Stories

Letters of love: 'Our father wrote every day as he waited to be sent to Auschwitz'

The Israel family before the war

Arrested by the Nazis for being a Jew, Daniele Israel spent months in jail in Trieste before being deported to Auschwitz. The letters he wrote to his wife as she hid with their two sons only recently came to light, writes Dany Mitzman, and paint a deeply moving portrait of a family shattered by the Holocaust.

"My father was an upholsterer, he knew how to sew," says 85-year-old Dario Israel.

His brother Vittorio, 84, agrees. "Sewing for him was as easy as pie. To unpick, pull out, refill and restitch would have been so simple for him."

They are describing how their father sent letters from his cell in Trieste's Coroneo prison to the city outside - by stitching them into the collars and cuffs of his dirty shirts before they were taken away to be laundered.

Two non-Jewish former employees of his upholstery shop would pick up his laundry from the prison, but instead of washing it themselves they would deliver it, at great personal risk, to the address where Daniele's wife, Anna, was hiding.

"Of course I remember when the letters arrived. We always waited for them," Vittorio says.

"We'd wait for our father's laundry to arrive for my mum to wash but first she'd search for the letters in his shirt collars and cuffs. She'd unstitch them and extract the letters. We'd be sitting there and she'd read out to us what papa had written."

Vittorio remembers the combination of joy, anxiety and sadness the boys, aged eight and nine, felt while listening to their father's words.

"He wrote most of them for us because he maybe wanted to help us get through this difficult time. He often wrote asking how we were, what we were doing. He wanted to look after us, make sure we weren't sick. In all his letters he expressed his state of mind. He was always scared for us. He begged our mother to be careful and make sure we weren't found."

Anna washed the shirts then stitched in her replies before the ex-employees, both seamstresses, collected the bundle of laundry and took it back to the prison - along with paper, ink and any food that Daniele had requested.

Fearing the round-ups of Jews that had quickly begun in Trieste's old town after Germany took control of post-Mussolini Italy in September 1943, Daniele had sent his wife and sons out of the city to temporary safety.

"He thought things would calm down," sighs Vittorio, squinting in the sunlight up at the windows of their old flat in the Via Giulia, not far from the city's synagogue. It's the first time he and his brother have returned to their old address since emigrating to Israel more than 70 years ago.

Things didn't calm down though, and Daniele was arrested in his upholstery shop together with his father-in-law on 30 December 1943 - his mother-in-law was arrested on the same day in this same building on the Via Giulia. At this point, the boys and their mother secretly returned to Trieste and went into hiding in a woodshed belonging to Anna's brother-in-law, a Catholic carpenter.

"He'd taken all the stuff out to give us this place to live. It was a room with no light or water or a window, just a small skylight in the roof. There wasn't even a toilet. He told all his neighbours that we were refugees from Pola [now Pula, in Croatia] whose home had been bombed by the Americans."

Image caption Bruno the carpenter and his wife, Tina (left) with Anna (centre) - Bruno and Tina's son, Vittorino, is holding a cat

The German authorities regularly put pressure on Daniele to reveal their hiding place.

"He told us that the SS official would come once a week to ask him if he was in contact with us, because how was it possible he didn't know where his children and his wife were? My father kept saying he had no contact," Vittorio says.

"More than once", Dario continues, "he wrote that he'd been tortured because the official had said it was impossible he didn't know where we were. But he endured it all and after each interrogation he'd write to us that same day about it."

This made concealing the correspondence critically important, and sadly - though Anna preserved all of Daniele's nearly 250 letters - none of her replies survive.

"He would read them then destroy them immediately," says Dario. In one letter he asked Anna to choose the paper she wrote on very carefully as he was worried the crackling sound might betray their existence to the guards.

"If they'd fallen into the Germans' hands, it would have been the end of him. They'd have tortured him until they'd got something out of him. It was luck and the will of God that this means of communication was never discovered.

"He warned my mother that there were spies, that she should trust nobody."

The letters contain a great deal of information about daily life in the Coroneo prison. Daniele would write about people who had been arrested and brought into the cells and what he'd done during the day.

But there is also a lot of painfully intimate correspondence. He explained how he constantly missed them and how Anna's letters were the only comfort he had.

