Episode 75: Eleanor Reissa's Invisible Birthmark
Hi, Nahanni Rous here. Before we start our show, I want to tell you about a podcast I’m enjoying. I think you’ll like it too. It’s called A Bintel Brief, from the Forward, and it’s turned the historic Yiddish advice column into a fun, modern podcast. Each week, Ginna Green, a Black writer and movement-builder from the south, and New York comedian Lynn Harris, dish on the dilemmas of Jewish-American life, identity, culture, and politics, along with Chana Pollack, the Forward’s archivist. A Bintel Brief is historic, smart and conversational. Check it out, anywhere you listen to podcasts. Now, on to the show.
[Theme music plays]
Nahanni: Welcome to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.
Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, is this week, and to mark it, we speak with Eleanor Reissa about her new memoir, The Letters Project: A Daughter’s Journey. The book chronicles Eleanor’s search for her own family history, which started with 56 handwritten letters that Eleanor found stuffed in her mother’s dresser.
Eleanor: The letters were just one piece of this puzzle that then the doors flew open into the world of the past.
Eleanor’s parents were both born in Poland, and they each had families before World War II. Eleanor’s mother survived the war in Uzbekistan with her son. Her father survived Auschwitz, but his first wife and daughter were killed by the Nazis. He had sent an older son away to safety in England. Eleanor’s parents met in Germany after the war, then immigrated to New York, where they got married. They divorced when Eleanor was six.
Eleanor grew up in Brooklyn. She’s an actor, writer, singer, and director. She and I also work together on another podcast called Those Who Were There. It’s a series of Holocaust survivor and witness testimonies from the Fortunoff Archive at Yale University. After a career of telling other people’s stories, Eleanor has finally uncovered her own. Let’s begin with an excerpt from her new book.
[Theme music fades]
Eleanor: I tell stories for a living. My work is an enormous part of who I am, and I am my parents' daughter. So if I don't find out who they are, we were, how in the hell will I know who I am? I'm going to pull on this thread for as long as it's got give and see where it takes me—my own DNA strand. I identify, and always have, as the daughter of Holocaust survivors. That is my gender, my invisible birthmark.
Nahanni: Could you start by talking about why you chose the word ‘gender’ to describe your identity as the daughter of people who survived the Holocaust?
Eleanor: I was born in 1953, when there were no options to discuss one’s gender, one’s identity. But what really has defined me for all my life, for as long as I can remember, was the daughter of people who lived through the Holocaust—that the Holocaust, it’s a bit of a gender. I would be formless without it. There’s no pronoun for the Holocaust, but if there were, I would use it.
Nahanni: What was your childhood like? What was it like to grow up with your parents?
Eleanor: Well, I mean, Nahanni, it was normal, wasn’t it? Uh, I knew no other parents. Although I did…you know, those Dick and Jane and Spot and Puff and Donna Reed and Leave It To Beaver. And I thought, uh, I don't live like that. I wish I lived like that. I wish, you know, there was a glass of milk and a baloney sandwich on the table, but there never…there never, ever was.
You know, Saturdays, Sabbaths, holidays, uh, were sad. There were people missing, it seemed, always. And there was a general pall of sadness on both of them…which is not to say that they didn't love being alive on a certain level and teach me what little things meant—a delicious peach or a little flower or a walk. But it was simple and it was always somewhat fearful. Don't tell people too much, be careful what you say. Be careful. “Be careful” was a ginormous message.“Don't be too happy” was another ginormous message, as in, “What goes up, must come down.” Uh, but they were loving. They loved me. I didn't—and don't—ever feel that I was not enormously loved.
Nahanni: Did they talk much to you about what they had been through?
Eleanor: No. And you know, my father died in 1976, so that was 30 years, only, after the war, and people were not talking. It was not like now—it was hidden. There was no Holocaust Museum, there was no nothing for those people—I mean, nothing.
Nahanni: Right. So tell me about the project, the letters project, and how it began for you.
