On May 18, 1942, a crowd of Berliners milled around the city’s Lustgarten, a scenic patch of grass on Museum Island in the river Spree. The attraction: The Soviet Paradise, a touring exhibition put together by the Nazi party’s propaganda arm to whip up support for Germany’s war against the USSR. It used cartoons, photography, and movies to convince visitors that the Soviet Union was suffering under “Jewish-Bolshevik” control — control that the German army was valiantly overthrowing on the battlefield in the name of national socialism.
Then, the fires started.
Members of an underground resistance group led by Jewish Communist activist Herbert Baum entered the exhibition and set off small explosives on several of its panels, hoping to burn it down. The action was ultimately fruitless — the Nazi government repaired the singed panels and had the exhibition open again by the next day — but this act of open defiance in the Third Reich’s capital had terrifying consequences for the Berlin Jewish community. In retaliation for the attack, in which no one was harmed beyond a few cases of smoke inhalation, the government rounded up and summarily murdered five hundred Jewish men.
Meanwhile, the Gestapo tracked down Baum’s group and arrested a large portion of its membership, including a married couple in their early twenties: Heinz and Marianne Joachim. Heinz Joachim had met and befriended Baum through their forced labor assignments in the “Jewish section” of the Siemens factory in Berlin, and the Joachims sometimes offered up their tiny apartment for group meetings. After the events of May 18, both the Joachims were among those sentenced to death for their proximity to Herbert Baum.
The German government executed Heinz in August of 1942, but Marianne remained in prison until her execution in the spring of 1943. While a prisoner, she wrote effusive, doting letters home to her parents, and to her little sister, Ilse, who had been sent to England on a Red Cross Kindertransport.
Even though Marianne was the one imprisoned and facing almost certain death, her letters focus exclusively on the well-being of her parents in a Germany that was growing more hostile to Jewish people by the moment.
“I was horrified, Mommy, how badly you looked; much worse than the last time. Don’t be angry that I say it this way to you, and do me a single favor by not wearing yourself out,” she admonishes her mother in a November 1942 letter, written after a visit from her parents. “Dad looks unchanged, thank God, the fresh air and outside work both have their advantages,” she added. She was referring to her father’s forced labor assignment.
“Don’t take this transfer so tragically, Dad,” she reassures him. “I think the new workplace is much more favorable of a complaint, and that is terribly important.” In other words: it could be worse.
Marianne talks breezily about her life in prison, concealing the darker realities of her situation from her worried family. In the stories she tells her parents, she sounds almost like a child writing home from summer camp — she requests a copy of Faust from the prison library, she darns stockings, she befriends the pair of “very nice Polish girls” who share her room and comforts them during air raids.
“The holidays went by very quietly with especially good food and choral singing; on New Year’s, we heard the customary “Cheers-New Year” cries of my dear Berliners,” she writes. “I wish nothing more from the new year than to experience its conclusion.”
Marianne’s letters tried to buoy her parents’ spirits by encouraging them to look forward to her release from prison, when “we can see each other in freedom.” But notes of realism also creep in as she tries to gently prepare them for the looming threat of her execution. In January 1943, two months before her death, she wrote, “Dr. Astfalck is certainly doing everything he can to work out a pardon. He also did much for us at the time of the summons. Don’t give up hope my dears, and if it is not to be that we should see each other again, then attempt to be resigned to bear the inalterable just like l have borne my tragic blow of fate, because with this, one fulfills the greatest wish of the one who is passing away.”
Eventually, the inalterable came. Her March 4 1943 letter, the last one she ever sent home, reads:
“My dear single little mother, my beloved good father,
When you receive this letter I will no longer be alive. You can believe me that I was brave until the final seconds. I would be so glad, had I the knowledge that you met the inalterable with strength! My last wish is that you keep yourselves healthy with all your strength so that you may be able to experience all the joy that you, sadly in vain, once wished for me. My sweet little sister! I have written a text which I ask you to send to her through the Red Cross:
‘Beloved little sister, do not become a common person who only interests herself in her food and pleasures. Remember the song that we sang together. I wish you all the best! A last kiss from Marianne.’
You can cut out and attach my signature from an old letter. Write first with your return address what the letter is about, so that the shock is not too great. I will send you as a last greeting a few verses that occurred to me a short time ago: I see you day and night with hands folded praying to the strength on which you built. I hear your heartfelt pleading conversation with your dear God, whom you trust. I know about your feelings, your thoughts, I know your hours of bitter anguish. How dearly you would like to give me life for the second-, oh, the millionth time! You have done unspeakably much for me from my first to present days. Now one has a look at your beautiful features: you knew nothing aside from work, trouble and nuisance. Be strong and firm because there we must part. Accept the inalterable with strength! I wish you heartfelt kisses, and believe how thankful I am to you! With that I suppose everything is said. One more time: Think of Ilse and stay brave for her sake! It is hard for me to leave this world only because of you, otherwise I have nothing to lose! Live well my dear parents! Give hearty greetings to all. For the last time I kiss you in my thoughts. Until the end I think of you in love and thanks.
In a similar letter she sent to her in-laws, she revealed that “I have always given [my parents] hope — although I myself had none at all — I thought that they wouldn’t be here anymore and so wouldn’t learn of my execution.” Just days after her last letter home, Marianne’s father was deported to Theresienstadt and her mother to Auschwitz, where they perished. Marianne’s letters survived the Holocaust because her parents entrusted them to Heinz Joachim’s brother-in-law, who gave them to Marianne’s sister Ilse after the war.
Ilse survived the war in England, and went on to have a long life and a family. She held onto her older sister’s letters for decades before donating them to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1994. They are available to read in full here.
Seventy-five years after they were written, Marianne Joachim’s letters remain testaments to the strength of the human spirit and the enormity of familial love.
Abigail O. Hartley is an editor at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum