The Unread Letters of 1941 have a long and tragic history. – in the beginning of July 1941, a mail transport was bombed, and a batch of letters sent from Kamenets-Podolsky (Ukraine) did not reach their destinations. They were seized by German forces as a very important artifact of the war. After the war the letters were kept in German museums until around 2010 they were returned to Ukrainian national Museum of War II (Національний музей історії України у Другій світовій війні). The museum wanted to pass letters to rightful owners to families. It was very important, because in some cases it was a last letter from the loved one. It is especially true for Jewish families – mass murders of Jews in Kamenets-Podolski started in August, and majority of correspondents most likely did not survive…However, letters from Jewish families were written in Yiddish – a language that disappeared together with people who spoke it…
When the Національний музей історії України у Другій світовій війні. asked for our assistance in translating the letters, we gladly volunteered, not knowing that we were signing up for a “mission impossible”. As we have learned, there are very few people in the world (!) who can translate, or more precisely to decipher, such handwriting (and as we recently found out, a few tried to work with this collection, but could not finish the task). Moreover, over the period of 80 years several interpreters tried, but did not succeed in the task.
Translating these letters presented multiple enormous challenges including unclear handwritings, geographical names that do not exist, words with grammar mistakes, phrases without punctuations, Russian and Ukrainian words scribbled in Yiddish, Soviet abbreviations written in Yiddish, and more. As such, each letter needed the involvement of more than one person. We were amazingly fortunate to be able to find several people from all over the world who agreed to help, and build a team to work on this project. In a record 10 weeks, the collection was translated. We dedicated our work to 80th anniversary to Babyn Yar massacre.
A curious fact that in parallel to our work, unbeknown to us President Zelensky presented the collection of the same letters (not translated yet) to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.