The Letters Project is about big history, the Holocaust, but it is also an extraordinarily intimate personal narrative—a rare blend of informative, poignant, excruciating, startling, humorous, and ultimately inspiring storytelling.
In 1986, when her mother died at the age of sixty-four, Eleanor Reissa went through all of her belongings. In the back of her mother’s lingerie drawer, she found an old leather purse. Inside that purse was a large wad of folded papers. They were letters. Fifty-six of them. In German. Written in 1949. Letters from her father to her mother, when they were courting. Just four years earlier, he had fought to stay alive in Auschwitz and on the Death March while she had spent the war years suffering in Uzbekistan. Thirty years later, Eleanor—a theatre artist who has been on the forefront of keeping Yiddish alive—finally had the letters translated. The particulars of those letters send her off on an unimaginable adventure into the past, forever changing her and anyone who reads this book.
“‘The Holocaust,’ Eleanor Reissa writes in this unforgettable and courageous book, ‘is attached to me like my skin and I would be formless without it.’ A very personal story that begins with her discovery of some sixty letters written in 1949 is also a fundamental one of a woman trying to make sense of her life and family and of the shadows that go back before she was born. There is plenty of feeling and sentiment but it never feels sentimental. Her inimitable wit leavens the sadder scenes. This journey of discovery is riveting, told with tender insight, at times heartbreaking and at times heartwarming just like the Yiddish songs that have delighted Ms. Reissa’s audiences.” —Joseph Berger is a New York Times reporter and author of Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust
“The Letters Project is a wonderful book—funny, heartbreaking, and ultimately transcendent. Eleanor Reissa’s journey back into her family’s past makes for a gripping—and very human—international mystery. I highly recommend it.” —Tony Phelan, TV Showrunner for: Grey’s Anatomy, Doubt, and Council of Dads
“Eleanor Reissa has written a gritty, fearless yet funny memoir about herself, her family, and the Holocaust. Once I began reading it, I was completely swept away until the journey ended. I was moved by the power of this uniquely personal yet universal story.” —Julian Schlossberg is an American motion pictures, theatre, and television producer
Excerpt from the book: The Letters Project by Eleanor Reissa. Copyright © Post Hill Press 2022.
I begin to walk down the very long hallway, slowly and deliberately, looking at those mighty iron doors on each side. Left foot, right foot. It is an effort to move my legs.
I stop. I look. I listen. I am like Superman. I have x-ray vision.
I see them. My family. I feel their lives here. Their breathing. From behind the doors and in the halls. They are flying all around, phantom shadows in the gray air. I hear babies crying and Yiddish and Polish and shouting and occasional laughter and the footsteps of the children, clopping, running, shrieking as children do, and fathers’ yelling and women weeping. A dream within a dream. I inhale them into the center of my soul. I swallow this fortress and I become the whale.
Then I see my grandparents, my beloved grandparents, of blessed memory; the mourning in their eyes, so evident in the photos. And my mother, so young and beautiful. And my brother, such a skinny knobby-kneed little boy who had travelled hither and yon, from pillar to post, knowing more hardship than any young boy should ever know. I hear them and I see them all around me. I want to touch them. Maybe if I stand here a bit longer, they will materialize and come to me. That is my wish. And I am certain that they would be happy to see me too. I have never been more certain of anything in my life. I do not move. I will not leave. Oh my God, why would I ever leave this place? I want to be preserved here, happy to be like Lot’s wife. Frozen in time. I want to wait for them. I know they are here. I am submerged with the ghosts, and I want to swim with them forever. (pg. 82-83)