Image copyright Trieste Museums of History and Art
Image caption The law court on Via Coroneo, Trieste - the prison is still in operation at the rear of the building

He also remembered a time when his sons had come home crying because the children of a nearby family had called them "Jewish pigs" and beaten them up. Instead of consoling his sons, he'd been angry with them and punished them for not defending themselves. He wrote more than once asking for forgiveness.

"With all that happened later on, the incident really stuck in his head. He wrote how full of remorse he was," says Vittorio. "He took that regret to his death."

His love for his sons leaps out from all his letters, but in one of the last he had a surprise for them.

"On 20 August he sent a letter to my mother and he put 200 lire in with it. He had 200 lire! And he begged her, 'Please buy a gift for Dario and Vittorio for their birthdays with it,'" Dario says.

Dario's knowledge of these events comes from rereading the letters, and talking to Vittorio. His own memories were almost completely wiped out as a result of a traumatic experience that occurred during the Allied bombing of Trieste in 1944.

Dario was missing for 24 hours and when he returned he didn't speak for a long time. When he finally did, it became clear his memory was damaged; he didn't even remember that his father was in prison.

The only experience Dario does remember today is an exceptional event - the time his mother took him to see his father in prison.

"The Coroneo had a courtyard where the prisoners could walk around for a couple of hours. My mother took me to a house opposite, right up to the top floor. She must have arranged with my dad that we'd go on that day. He waved to us and we saw him."

Daniele then wrote to Anna, "Bring me Vittorio too."

"I saw my dad in the courtyard," says Vittorio. "My grandpa and grandma were there too but they didn't turn to look at us. It was only my dad who looked up, and raised his arm."

During Daniele's eight months in the Coroneo prison, the Allies were fighting their way up from southern Italy. They broke through at Monte Cassino in spring, took Rome in June and Florence in August. It's possible that Daniele was aware of this, as he had access to newspapers and sometimes wrote his letters on scraps of paper torn from their margins.

Daniele's sons believe he was held in Trieste for so long because of his skills as an upholsterer.

Vittorio remembers how highly respected their father was before his imprisonment, and how he was always busy.

"He made curtains, armchairs, mattresses, everything. He made the leather seats for the law courts. Everyone loved him."

This continued after his imprisonment.

"The Germans and the prison director got him to make mattresses for their homes," Dario says. He recounts how their father once wrote that he had been taken out to work in a private house and could have escaped through the toilet window, but lost his nerve and returned to the prison with his guards.

To begin with he was frustrated that some prisoners who arrived at the Coroneo after him were leaving sooner.

"He would see other Jews from Trieste arrive and say, 'Why do they send everyone else away and not me? I want to go and work too.' At first he didn't realise they were going to their deaths," says Vittorio.

But by the time Daniele and his parents-in-law had been put on a train to Auschwitz on 2 September 1944 "he had understood", says Vittorio. Astonishingly, Daniele continued to write. Vittorio says he knew one of the workers on the train, who delivered a final letter to Anna, written within sight of the death camp.

"He gave him a letter that he brought to us and in that letter he'd written, 'From the distance you can see the smoke. There's so much smoke here. This is hell.'"

The brothers know their grandparents died at Auschwitz, but the family never found out what happened to Daniele.

At the end of the war, they heard that he had been seen alive two weeks before the camp was liberated. Dario says their mother searched for years, through the Red Cross and on her own, hoping he'd gone to Russia, or lost his memory. The brothers believe he probably died on a death march, as the Germans attempted to move thousands of Auschwitz prisoners to camps further west.

"After the war we came back to this house [in Via Giulia] and lived here until 1949," Vittorio says. At that point Anna finally gave up hope and decided to emigrate, "because my father had written that if he didn't return we should go to live in Palestine".

It was an idea she and Daniele had discussed before the war.

In 1939 the couple had visited a photographer's studio with their two sons, to pose for a passport photo (the one at the top of this story). Daniele had been keen to emigrate, but it was difficult for Anna to leave her parents and in the end they decided against it. The knowledge that her concern for her parents' well-being had brought such disastrous results must have been hard to bear.

The collection of letters from her husband was one of the few things she took with her when leaving Italy. She kept them safe in a drawer in the cloth bag she had carried them in. The brothers found them when clearing out her apartment in Tel Aviv after she died 12 years ago, at the age of 96.

