Martin Marx was my mother's father: a wonderful Opa and a kind man, very loving and much loved.
A German Jew born in 1911, Martin spent his youth in Gross-Gerau near Frankfurt. His mother Emmy died in a car accident when he was twelve; thereafter, his family consisted of his father Emil, his sister Hede, and the family housekeeper Johanna Kossmann.
Once he reached adulthood Martin went to work in the family flour and grain business founded by his grandfather, Marx Marx. As the situation for Jews in Germany worsened, Martin eventually sought to emigrate. He left Europe for Chicago in 1936, where a relative provided the affidavit needed to settle in the U.S., and he quickly set about finding work and establishing himself, so he could bring his family over.
Shortly after arriving in Chicago, he met my grandmother, Mitzi Hesky, at a refugee dance--they married in 1940 and would have three children. Tragically, despite all his efforts, Martin wasn't able to rescue his family from Germany in time; his father, sister, and Frau Kossmann all died in the camps.
When Martin died in 1997, we found among his possessions the letters he'd received from his family between 1936 and 1941; the first letters were written just days after he left on a transatlantic steamer, and the last were sent shortly before America's entrance into the war, when postal service with Germany ended. There are hundreds of these letters, filled with updates on friends and family in Gross-Gerau, questions about his new life in the United States, and later, discussions of potential emigration routes.
My father set about building a physical archive for the letters, encasing each in a Mylar sheet to protect the thin onion skin paper and stacking the sheets in library archival boxes. In 2011, my wife Alison organized his scans into this digital archive, and I set about transcribing and translating them. Progress was painfully slow; two years later I'd only managed a couple dozen transcriptions. Around this time, a retired teacher and historian from Gross-Gerau happened on the site; he'd spent years chronicling Jewish life in Gross-Gerau, and he kindly offered to take over the transcription work. Since then, my collaborator (and new friend) Jürgen has generously invested hundreds of hours in our project, transcribing the letters and magically pulling words out of the tiny scribbles in the margins. In 2017, another collaborator joined the shared effort; bea sara goll has contributed wonderfully faithful translations to the English, starting with the letters of March 1937.
We have only one side of the conversation, so some of the context is lost, but they're beautiful and intimate letters. While the narrative is profoundly sorrowful in its arc, the correspondence is also full of sweet moments. "Die Pfirsich sind dies Jahr so fein" ("The peaches are so fine this year!"), reports Frau Kossmann in an early letter. A few lines later, "vergesse nicht regelmässig zu schreiben, dies ist noch alles was wir von Dir haben." ("Don't forget to write regularly, this is all we have from you anymore!")