A Brooklyn-born native and daughter of what she now calls Holocaust fighters, Eleanor embraced her Jewish identity and channeled that into her artistic expression. When her mother died at 64 in 1986, her father having died 10 years earlier, she discovered 56 letters written to her mother from her father in the years after the war and between his move to America.
Unable to read them, she kept them for many years until she decided to have them translated. What she discovered changed her whole perception of her family’s life and began a journey to uncover her parents’ past, which she turned into her memoir, THE LETTERS PROJECT: A Daughter’s Journey.
In conversation with Jay, she talks about her life growing up in Brooklyn, the many discoveries that she made while researching her family, and how studying the anti-semitism of the past can help counteract the growing antisemitism and identity-based intolerance that we’re facing today.
To learn more about Eleanor Reissa and her book, click here.
[Eleanor singing in Yiddish]
Jay Ruderman: Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and welcome to All About Change, a podcast showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.
Jay Ruderman: Because activism is the mission of the Ruderman Family foundation. Today on our show, Eleanor Reissa.
Eleanor Reissa: I thought I was the daughter of that guy, the guy with the false teeth and the number who didn’t belong here.
Jay Ruderman: Eleanor Reissa is a prize-winning actress, director, playwright, author she is also the daughter of two holocaust survivors – though she doesn’t like that term. And we will get into why.
Eleanor Reissa: I learned that he was the only guy on his transport to Auschwitz to come out alive.
Jay Ruderman: After her mother’s death, she discovered a private treasure – 56 letters written from her father to her mother. They were penned in German directly after the war and before his move to America. Both an emotional and language barrier caused her to shelve the letters. Storing them for safekeeping and basically forgetting about them. Many years later she finally decided to have them translated. What she found out blew her mind.
Eleanor Reissa: My parents engaged in a world that was trying to beat them to a pulp and kill them.
Jay Ruderman: This set her off on a personal quest to uncover her parents’ past. A quest that would turn into a fascinating memoir, THE LETTERS PROJECT: A Daughter’s Journey.
The Hampton Synagogue’s “Author Discussion Series” for Jewish Book Month: Eleanor Reissa book excerpt: In the cattle cars, up the chimneys. In the ats. Tunnels. Sewers. They fought for their lives. For our lives. For my life. I am not the child of Holocaust survivors. No. I reject that Passive, minimizing head-bowing term. My father never bowed down his head. He said, well, why should I? Why should we words count?I, Eleanor Risa Schlissel, I’m [00:02:00]the daughter of Holocaust fighters.
Jay Ruderman: Eleanor it’s a pleasure to speak with you and welcome to All About Change.
Eleanor Reissa: Thank you.
Jay Ruderman: You have a fascinating story, that’s contained in your book, The Letters Project. And maybe you could tell us from the beginning how it started about finding some letters in your mother’s lingerie drawer.
Eleanor Reissa: When my mother died in 1986 in her lingerie drawer, when I was cleaning out her apartment, I found this beautiful purse, and inside the purse was this baggy, a plastic baggy of letters. I opened up the baggy and there were a bunch. At that time, I didn’t even count them. I, I didn’t count them.
I looked at them and they were dated 1949 and they were addressed to her, in what I thought was Yiddish. They were addressed to my mother and they were signed by the guy who was my father. My father I knew was in Auschwitz, but that’s kind of all I knew about him and my mother, during the war, had spent her, they were both married to other people and both had children with other people, and she had spent the war years in Uzbekistan, with her parents and her one son. My father, after the war went back to Stuttgart, which was where he had been living since 1918.
Jay Ruderman: You grew up in Brooklyn, in EasternNew York,
Eleanor Reissa: Yes.
Jay Ruderman: Did you know a lot about your parents when you grew up?
Eleanor Reissa: First of all, I intuited many things, but in terms of what I factually knew, my father had a number. He was tattooed when he entered Auschwitz. And I knew that my mother and her family were in Tashkent, and I knew they were later in a displaced person’s camp in Ulm, Germany. and I knew my mother had typhus but I didn’t know anything hardly.
I knew mainly things from photographs, Jay. It was like all these black and white photographs and it would be like, “Well that person, you know, cousin so-and-so Tanta and so-and-so, uncle, so-and-so, gone, gone, gone, gone. Dead unknown. On Jewish holidays, it was, it was mostly crying. It was, like, you know, you’d wish someone a happy holiday and, and it would be with crying. because there was some sense of a, who was missing and b, a kind of fear of who knows when we shall see each other again.
