The Unan­swered Let­ter: One Holo­caust Fam­i­ly’s Des­per­ate Plea for Help

By – February 2, 2021

One day in 2000, Faris Cassell’s physi­cian hus­band came home with a fifty-year-old let­ter that had been hand­ed to him by a patient. The let­ter was a plea for help from a Jew­ish cou­ple named Berg­er try­ing to escape Vien­na in 1939 as the Nazis were advanc­ing on Aus­tria. They had sent the let­ter in des­per­a­tion to an unknown fam­i­ly in Amer­i­ca also named Berg­er, but not relat­ed. The plea went unan­swered but the let­ter was saved, lying for­got­ten in a Cal­i­for­nia attic.

Cas­sell, a jour­nal­ist, made it her mis­sion to trace the trav­els and tra­vails of the Berg­er fam­i­ly. It took sev­er­al years of research but she locat­ed many liv­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers in the Unit­ed States and around the world, and worked exten­sive­ly with them to con­struct a time­line with their saved let­ters. We read about the ways in which var­i­ous parts of the fam­i­ly tried to leave their respec­tive coun­tries for safe­ty else­where, and the ever-tight­en­ing restric­tions on immi­gra­tion they faced.

Cassel’s vivid sto­ry­telling trans­ports the read­er through emo­tion­al highs and lows as the Berg­er fam­i­ly con­fronts dire sit­u­a­tions at every turn.This book pro­vides an excel­lent edu­ca­tion about the sit­u­a­tion of the Vien­nese Jews dur­ing the Holo­caust era. It’s also a great read.

Sue is an active vol­un­teer in Jew­ish life in Scotts­dale, AZ. She has par­tic­i­pat­ed in the Sar-El pro­gram many times. She is cur­rent­ly the AIPAC Phoenix Coun­cil Chair, Phoenix Polit­i­cal Chair, Board mem­ber of the Phoenix Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Rela­tions Coun­cil and the Greater Phoenix Jew­ish Film Festival.

Discussion Questions

Faris Cas­sell has writ­ten a metic­u­lous­ly researched detec­tive sto­ry that takes us on a jour­ney that began, for her, in 2000, when her hus­band brought home a let­ter with a des­per­ate plea for help. The let­ter was writ­ten in August 1939 by Alfred Berg­er, a Vien­nese Jew­ish man, to strangers in the Unit­ed States who shared his last name. Refer­ring to the sit­u­a­tion of Jews in Cen­tral Europe,” and to his fam­i­ly being seized with freight,” he asks for an affi­davit of sup­port to allow them to immi­grate to the Unit­ed States.

Cas­sell was intense­ly moved by his fran­tic appeal. As a Chris­t­ian with only a vague knowl­edge of the Holo­caust, she set out to learn more about the con­di­tions that prompt­ed the let­ter, the cir­cum­stances of the fam­i­ly who sent it, and their fate. Her search came to encom­pass the entire extend­ed Berg­er fam­i­ly, as she trav­eled across three con­ti­nents to locate and talk to them.

The extra­or­di­nary The Unan­swered Let­ter: One Holo­caust Family’s Des­per­ate Plea for Help became a his­to­ry of three gen­er­a­tions of the Berg­er fam­i­ly. But it is so much more than that. It is also the sto­ry of how the Holo­caust unfold­ed for each of them, step-by-step, as Cas­sell fol­lowed the esca­lat­ing per­se­cu­tion of the Jews in Vien­na. Through her own exten­sive research and the many hun­dreds of let­ters pre­served by var­i­ous fam­i­ly mem­bers, Cas­sell is able to trace each person’s response to those dev­as­tat­ing events. As she shares her research with the Berg­er chil­dren and grand­chil­dren she becomes involved — with great sen­si­tiv­i­ty — in their cur­rent lives and shows the con­tin­u­ing effects of the Holo­caust on the fam­i­ly today.

More than his­to­ry, this book is a very mod­ern-day account of the author’s soul-search­ing and reflec­tion as she con­sid­ers what she and her Jew­ish hus­band might have expe­ri­enced had they lived in Europe at that fraught time. She con­tin­u­ous­ly shows us how ques­tions raised by the Holo­caust are reflect­ed in so many of the issues she — and we — face in the Unit­ed States today.

A car­ing and com­pas­sion­ate jour­nal­ist and writer, Cas­sell has craft­ed a high­ly engag­ing, his­tor­i­cal­ly con­tex­tu­al­ized sto­ry of one Jew­ish fam­i­ly as she helps us grasp the enor­mi­ty and com­plex­i­ty of the Holocaust.