Eleanor: When my mother died in 1986, I was cleaning out her apartment. And I found these letters in her lingerie drawer, in a beautiful purse, an old purse. Fifty-six letters in a little baggy in this purse that she never told me about, that were written in German. And every year I would take them out of what then was my lingerie drawer and look at them. And I thought, I don't know what to do with this. And I put them back.
Nahanni: And these were letters your father had written to your mother in 1949, when he was still in Germany and she was in New York?
Eleanor: These were letters from my father to my mother, and her son, uh, from her first marriage, my brother Seymour. And each letter was…the only thing I could read was the salutation, Tayere Ruchale un Shamale, Dear Rachel, Little Rachel and Little Seymour. I didn't know what to do with it and I didn't do anything with it.
Nahanni: What did you think when you first saw them?
Eleanor: I thought, Oh, love letters. OK, put them in the drawer. And sometimes someone would come over, a Yiddishist friend, and I'd show it to them and they’d say, “I can't read this.” And I thought, OK. I can't read this. You can't read this. There's a bunch of them. I don't know. And I just put them back. I mean, it's fairly shocking, really, Nahanni. Really? I just put them back? I mean, it's a bit bizarre.
Nahanni: What do you think was going on?
Eleanor: Well, now I have some understanding of what was going on…What I feel like I learned, one of the things, is once those letters started becoming translated and once I started hearing his voice, albeit in writing, it was a lot. It was a lot for me to take in. And as you know, brash and inured as I sometimes appear to be—you know, that the Holocaust, been there, done that, you know, you can't sneak up on me anymore—I don't think is true. I think… How could I live with all of that? I must have not wanted to really know.
What stimulated me to finally have them translated was I got this acting job, uh, that year—I think it was 2018—in a Broadway show called Indecent, and that I was hired to be in that show gave me a kind of confidence that I didn't always have. And I thought, maybe I should pursue something of my own and I decided to try to translate the letters. I thought, maybe it'll be a play.
Nahanni: What did you learn about your parents' relationship from the letters?
Eleanor: So my mother was 20 years his junior. She got her visa to New York, uh, six or seven months before he did. So what I learned in the letters, in his letters—so the letters just go one way because she saved them and he did not save her letters in Germany…So, um, from the letters, I learned that he was anxious, that he was worried. She wasn't writing to him as often as he liked, and she was 20 years younger and in America. I of course know that their marriage didn't work.
Nahanni: Did you find yourself trying to fill in the gaps and sort of imagine how she would be responding to these letters?
Eleanor: Uh, kind of. And of course I wondered if I was betraying her by letting my father have his say in the book. Uh, but I wanted to give my father his say. Part of the purpose of the book was to give him an opportunity to tell his story. And I'm sorry that I don't have the opportunity for my mother to tell her story.
I do remember, you know, when I was a girl and they were still living together, that my mother used to cry all the time. I mean, I remember that. And I remember being told that my father used to beat my brother, my mother's son. Did I know how much? Did I know that that was why my mother left him? No, I didn't, and don't. My brother says that's why we left him—we left him because he hit me. You know, history is written by the one who documents their point of view, isn't it?
Nahanni: Yes. But on the other hand, your mother saved these letters for her whole rest of her life. Why do you think she did that?
Eleanor: No idea—and never said anything to me. I mean, she didn't say to me, “You know, I have these letters that your father wrote to me in 1949. You might want to look at them.” Never. Never.
Nahanni: You know, there are a lot of stories like this, where the children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, after their relative has died, find a stash of documents that they knew nothing about. Have you ever wondered if maybe your mother intended for you to find these letters?
Eleanor: No. I never thought that. I still…I mean, what I think is, you know, talk about compartmentalizing. I think this is maybe the largest version of compartmentalizing that a human being could do. They took their past and they took their spouses and their dead children and their dead parents and their dead town and they put it in a box where it wouldn't be forgotten, that they…it would not be disrespected. It had a place that they couldn't throw it away, but nor could they put it on the counter and say, “Let's look at this.”
