Monday, 15 August 2016

Tell him about his father

Above: Luz Long and Jesse Owens

To win four gold medals at a single Olympic Games is astonishing enough; however, to do so as a black person in 1936, at a tense Olympic Games hosted by Adolf Hitler, is almost beyond belief. Yet Jesse Owens did exactly that, somehow managing to ignore talk of Aryan superiority to take gold in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay, and long jump, all in the space of a few days. He also made a good friend in the form of German athlete Luz Long, the blond-haired, blue-eyed, long jump rival who swapped training tips with Owens and openly congratulated him after his final jump, in full view of Hitler.

Having bonded so well at the Games, Owens and Long kept in touch by mail. Below is Long's last letter, written during WWII from North Africa where he was stationed with the German Army and later killed in action. It reached Owens a year after it was sent. Years later, as per Long's request, Owens met and became firm friends with his son, Karl. He also went on to serve as best man at his wedding.

(Source: Jesse: The Man Who Outran Hitler. Photo via EAL09)

I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. I do not fear so much for myself, my friend Jesse, I fear for my woman who is home, and my young son Karl, who has never really known his father.

My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is a something so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war done, someday find my Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we not separated by war. I am saying—tell him how things can be between men on this earth.

If you do this something for me, this thing that I need the most to know will be done, I do something for you, now. I tell you something I know you want to hear. And it is true.

That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer.

Then I not know how I know. Now I do. I know it is never by chance that we come together. I come to you that hour in 1936 for purpose more than der Berliner Olympiade.

And you, I believe, will read this letter, while it should not be possible to reach you ever, for purpose more even than our friendship.

I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about. This is what I have to tell you, Jesse.

I think I might believe in God.

And I pray to him that, even while it should not be possible for this to reach you ever, these words I write will still be read by you.

Your brother,

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Farewell, my dear brother

On October 15th of 1944, with support from Nazi Germany, the far-right Arrow Cross Party took control of Hungary and immediately began to kill large numbers of Jewish citizens. Thousands more were deported to Auschwitz. The following farewell letter was written the next day by 17-year-old Budapest resident Pinchas Eisner to his brother, Mordechai, who at the time was in a forced labour camp. Weeks later, on November 3rd, Pinchas was marched to a local forest with 70 other Jews, told to dig a mass grave, and then shot to death. The letter was discovered by Mordechai some time later upon his return to the family home.

(Letter courtesy of Yad Vashem Archives - used with permission. Photo of Jews being rounded up in Budapest, October 1944: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-680-8285A-26 / Faupel / CC-BY-SA 3.0)


16 October 1944
6.15 p.m.

My Dear Brother,

Goodbye! Think of our talk that night. I felt as one with you. I knew that, if it were you whose life would end, I would go on living as if I had lost half of my body and soul. You said that, if I die, you will kill yourself. Think of what I told you, that if you stay alive I will live on within you. I would have liked to continue my life, with you and with our family. Plans, desires, hopes were before me. I longed for the unknown. I would have liked to know, to live, to see, to do, to love… But now it is all over. In the city, Jews were exterminated from entire streets. There is no escape. Tonight or at least tomorrow it will be our turn. At seventeen I have to face certain death. There is no escape. We thought that we would be exceptions, but fate made no exceptions. I always felt the pull of the depth, about which I have written to you…I believe, I also felt, that I would die young. It seems like fate put a curse on each of us. After Yisrael it is now my turn together with my father, mother and sister. I hope you will survive us.

Farewell and forgive me if ever I have offended you. (For the first time my eyes begin to fill with tears. I am careful not to cry as there are others present.) Because I loved you and I see you as you smile, (the vein on your brow is swelling) as you are thinking, as you eat, as you smoke, as you sleep and I feel great tenderness, great love and my eyes are filled with tears. Farewell. Live happily, all the best to you my dear brother, lots of success, much love and happiness, don’t weep, don’t cry. (I felt so bad hearing you cry that night.) Think of me lovingly. Remember me with good heart and, if there is another world (how much I discussed it with you, too – now I’ll find out! My poem ‘What Will Happen to Me?’ comes to my mind…I felt it already then), then I will pray to God to help you in whatever you do. Farewell, my dear only brother! If you are interested to know my state of mind (you see I am thinking of this, too) I will try to describe it and also that of our home.