Book Excerpt: There was so much I didn’t know and hadn’t bothered to find out. When my family was alive, I accepted whatever incomplete slivers of explanations they provided. I didn’t press them, although on more thoughtful reflection, I definitely had inquired. But their responses were fractured, scattershot. Speaking of the past was clearly painful. I was intuitively aware of that for as long as I could remember, and I didn’t want to contribute to any additional heartache.
Jay Ruderman: Could you tell as a child that they were broken by the Holocaust?
Eleanor Reissa: My father was very clearly broken. so they divorced or separated when I was like six or seven, and I would only see my father on Sundays, for lunch. And, he was 50 when I was born. So from the time like that, he was 57 till 70 when he died, He was a man who didn’t have much of a life here. He worked in a sweatshop. He made me lunch. He went to shul, I don’t think he had friends.
I, I mean, I didn’t really know how broken he was until this book. And, in terms of my mother, who was 20 years, his junior and was in her thirties, You know, thirties/forties, when I was young, she was pretty and bright, but also others worked in a sweatshop also. it just wasn’t like Dick and Jane and Spot and Puff. It, it was not like fathers knows Best or some American family. There was clearly something off, but I didn’t know it was Holocaust-related, oddly, I mean, I didn’t, you know, normal, you know, however weird your family is, it’s the only one you have and you think everybody is like that.
Jay Ruderman: Your parents were really refugees and despite the common view that Jews are wealthy and elite, this was not your experience growing up at all in Brooklyn.
Eleanor Reissa: No, not at all. We lived in a neighborhood with black and bispanic people. And the white people that lived in the neighborhood were all immigrants.
They were all from somewhere else. I don’t think there was one, white waspy, all-American family that lived anywhere nearby or that was in school, public school with me. I would say we were lower from the lower class economic class of New York.
Jay Ruderman: But I understand from listening to interviews that you’ve done, that you yourself, as a child, had a very happy childhood in Brooklyn.
Eleanor Reissa: I would say I had a happy childhood. I had a happy childhood with sad parents, but they were aware of the joys of life and they appreciated life. And they were grateful for little things, like something that tasted delicious or a fantastic meal, or a flower or a plant. My grandparents, who also lived through the war in Tashkent with my mother. They were broken, but they were full of life and full of love and baked and made things. And,it was a simple life, but, gosh, it was rich. I mean, they were poor, but it was a rich life.
Jay Ruderman: Your father dies in, 1976, and Your mother dies in 1986. You find letters that your mother had hidden that your father had written and then 2018 comes around and you start to have these letters translated
Eleanor Reissa: Right.
Jay Ruderman: What happens at that time?
Eleanor Reissa: At that time I was working on a show called Indecent on Broadway, and so I was making some good money I felt somehow privileged to be in this show with these, uh, a Tony winner, a Pulitzer Prize winner who had spent like 10 years pursuing this dream of this play. I thought, well, maybe I should pursue my things of interest. And so I found – but it turns out there were 56 letters in that plastic bag, in that, in that purse. And it turns out that those letters were like, you know, July 24th, 1949, July 26th, 1949, you know, they were some separated by a day or two others separated by a week.
And they were on letter, legal size paper. And on every letter was on both sides written and on every corner. And there was not hardly a piece of paper that was not covered in words.
Book Excerpt: I didn’t know where or how to begin. I wasn’t even sure in what language the letters were written. It looked like German, but that didn’t make any sense to me. Why would my father write to my mother in German?
Eleanor Reissa: I didn’t think my mother spoke German. I knew she spoke Polish and Russian and Yiddish, and probably Ukrainian, but not German. I, I thought, who can I get to translate this? I found a young woman who was the girlfriend of a Yiddish performer who lived in Berlin
Book Excerpt: In an email a few days later, I received her translation. She sent it as an attached document that looked like this:
Ch. Schlüsselberg • Stuttgart
IMPORT von Südfrüchten, Obst, Gemüse, Eier u. Geflügel
Please don’t cry, it has to be this way. I’m longing these several weeks now to talk to you so that I can find some peace. I was happy about your detailed letter and I hurried to answer you, so that you would have a sign of life in front of you, my love, as you begin your big journey.