Nahanni: So part of this project for you was a trip to Germany to kind of retrace your family’s steps. And one of the places you went was the DP camp where your mother and brother and family lived after the war. What was that like?
Eleanor: Well, when we found the displaced persons camp where my mother, brother, and grandparents had spent four years, I'm guessing, in this fortress, first of all, I didn't know what a displaced persons camp was. I thought it was cabins or something. I mean, I just had no idea that they were housed in a fortress, uh, not unlike a prison. So I was completely unprepared for what we would find there. And so we went into this dark, vast fortress. I stood in the hallway that was like an enormous intestine—it was just huge. And I stood there and I felt ghosts.
So much of my family’s dead for so long that part of the journey had to do with finding them. And I felt like I did. I felt like their atoms were mixed up with the oxygen. And that I could feel them and hear them. And the entire trip was like that.
Nahanni: So I want to talk about the project that you and I work on together, the podcast called Those Who Were There: Voices from the Holocaust. The episodes are drawn from first-person testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses from the Fortunoff Archive at Yale. What has it been like for you to listen to these brutal testimonies over and over?
Eleanor: I don't think I let it in. Except for…except actually, you know, you're reminding me, I'm sorry [gets choked up]...You know, I think I'm inured, it's such a joke. It's such a self-deceptive thing to think that I’m not affected by this. Because I'm remembering now a few times that we were recording and I'm just reading, about, you know, a young woman and her family who are in an attic, who haven't moved for three years, and when it's all over, they've not walked. And I'm reading it, like I'm reading…I don't know, Charles Dickens or something, like I'm doing a Selected Shorts at Symphony Space. But then, uh, it just wraps around my throat and grabs me and I give up and just break down to the horror and tragedy of it.
And then the other part of the story that sometimes grabs me, Nahanni, is the post-story. You know, this person suffered these horrible cruelties, inhuman and unimaginable cruelties. And then we learn about them today, that they had… sorry [gets choked up]...that they have 12 grandchildren and 46 great grandchildren. And that resurrection of a life, of a people, that also decimates me.
Nahanni: How do you think your experience of these testimonies might change now that you’ve written your own story?
I just think I'm going to be… sorry [gets choked up]... a lot more, uh, empathetic. I'm in the mix now. I'm more in the mix, and my father and my family have been given an opportunity to tell their stories. So I don't need to be so stingy with my love for the people who suffered, who were not my family.
Nahanni: Hmm. Hmm.
Eleanor: You know, 'cause I just felt, like, what about my family? What about my family? I'm done. My family now has a place amidst everyone else.
Being the daughter of people who lived through the Holocaust makes you both extremely empathetic to everybody's suffering and yet selfish for your own piece of bread, for your own need to protect yourself and your little crumbs that you've amassed of your own…It seems like a selfish point of view, but I just wanted to make sure mine got theirs, you know? I mean, it's like putting your own mask on, on the airplane. You want to save your own life and then you can save somebody else's, and maybe it's like that.
Nahanni: Eleanor Reissa’s new memoir is called The Letters Project: A Daughter’s Journey. To learn more about Eleanor’s work, visit her website, eleanorreissa.com. The podcast that Eleanor and I work on together is called Those Who Were There: Voices from the Holocaust. You can find the first two seasons at thosewhowerethere.org or on your favorite podcast app.
Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. This episode of Can We Talk? was produced by me and Jen Richler. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum. Special thanks to Jenny Sartori for help with this episode. Our theme music is by Girls In Trouble. You can find Can We Talk online at jwa.org/canwetalk or anywhere you get your podcasts.
I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time!
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 75: Eleanor Reissa's Invisible Birthmark." (Viewed on December 10, 2023) <https://jwa.org/episode-75-eleanor-reissas-invisible-birthmark>.