To maintain a free society, the free flow of information and the ability to communicate with fellow citizens is critical. Many of us have heard stories about Adolf Hitler’s brutality toward his citizens and his ruthless military campaigns after he rose to power in Germany after World War I and leading up to World War II. However, the limitations on communication that were in place under his rule are a big reason why he became so powerful.Justin Gordon provides some insight into this aspect of Holocaust history with his book, Holocaust Postal Journey. The book tells the story of the Holocaust through stamps, postcards, and other mail from this era. Gordon does a good job of providing basic background information about the Holocaust while describing the various ways the Nazis monitored and censored mail during this time. He illustrates how the Nazis placed rules on what could go through the mail, enforcing them through the use of censor markings, censor tape, offices that examined mail, and even chemicals that tested paper for hidden messages. The author provides many examples, with vivid color images. He frequently shows how Jews were particularly targeted, though he doesn’t spend much time describing how other groups Hitler targeted were affected by the regulations.Particularly touching are the stories of the people who wrote and sent these postcards and mailings. One of the author’s strengths is that he personalizes the stories of Holocaust victims and helps the reader to understand the brutal conditions these victims faced. Prisoners generally weren’t allowed to say negative things about the Nazi regime, and the government was careful to hide their brutality from the outside world. But Gordon provides extensive background information about the prisoners that helps us to understand what was really happening. Another important theme throughout the book is how the mail was used to provide relief to the persecuted Jews, including helping prisoners find loved ones and victims receive food and other goods. In short, Gordon successfully shows how censorship of mail both contributed to Hitler’s goals and made it difficult for his victims to get help. But while there are many heart-wrenching stories, there are a few positive ones as well. At the end of the book, there is a glossary of terms, with color photo examples, along with images and descriptions of many of the stamps that were in use during this era. These last sections help tie the book together and serve as a useful reference resource for those who need a refresher on the various terms used throughout the book. Readers can read the book from cover to cover, but it’s also the kind of book that readers can spend a lot of time studying and bouncing around between the different sections.Overall, the book was easy to read, visually appealing, and filled with many interesting facts and stories. Given all of the information about the postal aspect of Holocaust history and the frequent use of philatelic terminology, the book is most likely to appeal to stamp and postal history enthusiasts. However, anyone interested in World War II history, novices and experts alike, are likely to find plenty of rewards in this book as well. I imagine that it would generate some thoughtful conversation between both stamp collectors and history buffs. Gordon obviously has a deep passion for this topic, and I’d recommend that anyone who shares his passion read this book.
There is no simple way to investigate, present, or begin to explain the massive tragedy and horror of the Holocaust. So we painstakingly pluck it apart the best we can to cope with and understand this horrific chapter in human history.
Author Justin Gordon learned about stamp collecting when he was 8. He started learning about the Holocaust a few years later when his cantor, a concentration camp survivor, shared stories as the young Justin learned the text for his bar mitzvah. After he became an optometrist, Gordon came upon a philatelic exhibit focused on documents from World War II Holocaust sites Auschwitz and the Warsaw ghetto. His philatelic path became clear, and now he has created Holocaust Postal History to help shed some light.“It is all too easy to see the 6 million Jewish victims as a whole, rather than as individuals occupied with the ordinary aspects of life, just as we are,” writes the author in his Introduction. “And what could be more ordinary than a postcard or an envelope? These seemingly non-descript items, known to stamp collectors as covers, are in some cases the only remaining fragments of people’s lives, as you will see in the pages of this book. They reveal more about not only the individual caught in the machinery of death, but also the exact historical moment when one person reached out in desperation to another in the hopes of receiving help, encouragement or simply news that a loved one was still alive.”
The main chapters are “The Beginning of the Journey,” “Anti-Semitic Laws,” “Der ewige Jude,” Ghettos,” “Theresienstadt,” “Concentration Camps,” “Judenarbeitslager,” “Unsung Heroes,” and “Journey’s End.” In “Ghettos,” we find information about the post office in Warsaw, which was overseen by the Judenrat, the Jewish government within the ghetto. “All monies collected by the ghetto post office from selling postage stamps, sending packages, and so on, went to the Deutsche Post Osten … Therefore, the ghetto postal authorities instituted a surcharge on all postal services, including delivery of letters, packages, and telegrams … These funds were used to pay the postal employees.”
The chapter shows cards with ghetto censor markings, cancellations, and receiving marks.In “Concentration Camps,” the author briefly illustrates and tells the tale of Mina Mandler (1887–1944), who was held both at Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. “ … On March 2, 1944, Mandler was given several postcards. She addressed them, wrote messages on the cards, and followed the Nazi order to date them March 25, due to the amount of time it took for the censors to review them. On March 8, she was gassed… Her cards continued to be sent out after her murder.”
Breakout sections within chapters offer technical details (sizes, colors, etc.) and explain things like types of camps, postal markings (“Incoming Ghetto Mail Receiving Marks”), reply-instruction and ghetto receiving cachets, and camp censor markings. Color illustrated glossaries of philatelic terms and stamps in relation to the main topic further help explain the material. A 12-page bibliography is a testament to the years of dedicated research the author has spent on the topic.Gordon’s thoughtful and easy-to-read text offers short lessons and commentary — both philatelic and historical — throughout. Each cover presented is well interpreted in captions that describe or explain stamps, overprints, postmarks, and ancillary markings.The book is a superb effort to try and present an extremely difficult and complex topic in a modern, clear fashion that both educates and moves the soul.“ …
The covers in this book speak a more personalized testimony to the lives of these victim’s in one of history’s crimes,” writes Gordon. “Peruse this book with reverence.”
