The Unanswered Letter by Faris Cassell follows the author’s research into the family history behind a haunting letter from a Jew living in Nazi Vienna. In this letter to a complete stranger, he pleads for help in obtaining the necessary support to allow his immigration into the United States, hinting at the dangers his wife and he face. What follows is an intimate look at Vienna, Austria before and during the Nazi government took control and its impact on one family.
Having read my fill of Holocaust stories, I was not certain I wanted to read yet another one. Yet, the letter from one Alfred Berger is something I could not ignore. With ten sentences, none of which are explicit in listing the terrors he faces, you get one of the most private looks into the Jewish plight under the Nazis. Even though you know from the beginning that the recipient of the letter did nothing, which means you suspect the war did not end well for Herr and Frau Berger, you want to do nothing but find out what happened to them.
The story of the Berger family is one of joy, sadness, perseverance, patience, and luck. It spans pretty much every continent as two generations of a very large family try their luck in emigrating from Vienna before it is too late. Because of the size of the family, at times their story needs a whiteboard in order to understand who each person is and their relation to the man who started it all. Ms. Cassell shows great patience and compassion as she helps the Berger family confront a terrible past.
At the same time, Ms. Cassell inserts too much of herself into the narrative. She spends as much time theorizing on the emotional state of people she will never meet as she does telling us the Berger family story. Plus, at some point in time, the story becomes as much her husband’s family story as it does the Berger family. As her husband is also Jewish and had no knowledge of what happened to his family during the war, Ms. Cassell uses her research of the Bergers to also look into her husband’s family. I read The Unanswered Letter to find out what happened to Alfred and Hedwig. I did not read it to have to wade through her thought process as she uncovers their story or her deviations into her own personal connection to the period.
What’s worse is that she references all of these original documents from which she obtains clues or even direct knowledge of Alfred and Hedwig’s lives, but the book contains no bibliography, no reference list. It does not even have pictures of the sources. I understand that Ms. Cassell is telling her true story as a narrative, but I have no patience when an author doesn’t even include a list of the resources used or at least images of the precious documents.
Putting aside the problems, The Unanswered Letter does an excellent job providing a highly personal look at Vienna before and during the war. The Berger story raises awareness of the insidiousness of hate. What I find truly shocking is how readily the Viennese accepted and celebrated Nazi rule as well as how quickly the majority embraced the anti-Jewish regulations the Nazis immediately put in place. The story of Nazi Vienna is not the same as Nazi Germany. It is more brutal, more obvious in its hatred of Jews, and more disconcerting at how an entire city can turn its back on one particular section of its citizens. If anything, it reinforces the increasing bigotry we have been seeing in the US since 2016. Given the chance to act upon their prejudices, most people will do so in a heartbeat.