The calamity started last evening. By nightfall, the Jews of 64 and 54 had already been taken away. There was a pool of blood on the pavement, but by morning it was washed away. I was awake the whole night. R.J. and K.S. were here. Poor R.J. could hardly stand on his feet he was so full of fright. At first we hoped that the police and the army would protect us, but after a phone call we learned everything. Slowly morning arrived, but the events of the day made our situation hopeless. K.S. came at 6. He was about to faint after he fought with four Nazis who beat him terribly. He barely escaped with his life. He was stumbling and trembling and could not start talking because of what he had seen and been through. I write fast, who knows if I will have time to finish? K.S. offered to take Sorele to a safe place. She promptly jumped at the suggestion and wanted to go immediately. But Mummy stepped in front of her and with a completely calm voice said that she would not let her go because the Nazis might catch them on the street. Sorele was crying and hysterical. She wanted to go, she wants to live. Finally Mother proposed that if I go too then she will give her consent. You should have heard the way she said that. Sorele wanted to go, I stayed…I could not leave our mother and father. (Do you remember our discussion about hiding in the safe hide of a bear? It came to my mind at once.) So mother did not let Sorele go and K.S. did not force it any longer, he, too, stayed. Sorele cried and screamed, Father was praying the whole night. He still has some hope left, but he is talking about this world as being like a vestibule to prepare ourselves for the real world to come.

Mother and Father are telling religious parables to K.S. about the inevitability of destiny. Mathild is sitting next to us and listens. Sorele is outside and I am writing. I am relatively calm, facing death my thoughts are coherent. (Yesterday at dawn I even wrote a steno-composition, you might find it in my notebook.) It is not fear that I feel but the terribly considered bitter and painful realization of things to come. I hope I’ll get it over with quickly, only it will be terrible to see each other’s agony. God will help us and we will be over it.

Farewell, dear, sweet Brother. Farewell! Remember me. I hope that I, too, will be able to think of you even from over there. I would like to hug and kiss you once more. But who knows to whom I write these lines? Are you alive?!

Farewell, my dear brother, my sweet Mordechai, live happily.

Kissing you for the last time – till we meet again,
Your Loving Brother

Friday, 5 August 2016

The Elephant Man

In December of 1886, the chairman of London Hospital, Francis Carr-Gomm, wrote to The Times newspaper and told of a disfigured 27-year-old man whose appearance was so “terrible” that he was reduced to living in a small, isolated attic room at the hospital, hidden from view. Carr-Gomm was in fact describing Joseph Merrick—”The Elephant Man”—a man born in 1862 in Leicester, England who began to develop abnormally as a child, resulting in enlarged limbs, lumpy skin and impaired speech by the time he was a teenager, not to mention an unimaginably difficult adolescence. A short-lived career as a living exhibit in London soon followed, and then a trip to Europe during which he was robbed and beaten. On returning to England, jobless, penniless, sick, and depressed, he was admitted to London Hospital, at which point its chairman wrote to The Times and asked the public for assistance.

The positive reaction from the public—letters, gifts, money—was both overwhelming and unexpected, and essentially funded Merrick’s stay at the hospital until his death a few years later. Shortly after he passed away, Carr-Gomm wrote one more letter to The Times.

(These letters, along with 124 other fascinating pieces of correspondence, can be found in the bestselling book, Letters of Note. Photo © The Royal London Hospital Archives.)

The Letters

4 December 1886

To the Editor of The Times

Sir, - I am authorized to ask your powerful assistance in bringing to the notice of the public the following most exceptional case. There is now in a little room off one of our attic wards a man named Joseph Merrick, aged about 27, a native of Leicester, so dreadful a sight that he is unable even to come out by daylight to the garden. He has been called “the elephant man” on account of his terrible deformity. I will not shock your readers with any detailed description of his infirmities, but only one arm is available for work.

Some 18 months ago, Mr Treves, one of the surgeons of the London Hospital, saw him as he was exhibited in a room off the Whitechapel-road. The poor fellow was then covered by an old curtain, endeavouring to warm himself over a brick which was heated by a lamp. As soon as a sufficient number of pennies had been collected by the manager at the door, poor Merrick threw off his curtain and exhibited himself in all his deformity. He and the manager went halves in the net proceeds of the exhibition, until at last the police stopped the exhibition of his deformities as against public decency.

Unable to earn his livelihood by exhibiting himself any longer in England, he was persuaded to go over to Belgium, where he was taken in hand by an Austrian, who acted as his manager. Merrick managed in this way to save a sum of nearly £50, but the police there too kept him moving on, so that his life was a miserable and hunted one. One day, however, when the Austrian saw that the exhibition pretty well played out, he decamped with poor Merrick’s hardly-saved capital of £50, and left him alone and absolutely destitute in a foreign country. Fortunately, however, he had something to pawn, by which he raised sufficient money to play his passage back to England, for he felt that the only friend he had in the world was Mr Treves of the London Hospital. He therefore, through with much difficulty, made his way there, for at every station and landing place the curious crowd thronged and dogged his steps that it was not an easy matter for him to get about. When he reached the London Hospital he had only the clothes in which he stood. He has been taken in by our hospital, though there is, unfortunately, no hope of his cure, and the question now arises what is to be done with him in the future.

