Writ­ing is a jour­ney of dis­cov­ery. This was made clear to me when I came across one frag­ile piece of paper — a fran­tic six­ty-year-old let­ter — that held more ques­tions than answers. On my jour­ney, I encoun­tered peo­ple, places, events, and emo­tions that filled the pages of my book with life. But as the sto­ry took twists and turns, some infor­ma­tion inevitably fell by the way­side. Those expe­ri­ences — those facts — made their pres­ence felt, shad­ows hov­er­ing over the sto­ry. They formed a back­sto­ry that enhanced the book but didn’t intrude. I’d like to share sev­er­al of those side sto­ries that were cru­cial to my research, along with being com­pelling, impor­tant, and inspiring.

Hilde Geis­sen

Hilde Geis­sen, sur­vivor of four years in Terezin Con­cen­tra­tion Camp, breathed life into my book with her metic­u­lous trans­la­tion of over a hun­dred let­ters writ­ten by a des­per­ate Vien­nese Jew­ish fam­i­ly, strug­gling from 1938 to 1942 to escape Nazi ter­ror. I was research­ing my book about the Berg­er fam­i­ly when I dis­cov­ered a cache of let­ters between fam­i­ly mem­bers, writ­ten in Ger­man but in an archa­ic form of hand­writ­ing that hadn’t been in use for six­ty years.

I strug­gled to find a way to have them trans­lat­ed. Pro­fes­sion­al trans­la­tors charged more than I could afford. At that time, I hap­pened to inter­view Hilde, and men­tioned that I was search­ing for a trans­la­tor. I saw her blue eyes sparkle, a grin spread­ing across her face. I hes­i­tat­ed, but blurt­ed out, Would you be inter­est­ed?” Before I could fin­ish the sen­tence, she inter­rupt­ed. Sure. I’d be glad to do it.”

And so began my year or more of week­ly Wednes­day vis­its to Hilde’s liv­ing room, where she sight-read those fad­ed brit­tle sheets, the blurred ink wrap­ping around cor­ners, up along edges of the thin air­mail paper. I sat fac­ing her, typ­ing on my lap­top as she read. Some­times she pulled out a mag­ni­fy­ing glass, strug­gling to deci­pher the fad­ed ink. Oth­er times, she sailed through the pages, stop­ping only to clar­i­fy col­lo­qui­al phras­es for me, or to share sto­ries of her own har­row­ing imprisonment.

She’d sur­vived bru­tal­i­ty, dis­ease, freez­ing tem­per­a­tures, hunger, and fear of what the next day would bring — and yet, Hilde was one of the most gen­er­ous, cheer­ful, and live­ly peo­ple I’ve ever known. From this diminu­tive stal­wart woman, who stood just under five feet tall, I learned about courage and deter­mi­na­tion, and wit­nessed her unquench­able zest for life. She passed away in 2017. I miss her still.

The Amer­i­can Berg­ers, Clarence Berger’s Helmet

The Amer­i­can Berg­ers: Clarence Berger’s Helmet

The cen­tral tragedy of my book comes from a des­per­ate 1939 let­ter from a Vien­nese Jew­ish man, Alfred Berg­er, beg­ging for immi­gra­tion help from strangers with the same last name in Amer­i­ca. Help us,” he plead­ed, it is our last and only hope.”

Those strangers, Clarence and Bea Berg­er, did not respond to the let­ter. When I inter­viewed their descen­dants, I strug­gled to bridge that span of time and under­stand who Clarence and Bea were and what had moti­vat­ed them. Why save that let­ter, remind­ing them of what they had not done?

I learned that Clarence had been raised dirt poor, farm­ing in Bak­ers­field, Cal­i­for­nia, then served briefly in France the U.S. Army at the end of World War I. Just across the bor­der, ear­li­er, Cor­po­ral Adolf Hitler was gassed in a fero­cious bat­tle with the British.