As many times as I picked up Holocaust Postal History- Harrowing Journeys Revealed through the Letters and Cards of Victims, I invariably walked away shocked to the core. And this coming from someone who has written extensively on The Holocaust, often in a similar vein to that of the publication’s author, Dr. Justin Gordon. He is a many decades collector, lecturer and writer on The Holocaust and Past President of The Society of Israel Philatelists.For you see, what Justin Gordon has accomplished is to have integrated into this splendidly-created text the core, literally gut-wrenching reality of the victims, transport by horrendous transport to the death camps, with their final thoughts as expressed in postal cards and letters, their fates- “gassed”, “perished,” “fate unknown.” The story is tied together with a comprehensive postal history exploration of the entire surreal Nazi creation of a despicable insult to humanity, that cries for an understanding that cannot realistically be forthcoming even now, decades after the fact. All of this is done with an eye for exactitude that chapter by chapter leaves no stone unturned. If I have gained your undivided attention it is because the end result of this carefully researched work is the fact that whether one is a historian, a philatelist, or neither, rather an interested reader, this work has something for everyone. For those who are in the latter category, neither as many of us, fixated on stamps or postal history, the story unfolds with carefully constructed chapters on every aspect of the Nazi’s bestial and merciless attempt to annihilate an entire religious institution that it interpreted as a “racial” insult to humanity. This in the 20th century no less.Gordon unfolds his story with a historian’s sense of exactitude, from the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism, to the Anti-Semitic Nazi Laws, the propaganda against the “Eternal Jew.” There is the establishment, first of ghettos in which to entrap the victim, and then the various types of concentration camps, slave labor camps, specific death camps. Albeit all the Nazi sites of incarceration were pits of inhumanity that, while described as “indescribable,” were not that at all. Rather they are easily described, yet, so repugnant and inhumane, that we prefer rather not to detail the reality in words.For we philatelists and postal historians, he then intertwines the personal, tragic words of the victims in cards and letters. With carefully researched data whenever available with the assistance of numerous supporting researchers to his work, he relates the fates of those whose handwritten communications we witness before our eyes. That, in many ways is what is so profoundly touching about the juxtaposition of the history and the personal sense of literally being able to evanescently touch these people before their extinction.Finally, but by no means least, is the piece de résistance,the gamut of beautifully illustrated covers, cards, letters, corner cards, mailing symbols and censor markingsof multiple varieties. Gordon explains the complexity of German postal markings and requirements imposed on thosethey would soon or already had been liquidated through every gross means of execution. The checking included getting down to a cover where a number over each word was written to ascertain that the writer had not exceeded the thirty-two word permissible limit.Dr. Gordon concludes his work with integrated glossaries of general philatelic terms, stamps pertinent to the time-frame of The Holocaust and an extensive bibliography. Leave it to that, he has done his homework. It may be de rigueur to find some criticism worth mentioning when reviewing a published work, but in the case of Holocaust Postal History, I decline to invoke what I cannot find.This is a difficult read; yet, one that is unquestionably essential for the future. The generations who are not old enough to have first-hand knowledge of the Holocaust cannot be left to the leavened texturing of some future history book. Dr. Gordon’s work is the sounding board, the last cry, of those martyrs who were lost to the world in a manner that demands, yes, demands, “Never Again.” As much as we expect history texts to deliver this message, let it be noted that the words of the victims as invoked in postal history format speak easily, if not more so, to us.The Israel Philatelist, Spring 2017. www.israelstamps.com
IN A WELL-ATTENDED AND SUCCESSFUL LAUNCH PARTY, philatelist and postal historian Justin Gordon presented his new book, Holocaust Postal History: Harrowing Journeys Revealed through the Letters and Cards of the Victims, to the public on Sunday, November 20, 2016, at synagogue Kehilat Chovevei Tzion in Skokie.
An audience of over 100 people gathered to celebrate the occasion. Attendees included Gordon’s family, friends, neighbors, business colleagues, patients, synagogue members, Holocaust survivors and their children, and at least one World War II veteran. People lined up to purchase more than 100 books, which Gordon signed that evening.
Special guest and radio personality Regine Schlesinger officially opened the evening with a recounting of her experience growing up as a child of Holocaust survivors. She emphasized the need for continued study and writing on the topic, especially as survivors age and pass away. Following Schlesinger’s comments, Rabbi Shaanan Gelman addressed the crowd, weaving an eloquent narrative around the story of a man who escaped Chelmno and returned to his rabbi’s house to relate the unthinkable truth about what was happening to the Jews of Europe. Gordon’s close friend and collaborator Howard Weiss then spoke to the hard work, dedication, and labor of love that the book represents, as well as to the poignancy of holding an actual cover from Gordon's collection, most likely this person’s last communication and the only remnant of his or her existence.
Finally, Gordon addressed the audience regarding the book itself, the culmination of years of collecting, research, and writing. He relayed how his uncle led him to stamp collecting, how his cantor—a survivor of Auschwitz—introduced him to the Holocaust, and how, years later, he’d discovered a convergence of these two areas in Holocaust philately. While his initial motivation for collecting was in the covers themselves and their stamps and markings, Gordon eventually realized that each cover represented a personal journey, a story to be told. His book relates these tales of life and death. Gordon related that his newest project involves collecting covers from each of the members of the first transport to Auschwitz.
Following the speeches, Schlesinger opened up time for questions and comments from the audience. One attendee had served in the US troops at the Battle of the Bulge and mentioned that very few French Jews had survived the Nazis in World War II. An elderly Holocaust survivor related that he had just completed his autobiography. Another attendee also asked if the postcards and envelopes in the book could be viewed in a museum. Gordon responded that they are in his private collection and that he would be happy to display it and speak to groups about his research.
The event was full of positive energy, and the support for Holocaust Postal History and its author were deeply felt. In all, it was a wonderful beginning to introduce this special book.