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Letters from the Lost

Athabasca University Press | Our Lives: Diary, Memoir, and Letters


On 15 March 1939, Helen Waldstein’s father snatched his stamped exit visa from a distracted clerk to escape from Prague with his wife and child. As the Nazis closed in on a war-torn Czechoslovakia, only letters from their extended family could reach Canada through the barriers of conflict. The Waldstein family received these letters as they made their lives on a southern Ontario farm, where they learned to be Canadian and forget their Jewish roots. Helen Waldstein read these letters as an adult -- this changed everything. As her past refused to keep silent, Helen followed the trail of the letters back to Europe, where she discovered living witnesses who could attest to the letters’ contents. She has here interwoven their stories and her own into a compelling narrative of suffering, survivor guilt, and overcoming intergenerational obstacles when exploring a traumatic past.

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“Strikingly, the post-war correspondence in the collection, a series of five letters written by one of Wilkes’ only surviving relatives, describes life in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, the fates of the individuals whose voices are preserved in the previous correspondence, and his attempts to rebuild his life.”

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“A fascinating collection of letters and assorted photographs, maps and charts woven together by Wilkes' descriptive narrative. ... Anyone who writes this type of book will always wonder if justice was done to the memory of those who perished. Wilkes need not worry on that score.”

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"Reading the letters, we accompany Wilkes on her journey of discovery. We laugh when she laughs, we despair when she despairs ... the courage and dignity of the lost relatives is what remains foremost in the reader's mind. By allowing us access to a dozen specific individuals, Wilkes has managed to put a human face on an almost unfathomable statistic."

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Since receiving her Ph.D in French Literature, Helen Waldstein Wilkes spent 30 years teaching at every level in Canada and in the U.S. Her research interests include cross-cultural understanding, language acquisition, and neurolinguistics. Now retired and living in Vancouver, she is actively examining her own cultural inheritance and its impact.

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