Yesterday, I had a boring Sabbath except for the letter from you. It was very, very empty here. Write to me often, my beloved Ruchale, as only this one joy remains for me. And we don’t want to lose this. Please keep this last fragment of our lives safe. I don’t want to overwhelm you with big letters, but they serve as a reminder that I am alive and that you are my only light.
Send my warmest regards to your beloved parents and Shamale. I am sending you greetings and kisses with all my heart,
From your loving Chaskel Schlüsselberg
I read the letter again and again. I felt like the ground had opened up and my father, who had been silent for over 40 years was now. Poetic words of love, no less.His voice was unrecognizable to me.
Eleanor Reissa: And this woman, Yeva, Yeva Lapsker, who was the first one that dealt with the letters, lived in Berlin. And I had a singing gig in Berlin in November of 2018. She had begun translating, I think in September of 2018 and we were going to meet. We went to have coffee. And, when we were sitting there, she said to me, my brother lives in Stuttgart and that’s where all the letters are, the stationary from my father had an address from Stuttgart. And she said, yeah, my brother lives in Stuttgart. And I said, “Well, that’s nice, you know, good for you, good for him.” “And I’ll be going there in January.” I said, “Well, you know, great, have a good time.” And she said, “The address is around the corner from where your father had his stationery. And if you wanna come with me, I’ll leave early and we can spend a few days there and go to Ulm as well, where the displaced person’s camp was, which is nearby.” And I just, I thought, what, What I mean, go, go, go there for what? isn’t everybody dead? Is what? Is what’s gonna be there? A friend of mine, a writer in, uh, Israel, who had this hotel, and he called me as I was trying to figure out if I should go to Germany or not, and he said, “Uh, I’m gonna shut the hotel down for two weeks and bring in writers. Are you working on anything?” And the date of those two weeks was two days after I would be finished with Ava in Germany. And I just thought, okay, okay, forget it. I’m gonna go. I mean, everything is telling me to go. I’ll go to Germany for a week and then I’ll go to Israel for two and we’ll see what happens.
Jay Ruderman: And so you go to Germany and, and it is, to say the least, an intensive visit in Germany.
Eleanor Reissa: Yeah, I was only there for four days, but it turned out to feel like a lifetime, really.Germany has great archives and if you wanna know anything about anybody who was ever in Germany, they have paperwork on it. And in this one particular archive, there were stacks and stacks about my father. There was, in particular, one of the more devastating pieces of paper were…my father had applied for a Widergutmachung, which means it’s restitution,to make good again is literally, literally what it means. And, um, so when you apply for restitution, you have to prove somehow that the Nazis ruined your life, that they took your money, that they killed your wife, that they made you wear a yellow star for how many days and can you prove it? And how many suits did you have and how much money did you have? How did it hurt you? How did it hurt you psychologically? How all of these things that you had to, give, testimony to. And Yeva, my translator, found in one of these archives, 30 pages of my father, 30, 30, 30, pages of my father’s testimony where he speaks about his parents, who I knew little about, his first wife, his first daughter, who I knew nothing about. And speaks about the train to Auschwitz about the beginning of, the Nuremberg Laws where Jews were forbidden to hold jobs and to have anything, you know, what if you had money, good for you, but too bad cuz you couldn’t buy anything with it, cuz as a Jew you weren’t allowed to shop here or there or there or there. And all my life I’ve looked at those photos of, of the Jews in the ghetto of the Jews with the yellow star of the Jews in the cattle cars in Auschwitz. I mean, I’ve seen every photo of the guys on the ba laying down in their striped, horrible, thin-out uniforms looking gaunt and with their sunken eyes. And, and I’ve looked always for my father In those photos. is that him? Is that him? And at a certain point, I stopped looking cuz I didn’t think I would find him. This. These 30 pages is his story of when he wore the yellow star, when he took the cattle car, when he landed in Auschwitz, when he was beaten, when, you know, he had, he had false teeth when I knew him, and I always wondered, I, I assumed I didn’t wonder anything. I just assumed that he hadn’t taken good care of his teeth. That’s what I thought. But in fact, you know, he’d been slugged in the face with a rifle butt by a Nazi. So now he has false teeth. So I found all these documents and there were some documents from the sixties, 1960s, cuz he was, uh, something with reparations and this was later, after the trip to Germany, cuz it took a while to get all these papers together. And then I discover that I’m in these papers. And I’m woven into this history, legitimately. Not just cuz I’m neurotic or something, you know, but I am in this history even though I didn’t live through that time. You know, I knew him the last third of his life. Two-thirds had been spent before I knew him. And I didn’t meet him until he was, as you say, broken.And so I thought I was the daughter of that guy, the guy with the false teeth and the number who didn’t belong here. Maybe I don’t belong here. He works in a factory. Is he smart? Yeah, he lived through the Holocaust, but I guess he was just lucky. I learned that was the only guy on his transport to Auschwitz to come out alive from Stuttgart. I mean, that’s who he was. That’s who I’m the daughter of. I’m the daughter of that guy.