He has the greatest horror of the workhouse, nor is it possible, indeed, to send him into any place where he could not insure privacy, since his appearance is such that all shrink from him. The Royal Hospital for incurables and the British Home for Incurables both decline to take him in, even if sufficient funds were forthcoming to pay for him.

The police rightly prevent his being personally exhibited again; he cannot go out into the streets, as he is everywhere so mobbed that existence is impossible; he cannot, in justice to others, be put in the general ward of a workhouse, and from such, even if possible, he shrinks with the greatest horror; he ought not to be detained in our hospital (where he is occupying a private ward, and being treated with the greatest kindness – he says he has never before known in his life what quiet and rest were), since his case is incurable and not suited, therefore, to our overcrowded general hospital; the incurable hospitals refuse to take him in even if we paid for him in full, and the difficult question therefore remains what is to be done for him.

Terrible though his appearance is, so terrible indeed that women and nervous persons fly in terror from the sight of him, and that he is debarred from seeking to earn his livelihood in an ordinary way, yet he is superior in intelligence, can read and write, is quiet, gentle, not to say even refined in his mind. He occupies his time in the hospital by making with his one available hand little cardboard models, which he sends to the matron, doctor, and those who have been kind to him. Through all the miserable vicissitudes of his life he has carried about a painting of his mother to show that she was a decent and presentable person, and as a memorial of the only one who was kind to him in life until he came under the kind care of the nursing staff of the London Hospital and the surgeon who has befriended him.

It is a case of singular affliction brought about through no fault of himself; he can but hope for quiet and privacy during a life which Mr Treves assures me is not likely to be long.

Can any of your readers suggest to me some fitting place where he can be received? And then I feel sure that, when that is found, charitable people will come forward and enable me to provide him with such accommodation. In the meantime, though it is not the proper place for such an incurable case, the little room under the roof of our hospital and out of Cotton Ward supplies him with all he wants. The Master of the Temple on Advent Sunday preached an eloquent sermon on the subject of our Master’s answer to the question, ‘”who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Showing how one of the Creator’s objects in permitting men to be born to a life of hopeless and miserable disability was that the works of God should be manifested in evoking the sympathy and kindly aid of those on whom such a heavy cross is not laid.

Some 76,000 patients a year pass through the doors of our hospital, but I have never before been authorized to invite public attention to any particular, case, so it may well be believed that this case is exceptional.

Any communication about this should be addressed either to myself or to the secretary at the London Hospital.

I have the honour to be, Sir, yours obediently,

F C Carr-Gomm,
Chairman London Hospital.


16 April 1890

To the Editor of the Times

Sir, - In November, 1886, you were kind enough to insert in The Times a letter from me drawing attention to the case of Joseph Merrick, known as ‘the elephant man.’ It was one of singular and exceptional misfortune; his physical deformities were of so appalling a character that he was debarred from earning a livelihood in any other way than by being exhibited to the gaze of the curious. This having been rightly interfered with by the police of this country, he was taken abroad by an Austrian adventurer, and exhibited at different places on the Continent; but one day his exhibitor, after stealing all the savings poor Merrick had carefully hoarded, decamped, leaving him destitute, friendless and powerless in a foreign country.

With great difficulty he succeeded somehow or other in getting to the door of the London Hospital, where, through the kindness of one of our surgeons, he was sheltered for a time. The difficulty then arose as to his future; no incurable hospital would take him in, he had a horror of the workhouse, and no place where privacy was unattainable was to be thought of, while the rules and necessities of our general hospital forbade the fund and space, which are set apart solely for cure and healing being utilized for the maintenance of a chronic case like this, however abnormal. In this dilemma, while deterred by common humanity from evicting him again into the open street, I wrote to you, and from that moment all difficulty vanished; the sympathy of many was aroused, and, although no other fitting refuge offered, a sufficient sum was placed at my disposal, apart from the funds of the hospital, to maintain him for what did not promise to be a prolonged life. As an exceptional case the committee agreed to allow him to remain in the hospital upon the annual payment of a sum equivalent to the average cost of an occupied bed.
Here, therefore, poor Merrick was enabled to pass the three and a half remaining years of his life in privacy and comfort. The authorities of the hospital, the medical staff, the chaplain, the sisters, and nurses united to alleviate as far as possible the misery of his existence and he learnt to speak of his rooms at the hospital as his home. There he received kindly visits from many, among them the highest in the land, and his life was not without various interests and diversions: he was a great reader and was well supplied with books through the kindness of a lady, one of the brightest ornaments of the theatrical profession, he was taught basket making, and on more than one occasion he was taken to the play, which he witnessed from the seclusion of a private box.