"Our mother considered these letters the greatest treasure she had," says Vittorio. Did she read them? "Maybe she sometimes did but not in our presence. Maybe she didn't want to cause us pain."

In order to avoid causing her pain, Vittorio and Dario never talked about what had happened. Vittorio remembered the letters but only told his family about them a couple of years before Anna died, when his grandchildren were asked to reconstruct their family tree for a school project. But even then he didn't raise the subject with Anna.

In fact, Anna did mention the letters once herself. She showed them to Dario's wife, who then told Dario's son, Daniel, about them. But Daniel too put all thoughts about them to one side.

The letters would have simply remained a family treasure had it not been for a chance meeting in 2017 with researchers from MyHeritage, who were trying to locate Jews from Corfu. Many of Trieste's Jews, including members of Dario and Vittorio's family, were originally from the Greek island. When Vittorio brought out the collection, the researchers instantly realised how precious they were.

"It's really a treasure, a historical treasure. I don't think we'll find anything like this again," says Elisabeth Zetland, one of MyHeritage's genealogy research team.

I love you very much and always pray to God to let me see you again. I really miss you. On the 12th August, if you can, send me a half litre of marsala. Every other day I'll make myself a zabaglione. If they don't let it through, too bad, thanks anyway.

Elisabeth went on to spend months transcribing and translating Daniele's letters - he wrote an average of one per day for the period of his incarceration - reliving the days and months with him. "I was doing this all day long and I went home and I was dreaming of Daniele," she says.

The letters crystallise the emotions that all Jews went through during World War Two, Elisabeth suggests. At first Daniele cannot understand why he is in prison and thinks there has been some mistake. Then comes boredom, frustration, fear, heartache, hope and desperation. Elisabeth believes the correspondence with his wife was the only thing that kept him from going completely out of his mind.

"He was broken, really depressed. He was very afraid for his family because they were hiding. He was more afraid for them than for himself. He was afraid he would never see them again, never kiss them again, so he wrote letters for the children to give them advice on how to become good men."

Elisabeth and her colleagues made translations and copies of all the letters for the family to keep. The originals are now in Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.

For the brothers from Trieste it is a comforting tribute to their father, who never had his own grave. And they have willingly followed the advice he wrote in a letter that Dario reads out loud, before emotion silences him.

"Be good and true brothers, love each other always. That way you'll make me and your dear mother, who is such a good person, happy."

Here in Trieste, on a trip from Israel with all their children, Vittorio smiles warmly at his brother. "The two of us are always in touch, every single day."

In Israel, Anna, Dario and Vittorio settled in the Tel Aviv area. Vittorio worked as a carpenter, using skills picked up from his uncle, and Dario worked as a furniture and piano restorer.

Between them, the brothers have four children (both named a son Daniel, after their father) and 13 grandchildren. Daniele's final letter, including the description of the smoke at Auschwitz, was lost a few years ago, but Vittorio says he remembers the words clearly and even the paper it was written on.

The brothers have visited Trieste before, but only returned to their former home on the Via Giulia this year, for a ceremony to mark the installation of four stolpersteine - engraved brass cobblestones - in the pavement. These commemorate their father, grandparents and great-aunt, all of whom were sent to concentration camps, and only one of whom survived.

The stones show each person's name and the date and place of their birth and death.

Daniele Israel (Trieste, 1910 - Auschwitz, unknown date)

Vittorio Zadock Bisson (Arta, 1891 - Auschwitz, unknown date)

Stella Nacson Bisson (Venice, 1891 - Auschwitz, 1944)

Rebecca Enrichetta Nacson (Corfu, 1900 - Trieste, 1986)

Family photographs courtesy of the Israel family, enhanced and colourised by MyHeritage. The final photograph of Vittorio and Dario in the library of the Trieste synagogue, where they studied on Saturdays as children, was taken by Dany Mitzman.

You may also be interested in:

Image copyright Dani Rotstein

An American who landed in Majorca in 2014 soon found himself working to revive the Mediterranean island's Jewish community - with the help of families forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity 500 years ago.

The New Yorker reviving Jewish life on a holiday island