Jay Ruderman: I’m reeling from the story there. There’s so much here and, and I imagine that when you went to Germany, and you read, his testimony.. this must have hit you like a sledgehammer.
Book Excerpt:I am certain, even though I am not a scientist and even though I have done little research—I am consistent in that regard—that my own rage, of which there is plenty, and my existential fear and consciousness of death, and my sarcasm and greed and empathy, all of these things and more, come directly from the womb in which I was born. My genes contain the chromosomes of memory. Their memory. My parents’ memory. Inherited trauma. My chromosomes remember. The years of starvation, the years of freezing, the years of beatings. The constant flinching waiting for the next blow, preparing for the pain. The trauma of being whipped on the bock.The hiding and the smoking and the clipping of hair and sleeping on the wooden shoes, and the being secretive and being wily and being scared to death and scared of death. My radar is locked onto the stink of anti-Semitism and racism, as well as the cruel arbitrariness of extermination—a simple turn to the right or the left can hasten the end, or can equal the end. How can you ever be careful enough?
Eleanor Reissa: For me, learning, learning the specifics of what happened to my father from the testimony that I read, were the most powerful things that I had ever experienced. In other words, like hearing, cuz these were his words, these were the words he himself said about being pushed into the cattle car and about how he was saved from a transport earlier because he was a good worker and they pulled him out of that particular transport that wound up transporting his soon to be murdered wife and soon to be murdered six year old daughter.
Book Excerpt: That my father felt that I was the reincarnation of his first daughter, Frida, saddened and surprised me—and yet I felt that too; that I had been given her life, that all of her bits and pieces had magically, karmi- cally recombined to become me; that the Cosmos would not permit her to die forever because her life was stolen. The crime was corrected.I am the correction. I am Frida’s justice. Frida’s Revenge. My life is revenge.
Eleanor Reissa: I went to Auschwitz very reluctantly. I didn’t want to be there. I was there with a bunch of people. [00:24:00] We were shooting a movie about, a woman who lived through the Holocaust, Eva Lebiski. And so we were there from morning till sunset and the sky, was about as beautiful a a, a sunset as I had ever seen. it, it hadn’t occurred to me really that they did have sky. You know, when I think about was there any kind of real life or real joy? And I don’t mean joy, but real existence and. and there’s a big sky in Auschwitz. and I thought to myself, at least they had sky. At least some days as awful as it was, Perhaps there was some relief in a sunset or a sunrise. I had always thought the sky was smoke. You know, I had always thought of an Auschwitz sky is the smell of death and smoke. but it moved me that there was maybe Skye for some of those people on some of those days.
Jay Ruderman: You described your parents as Holocaust fighters, not survivors. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Eleanor Reissa: Yeah, So what I learned from my father’s testimony from the way he managed to stay alive and how he spent his days in Auschwitz by looking forward and not back, and the death march, which was inhuman horrifying. And he speaks about that and the particulars about that and of the freezing and the starving and, and the hiding and the beating and all of that.
And it occurred to me finally that my father fought like hell to live. he didn’t survive. He somehow surviving has always seemed sort of a passive, a verb. And being a survivor seemed to be a passive noun.
Book Excerpt:I will repeat these words again and again until the very end of my days.
My father and the others, who lived and died during that time, in that place, were not survivors. No. I reject that term. Those people did not survive. Dogs survive. Cows survive. What those people did— all of them—not just the ones in the ghettos or the forests or the basements or the camps—was fight. They were fighters. Whether they lived or were killed, they fought. With every molecule of their breath and brain and brawn. They fought. To live. With all their might and their heart and prayers and selflessness and selfishness and guns and books and pens and bread. They were Holocaust fighters, not survi- vors. In the cattle cars, up the chimneys, in the attics and tunnels and sewers. They fought for their lives. For our lives. For my life. I am not the child of Holocaust survivors. Fuck that. Fuck that passive, mini- mizing, head-bowing term. My father never bowed down his head, he said. Well, why should I? Why should we? Words count. I, Eleanor Reissa Schlusselberg, am the daughter of Holocaust fighters, coura- geous humans who fought the Devil like hell for life to the death.