He benefited much from the religious instruction of our chaplain, and Dr Walsham How, then Bishop of Bedford, privately confirmed him, and was able by waiting in the vestry to hear and take part in the chapel services. The days before his death, Merrick was twice thus attending the chapel services, and in the morning partook of the Holy Communion; and in the last conversation he had with him Merrick had expressed his feeling of deep gratitude for all that had been done for him here, and his acknowledgement of the mercy of God to him in bringing him to this place. Each year he much enjoyed a six week’s outing in a quiet cottage, but was always glad on his return to find himself once more ‘at home.’ In spite of all this indulgence he was quiet and unassuming, very grateful for all that was done for him, and conformed himself readily to the restrictions which were necessary.

I have given these details, thinking that those who sent money to use for his support would like to know how their charity was applied. Last Friday afternoon, though apparently in his usual health, he quietly passed away in sleep.

I have left in my hands a small balance of the money which has been sent to me from time to time for his support, and this I now propose, after paying certain gratuities, to hand over to the general funds of the hospital. This course, I believe, will be consonant with the wishes of the contributors.

It was the courtesy of The Times in inserting my letter in 1886 that procured for this afflicted man a comfortable protection during the last years of a previously wretched existence, and I desire to take this opportunity to thankfully acknowledging it.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,


House committee Room London Hospital, 15 April

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Dear Friend

In 1950, English actress Hermione Gingold appeared on stage in London alongside Hermione Baddeley in Fallen Angels, a Noël Coward comedy in which--controversially at the time--the two female leads contemplate adultery. Gingold soon received a threatening letter from a disgusted member of the public. With no address at which to aim a reply, Gingold instead responded with a letter that was reprinted in her 1952 book, My Own Unaided Work.

(Source: My Own Unaided Work; Photo: Hermione Gingold (1973) by Allan Warren, via Wikipedia.)

The Letters

April, 1950

Dear Madam,

Unless something is done at once about your disgusting exhibition in the filthy play you appear in every night, I and several of my friends will do something very unpleasant about it.

What you and your co-partner Hermione Baddeley do nightly in public is a slur on English womanhood. "Fallen Angels" is disgusting as a play, but your performance in it makes it loathsome. How the powers that be could permit such an exhibition is past the understanding of a God-fearing woman who supports the present Government--and thanks God for them.

I give you fair warning to leave the play, or it will be the worse for you. Our wrath will strike at you in your home, or maybe during a performance at the theatre.

A. Friend


Ambassadors Theatre

April 14th

Dear Friend,

How clever and capricious you are, cloaking yourself in anonymity, and I must confess I cannot for the life of me guess which of my many friends you can be. You have sent my head spinning and my imagination whirling. Could you be found among my dear friends, intimate friends, close friends, childhood friends, pen friends, family friends, friends of a friend, friends in distress, friends who are closer than a brother, friends in need, or school friends? Your letter quite clearly shows that you are not illiterate, and therefore we can rule out my school friends. Your masterly command of the language banishes the thought that you could be found among my friends from overseas. Your witty criticism of my performance makes me think that I might find you among my nearest and dearest “bosom friends,” that is if you did not choose to address me as “Dear Madam”--a clever move this, and one that reduces my last thought to mere stupidity and you to a casual acquaintance, and yet I must banish the thought “casual acquaintance.” for how many people are there in London today who realise that my “co-partner,” as you wittily dub her, is none other than Hermione Baddeley, and by the way, she wants me to thank you for the facsimile letter you sent her, and say that she is getting on in years and feeble, and is not able to attend to her correspondence as she would wish, and so she cannot answer your letter personally.

An awful thought has dawned. It is all a joke, and you aren’t really my friend at all. I must try to dismiss this thought. It depresses me. To lose a friend like you in a few words, oh no.

So, dear anonymous friend, if this should chance to meet your eye, please keep your promise and come round one night--yes, and bring your friends, too, for I know intuitively that your friends will be my friends.

Cordially yours,
Hermione Gingold

P.S. If you wish to strike at me with your wrath in my home, I am always in between ten-thirty and twelve in the morning, excluding Tuesday, which is a bad day, as a lot of tiresome tradespeople call for the same reason. You will easily recognize my apartment, for, apart from the number “85” marked in plain figures on the door, over the knocker there is a notice, "strike twice and wait, bell out of order.”