Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Letters from the Lost: A Memoir of Discovery

by Helen Waldstein Wilkes

We all know the appalling statistic: six million Jewish people killed in the Holocaust. But how do we make this staggering figure resonate on a personal level? Helen Waldstein Wilkes knew the number, but until she opened a box of family letters, she had never realized the degree to which the Holocaust was part of her own personal history.

Wilkes, a retired professor, documents the story of that box and its contents in Letters from the Lost. Her parents were among the last Jews to flee Czechoslovakia in 1938. Once in Canada, they tried to bring over the rest of their family, but the increasingly desperate tone of the letters arriving from Europe underscored the growing impossibility of this.

Reading the letters, we accompany Wilkes on her journey of discovery. We laugh when she laughs, we despair when she despairs, and we hope beyond hope that someone might intervene to help these people escape their fate, even though we know how the story must end.

Of the book’s many themes, one dominant strain involves the survivor guilt that Wilkes experiences; reading her relatives’ letters, the author feels burdened by the fact of her own existence in the face of so much death.

The narrative is occasionally interrupted in frustrating ways. The chapter called “Imagining,” which involves fictional recreations of Wilkes’s relatives, is unnecessary; the letters are so powerful that they easily stand on their own. And the author’s feelings of intense anger toward the Czech townspeople whose ancestors evicted Jews could have been more closely examined.

Nevertheless, 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.