudy later wrote, “Nothing I have experienced in my entire life can compare with the impact Buchenwald has had on me.”
Ironically, as a German-speaking Army officer, Rudy was ordered to head a unit assigned to nurture pro-democratic values in Marburg, a small nearby city. Later many anti-Nazi German upstanders there could not thank him enough. That experience helped him renounce collective guilt in favor of judging individual responsibility, although he could never forget or forgive crimes against humanity.
During his retirement, Rudy spoke often in schools and synagogues about the lessons and losses of the Holocaust. His daughter, intent on blunting her own anger and bitterness over the toll of the Holocaust, chose in 2013 to become a German citizen as part of her own reconciliation effort.
The task the writer set herself was formidable, as it entailed drawing on scholarship about antisemitism, psychoanalysis, and the Shoah, as well as her own family history. Given the disparate content and language, her writing is adroit and often artful. She clarifies and enlivens a very complex story.
The Last Letter makes a singular contribution to the field of literary scholarship on the Shoah. Early on, Karen Baum Gordon cites William Faulkner’s guiding truth: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Her work makes clear how much value we can gain from outstanding exploratory research, ably guided by this timeless truism.
Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Professor Arthur B. Shostak is the author in 2017 of Stealth Altruism: Forbidden Care as Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust. Since his 2003 retirement from 43 years teaching sociology he has specialized in Holocaust studies.