At war’s end, Cor­po­ral Berg­er returned to Amer­i­ca, no longer as young and naïve, but still opti­mistic and enter­pris­ing. He moved to Los Ange­les, mar­ried Bea, a Cana­di­an immi­grant, and opened a car repair busi­ness, the Ten Grand Garage, at the cor­ner of Tenth and Grand streets. His busi­ness thrived until the Great Depres­sion. He rent­ed out park­ing spaces on the site and learned to weld, hold­ing on to his busi­ness as the econ­o­my see­sawed through the 1930s, unem­ploy­ment some­times hit­ting near­ly 20 percent.

As his home in down­town Los Ange­les lost val­ue, he and Bea, a home­mak­er, moved to a mod­est home near San Diego, care­ful­ly includ­ing Alfred Berger’s let­ter with their fam­i­ly papers and World War I army arti­facts. I began to see how this self-made, resilient blue-col­lar work­er may have felt buf­fet­ed by world events and strove to stay ahead of trouble.

I devel­oped empa­thy for Clarence and Bea, and still remind myself to refrain from judg­ing them for not answer­ing that des­per­ate plea for help. The let­ter had moved them enough that they saved it over the course of three decades, a death, and two moves. In their posi­tion, what would I have done with Alfred Berger’s letter?

Leo’s Paint­ing. Martha’s Music.

Alfred and Hed­wig Berg­er had built a good, low­er-mid­dle class life in Vien­na before the Ger­man occu­pa­tion. Through my research I fol­lowed their family’s rise from the 1800s, when Alfred’s hard­work­ing father had trav­eled the Aus­tri­an Empire ped­dling house­hold goods, some­times car­ry­ing a pack on his back. Alfred became a whole­sale tex­tile mer­chant, and moved from the poor Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood of his youth, across the Danube to a hard­work­ing blue-col­lar area of Vien­na near the vibrant cul­tur­al city center.

Alfred and Hed­wig espe­cial­ly loved Vienna’s music. Although not able to afford many extras in their lives, they man­aged to pur­chase tick­ets to the con­certs near­by. As their fam­i­ly grew, they took their daugh­ters. By the time of the Ger­man occu­pa­tion, their old­est daugh­ter, Martha, had become a con­cert-lev­el pianist, their youngest daugh­ter a con­fi­dent, thriv­ing teenag­er. Martha mar­ried a resource­ful whole­sale sales­man of leather goods, Leo, who was also a tal­ent­ed artist.

All that progress, and more, was swept away by the Nazis. Martha and Leo man­aged to escape to Amer­i­ca, where Martha taught piano lessons and Leo worked in a fac­to­ry, paint­ing when he found time. When I trav­eled to Vien­na with Martha Berger’s daugh­ter, Celia, to research the family’s sto­ry, we vis­it­ed the famous Musikvere­in con­cert hall where Martha once per­formed. I could only vague­ly appre­ci­ate what Celia felt, but her face seemed trans­port­ed with joy, and I felt priv­i­leged to be a part of that moment of her reclaim­ing her family’s his­to­ry. Celia recent­ly sent me one of her father’s paint­ings, which our fam­i­ly treasures.

These are just a few of the peo­ple who made a last­ing impact on me dur­ing my writ­ing jour­ney. With­out them, the sto­ry could not have been told. They have touched many peo­ple, and they keep the Berg­ers’ sto­ry in my heart.

Faris Cas­sell is a jour­nal­ist and writer. She and her hus­band, Syd­ney, live in Eugene, Ore­gon. She earned a B.A. in his­to­ry from Mount Holyoke Col­lege and an M.S. in jour­nal­ism from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon. Her decades of research into Alfred and Hed­wig Berger’s sto­ry was sup­port­ed by a Mount Holyoke Alum­nae Schol­ar­ship and by the gen­er­ous coop­er­a­tion of the Berg­er fam­i­ly. The Unan­swered Let­ter won the 2020 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Holocaust.