A tortured soul has come to rest,” read Rudy Baum’s suicide note. The note, and the failed attempted suicide of an 86-year-old certainly left his daughter Karen Baum Gordon with many questions. Her book, The Last Letter: A Father’s Struggle, a Daughter’s Quest, and the Long Shadow of the Holocaust, explores not just her father’s story, but the story of grandparents she never met and the generational trauma of the Holocaust.
“If you met him, he was the most extroverted guy in the world,” Gordon said. “He was very involved in the community. So when he passed away (in 2009), I became this woman with a mission.”
Gordon found 88 letters from Julie Baum, her grandmother, that spanned November 1936 to October 1941. Her grandparents were deported from Frankfurt to the Lodz Ghetto in Poland. Rudy Baum had emigrated from Frankfurt, Germany in 1936, at the age of 21. He came to the U.S. to work, he became a naturalized citizen, and then went back to Germany where he helped liberate Buchenwald. It wasn’t until 1990 when he was 75 and working as a volunteer docent at the Dallas Holocaust Museum, that he learned his mother’s fate in that ghetto.
“He pulled the Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto off the shelf and looked up his parents and found out that his mother had died by suicide in the ghetto but never knew what happened to his father,” she said. “After [my father] passed away, I had started this process of getting these letters translated, and I really wanted to know what happened to his dad.”
Getting those 88 letters translated were important, but Gordon never set out to write a book.
“I was keeping a journal and writing a few topical essays as I went, learned more from the letters,” she said. “And the book evolved.”
She called the letters “a treasure trove” despite the censoring that was done by the Nazi regime before the letters were sent.
“They tell you the quotidian details of their lives,” she said. “And yet there are these hints; my grandmother tells my father, ‘be sure you do the wash this way. And by the way, this is how you darn your socks and how was the girls over there?’ Meanwhile, the world is falling apart.”
Gordon said the researching and writing of her family’s story helped her understand some of what her father was keeping buried inside.
“I feel like I understood as best I could the enormous pain that he lived with,” she said. “And as the wise Rabbi David Stern in Dallas said to me last December, he said what makes your book different is that it’s about surviving the surviving,”
Gordon, an executive coach who grew up in Dallas along with her older siblings Diane and Richard, and now lives in Brooklyn, said that her hope in writing the book was to “dilute the multi-generational trauma” that gets carried from generation to generation after the Holocaust or other genocides.
“I have a grandmother who died by suicide and a father who attempted it,” she said. “The trauma that my father lived with … it’s what’s unspoken that is far more intense and powerful for the children. And so I’m hopeful that what I’m doing is diluting that trauma for my two sons and for future generations of my family, and providing insight for others who relate to this.”
Diluting the trauma, Gordon said, does not mean not remembering what happened.
“The remembering is absolutely essential. And the diluting of the trauma, I think is important because of how it plays out for future generations,” she said. “I’m hopeful that my book is documenting the remembering by folding in the very personal with the letters with the historical facts.”