World leaders gathered in Poland on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz last week. In Sacramento, I sifted through family photographs and old letters.
Among the mementos is a telegram to my grandfather, Charles Koppel, dated July 25, 1943, from a friend, “Chrastansky,” who wired him in Seattle from Prague. “Jour father dead Terezin no news about others.”
Salomon Kopperl, 76, had died in Terezin, a ghetto and concentration camp for European Jews. Chrastansky promised to “go on” searching for other members of the Kopperl family.
Late in 1942, Nazis removed my grandfather’s family from their home in Prosec, Czechoslovakia, and relocated them to Terezin. Nazis transported them to the gas chambers of Auschwitz in December 1943. Pepik Kopperl, 34; his wife, Irma, 31; and their son, Petr, 4; and Jindrich Kopperl, 40; his wife, Marie, 39; and Dr. Benno Kopperl, 41, were all murdered at Auschwitz.
In another of my family’s keepsakes, one from 1945, Josef Seltzer, a business acquaintance of my grandfather’s living in Toronto, sent a letter inquiring about the status of the Kopperl family.
My grandfather replied that he recently had learned from a sister-in-law, Dr. Pola Kopperlova, his entire family had perished in the Nazi concentration camps. He continues by writing of the “bitterness in his heart and shame for belonging to (the) human race.”
My grandfather was born Karel Kopperl in Zabor, Bohemia, in 1899, the third of Salomon and Marie Kopperl’s six children. He modified his name to Charles Koppel when he arrived in the United States in 1920. His eldest brother, Otto, died while serving in the military in Italy during World War I. His mother, Marie, died in 1936.
For three generations, the Kopperls operated Bernard Kopperl’s Son, a successful tobacco pipe factory in Prosec. The family took great pride in the briar pipes that their artisans created. My grandfather’s company – Burke, Seeman & Koppel – sold their products in the United States.
While visiting in Chicago in 1928, my grandfather met Anci Rosenfeld, a young woman whose family operated a wholesale grocery store in Vienna. In keeping with her bold nature, Anci later proposed to him, and they married in Seattle in 1931.
Other family correspondence reveals that in 1939 my grandfather began a tedious two-year process of writing letters and submitting immigration applications to sponsor his nephews, Hans and Otto Piesen, so they could live with him in Seattle and attend Roosevelt High School. Their mother, Anna Piesen, was my grandfather’s sister.
Hans and Otto had sent hopeful letters from Prague to their “Onkel Charles” and “Tante Anci.” The teenage boys wrote that they were “big and strong and not afraid of hard work.” They were learning English, French and Spanish.
Hans had entered the watchmaking trade. Otto, the younger of the two, was playing the piano, accordion and trombone. They had big dreams for their future. Finally, after a lengthy application delay, Hans and Otto’s arrival seemed certain.
Years later, my grandmother Anci told me of the sadness she felt when Hans and Otto’s luggage arrived in Seattle, but they did not. Nazis had taken Hans and Otto, and their parents, Walter, 43, and Anna Piesen, 45, from Terezin to Treblinka, where they were murdered. Hans was 21. Otto was 19.
My grandfather died in 1954, a year before I was born. My mother and aunts said he was “a soft-spoken man with a wonderfully dry sense of humor.” They believe the loss of his family contributed to his poor health and, ultimately, his death from cancer.
Letters, like the one my grandfather wrote to Josef Seltzer in 1945, serve as a reminder of who we are and where we’ve been – and where we should never go again.
Mark Morris is the senior editor for visuals at The Sacramento Bee.