1. Archive

Museum preserves letters on Holocaust, Germany

Paul and Greta Friedhoff were born German Jews. They escaped Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Many of their relatives did not.

Paul and Greta have lived in Clearwater for 22 years. Both of them have written guest columns for the Times, and the Holocaust has sometimes been their subject.

"For years we did not talk about it," Greta said, but the unspeakable horrors were not to be ignored.

"You can't get it out of your mind," added Paul, who will celebrate his 90th birthday in May. "Maybe the next generation can."

Paul and Greta, like many Jews and non-Jews alike throughout the world, believe strongly that the story of the Holocaust must never be forgotten. They watched the Academy Award-winning movie, Schindler's List, in a movie theater when it was first released and again recently on TV.

But they have never visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and do not plan to. "We know what happened," Paul said quietly during my recent visit in his Countryside home. "I couldn't take it," Greta added.

However, a series of letters that Paul and a doctor in Germany, who is not Jewish, have exchanged for the past 2{ years are now in the museum's permanent archives for use by scholars and others doing research on the Holocaust.

Paul and Dr. Emil Georg Sold, who have never met and have talked by phone only once, continue to share their views about centuries of anti-Semitism, why the Holocaust was allowed to happen, the controversial book Hitler's Willing Executioners and attitudes in Germany today. They write in German. They, especially Paul, do not mince words.

Their future letters will be added to the museum collection.

The relationship began when an acquaintance of Paul in Schifferstadt, Germany, had his bank send Paul a book titled The Jews of Schifferstadt. Paul sent a thank-you letter to the bank, which forwarded it to the book's author, Sold.

Paul said Sold was drafted into Hitler's army but did not have any direct role in the annihilation of Jews and others. Yet, "he feels like he has the Holocaust on his shoulders," Paul said of the doctor. That's why he continues to search for explanations with Paul and why he speaks in high schools and universities about the Holocaust.

In their sometimes brutally frank letters, Paul told Sold he must have known what was going on in the concentration camps. But Sold said he was an American prisoner of war for two years and did not know.

The two men have agreed that the primary cause of anti-Semitism in Europe was the centuries of "negativism" preached from Catholic and Protestant pulpits. Sold sent Paul a copy of a 1543 sermon in which Martin Luther condemned the Jews for not joining his reformation movement.

In one letter, Paul acknowledged anti-Semitism in countries like France, England and the United States, but said German people have been the worst. "You'll never get an answer," Greta told him. "There's the end of a beautiful friendship."

But the correspondence continued. The men have discussed Daniel Goldhagen's 1996 book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, which contends that many German citizens knew about the Holocaust and willingly participated in it. Sold said the book has been more widely read in Germany than any other country, stimulating much discussion by those who feel guilt and others, including some Jews, who resent the negative picture of their country.

At the conclusion of the recent TV showing of Schindler's List, director Steven Spielberg talked about supporting a project in which hundreds of people with knowledge of the Holocaust are being interviewed on videotape for posterity. One of those was Otto Landman, a retired university professor and Greta's second cousin, who knew about Paul's correspondence with the doctor. He showed his interviewer a copy of one of Paul's letters, which led to the Holocaust Museum's requesting the complete set of letters written by both men.

Paul assembled the letters, labeled the collection Gedankenaustausch ("Exchange of Thoughts") and sent it to the museum in December.

It was 1934-35 when Paul and Greta, who did not know each other, fled their homeland and Hitler. Paul, 27, came to the United States. Greta, 15, joined other family members in England for five years before coming to the United States.

Their parents, brothers and sisters also escaped. But they each lost 15 or more relatives in the concentration camps. Greta recalls growing up with a second cousin named Edith. Because she was a blue-eyed blonde, Edith was cited in class by one of her teachers as a "typical Aryan," a term the Nazis used for Caucasian non-Jews. Nazi officials did not make the same mistake. Edith died as a young teenager with her brother and parents.

Paul spent the years 1936-39 in Philadelphia, where he was president of the German Jewish Club. People came to him for help in getting Jewish relatives out of Germany. He knew what documents were needed and how to process them. "I helped more than 300 get out," he said quietly but proudly, adding with a smile that it compared favorably to the 1,100 Jews saved by Oskar Schindler.

Paul was honored several years ago by the local B'nai B'rith chapter for his rescue work.

Paul and Greta met in Philadelphia. They married in 1941 and will celebrate their 56th anniversary in August. They moved to Clearwater in 1975 from Puerto Rico, where they had lived for more than 20 years. Paul was in the export-import and furniture manufacturing businesses.

In retirement he has written three novels and a short autobiography titled My Story, all unpublished, plus his thought-provoking Times columns. But what will be read by scholars for years to come are the letters of an incisive intellectual, a thinking man.