The sepia-toned transparency of Paulette Jellinek's late parents hangs inside a window, a constant reminder of her family's tragic and triumphant past.
It is this story that Jellinek, a Haverford artist who has taught here and in Israel, seeks to share with the world through www.shoahletters.org.
As the name implies, her nearly year-old website archives letters written primarily from 1938 to 1941 by family members, many of whom perished in the Holocaust; but also photographs, documents such as Nazi-acquired asset inventories, family biographies, and historic maps.
Her goal: to give insight into the lives of those letter writers, to show how they were leading normal lives - with everyday concerns and desires - prior to the Nazi takeover.
In one 1938 letter, a teenage girl both laments and rejoices in the start of continuing education classes to earn more money. In many others, family members foresee the inevitable:
" 'The Jew is at fault' sounds from all quarters; and here, as well, begins a metamorphosis from an idealistic, democratic land to a reactionary, fascist one." And, in 1939, "My hands are tied because we can't move around here. Prisoners forever???"
"The website is not just about my family," said Jellinek of the 19 letters she's been able to transcribe from German with the help of eight translators, one of whom was a rescued child survivor. "It's also about the six million. These are real stories. I want people to read the letters and realize that these were people - in some ways remarkable, but in other ways, just like everyone else."
Jellinek, 68, has been on a mission since her cousin, Gisella "Nadja" Jellinek Gal, who escaped to Palestine as a teenager as part of a secret operation, gave her a box filled with 60 letters in 1999. The notes, written by family members including Jellinek's father, Karl, and Uncle Hugo, chronicled not just the history of the once close-knit family, but also the pre-World War II Nazi anti-Jewish policies and laws that began in Germany in 1933. Later, in 2011, in the attic of her sister's New Jersey home, Jellinek discovered more letters among her parents' possessions. Together, they were pieces of a torn tapestry that Jellinek began to weave together.
On Aug. 21, 1938, Hugo writes from Brünn, Czechoslovakia, to Nadja about her role in creating a Jewish homeland: "My anxious thoughts constantly and forever revolve around you, my brave and hardworking girl, who is working under such dangerous and difficult conditions."
A year after Nadja had escaped to Palestine, she wrote to her father and sisters, urging them to join her. Sadly, notes Jellinek, such a reunion never occurred. Hugo, his second wife, Fritzi, and younger daughters, Berta and Anna, were murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. And Jellinek's grandfather, