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I was hired to work on the translations of Rudolf Schwab’s correspondence in 2010 by his grandson, Daniel, who had come across the letters by chance after a house fire, stored away in a box in the garage of the family home in South Africa. Rudolf, who had passed away in a traffic accident in 1971, was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. He had arrived in Cape Town just 21 years old, speaking very little English. His father, mother, and teenage brother stayed behind in Germany; all of them were eventually murdered. Rudolf’s massive collection of letters is unusual (says the historian, Shirli Gilbert, author of From Things Lost) because it spans three decades, and because Rudolf stored away not only the letters he received from his loved ones but also made and kept carbon copies of the letters he had sent to them. Through the letters it is therefore possible to see ‘both sides’ of the story, from the grim exchanges of the late 1930s and early 1940s in which his parents, trapped in Nazi Germany and forced to give up their livelihood and home, became increasingly desperate in their appeals to Rudolf to organise their passage out of Germany (he tried very hard but ultimately failed), to the letters Rudolf exchanged after the war with his few surviving relatives, scattered around and world, as well as with old friends back in Germany, and even, most surprisingly, a childhood pal who had gone on to become a Nazi officer. It has been a great privilege for me to work alongside others, especially my fellow translator Omer Vanvoorden, to bring Rudolf’s story into print. In particular, the experience of translating the letters sent to Rudolf by his little brother, Hans-Ferdinand, will stay with me for the rest of my life. I think about him often. My translations of the letters selected by Professor Gilbert to appear in the book are also now on display as part of an exhibition entitled ‘Letters of Loss and Refuge’ at the South African Jewish Museum, running until October 2017 and again in December 2017 and January 2018. Professor Gilbert’s book, From Things Lost: Forgotten Letters and the Legacy of the Holocaust, is published by Wayne State University Press and can be purchased from their website.

 

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