Can you imagine if the world had called them Holocaust fighters? To have been the daughter of fighters rather than the daughter of survivors? I would have been Supergirl, for goodness sake. Strong and proud rather than an ashamed, hidden light.
Eleanor Reissa: To me, every one of those 6 million plus the, the ones who killed and the ones who lived, they fought them. the, the mother who spit into the mouth of their daughter so that she should feel some moisture. The, the Hasidic guy who prayed on his way to, to the gas chamber, everybody, whatever they did, they fought like hell. They fought like hell. Just some of them were not successful. And, as a child of survivors, people who survived, I spent my life thinking that I was not particularly entitled to anything. That my parents Didn’t have much, and they may do, and I can make do too,
Book Excerpt: I spent my life as an embarrassed child of an “Other,” of a man I perceived as a powerless victim with false teeth and a funny accent, who accidentally had some good, horrible luck and lived. Sheep? No way. Tenacious. Instinctual. Smart. Brave. Greedy to live. That is where I come from, who I come from, who so many Jews come from.
Can this new perspective impact my life so late in the game? The thought of it makes me chuckle as I weep.
What is the daughter of a survivor entitled to? Nothing. Not a thing. Whatever I had was more than I needed and way more than they had. It was all gravy. My life was gravy and that was enough.
But the daughter of a fighter? What is the daughter of a fighter entitled to? Everything!
Eleanor Reissa: My parentswere fighters, parents engaged in a world that was trying to beat them to a pulp and kill them. The daughter of such people is entitled, the daughter of people like that is entitled to have a rich life a, meaningful life because my parents fought, they fought for a meaningful life for me.It’s been interesting, people who’ve read the book, uh, some children of, Holocaust People, I can’t call them survivors anymore. And so they write me and, and they thank me because they hadn’t thought of it that way
Jay Ruderman: You know, first of all, that’s beautiful. do you still believe that teaching about the Holocaust has any ability to counteract the growing antisemitism that we’re facing today?
Eleanor Reissa: The short answer is yes, but I think it’s a complex question and issue. And I think you have to really teach it. It’s not like some surface schmear on a bagel that you can just kind of say a couple of numbers and say 6 million, blah, blah, blah, and expect people to understand the depth of what happened. It’s like how did it happen – is probably as important as what happened? like a medical test. I mean, if you’re coughing and sneezing and you take your temperature, well, maybe you have the flu. if laws become meaningless or are changed to hurt certain kinds of citizens. I mean, there’s a description and a prescription. You could probably look at a list of what leads to fascism. I think that’s the thing to teach more than anything. How Do you get to that place? And, I think there were German citizens who were very nice people, and maybe they weren’t Nazis the first month or week or year, but they became Nazis. And what happens in a society that takes people who are they…they don’t want no trouble, they don’t want no problem, they just wanna live. And then they turn into.. into beasts. And I think that is the thing to teach.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you for sharing that I think that that’s, uh, profound. Eleanor, I want to end with Yiddish because you’ve devoted your life to being a Yiddish performer and the love of the language of the How It’s Spoken I’m wondering, you know, if you could share a little Yiddish with us.
Eleanor Reissa: There’s a little song and it’s called Zol Zeyn, which means – let it be. I’ll translate it first so that you know, and he says, “Let it be that I build my castles in the air. Let it be that my God is not even there. My dreams are better. My dreams are bluer than blue. Let it be that my ship never comes to shore. Let it be that I never achieve my goals. What matters in this life is that we walk along a sunny path” and it goes like this.
Jay Ruderman: beautiful. I could listen to you for hours.
Eleanor Reissa: Oh god Thank you, Jay. Thank you
Jay Ruderman: Eleanor, it was a pleasure having you as a guest and all about change. thank you for your activism, on behalf of the children of people who’ve experienced the holocaust, of those who have gone through the Holocaust. And thank you for you know, bringing, um, our culture to life
Eleanor Reissa: Thank you.
Book Excerpt:I wish they could have seen it, lived it. Their lives were so hard, too hard, and yet so driven, so strong and relentless, and determined so that I could have this moment.
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