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By Sharon Chisvin, July 13. 2010

A few weeks ago two of my friends, one living in Toronto and the other in Vancouver, informed me within days of one another about a book that they thought I would be interested in reading and reviewing. Both of them were eager to help the author promote the book to a wider audience, and thought that I might be able to help her do just that. I was glad that they thought of me and I was happy to help, but the truth is that Letters from the Lost: A Memoir of Discovery does not need my assistance. Meticulously researched and meticulously written, it is a fascinating, candid and moving memoir that is certain to find its own audience.

Written by retired French literature teacher Helen Waldstein Wilkes, who now lives in Vancouver, and published by Athabasca Press, Letters from the Lost is mainly a compilation of the family correspondence received by Helen’s parents following their emigration from Czechoslovakia to Canada on the eve of World War II. As a child Helen watched her parents carefully read each letter and then place it for safekeeping into a cardboard box. She never knew what the letters said and never thought to ask. Only decades later, when her mother is elderly and her father long gone, does she open the box and begin to read.

In doing so, Helen rediscovers her Jewish roots and reconnects to a past that she barely remembered and had seldom thought of.  In letter after letter she encounters grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and the lively and loving extended  family life that her parents, with a young Helen in tow, were forced to abandon with their immigration. In letter after letter she also learns how auspicious was that immigration, how desperate other family members were for the same opportunity, and how they suffered for the lack of it.  

Determined to find out more and to fill in the gaps of names, dates and places, Helen makes several trips back to Europe and shares these experiences in her book. She visits the town where she was born, the places her parents and grandparents lived, the city of  Prague, and finally Theresienstadt, where both her grandmothers died and from where almost every other family member was transported to Auschwitz

After Auschwitz, of course, there were only a handful of survivors. Among them was one of Helen's uncles, her father’s brother, whose post-war letters describe in excruciating and hearbreaking detail the living conditions in ghettoes and camps and the fate of every one of their family members. The letters depicting daily life in Theresienstadt, in particular,  surely deserve a place in Yad Vashem. 

In many ways Letters from the Lost: A Memoir of Discovery resembles Daniel Mendelsohn’s similarly titled 2006 award-winning, The Lost: A Search For Six of Six Million.  While Helen’s  investigation is conducted on a smaller scale and her observations are narrower in scope, her objectives are precisely the same – to better understand who and where  she came from, to give voice back to those long ago silenced, and to re-imagine lives that were long ago destroyed.

With this memoir she has done just that.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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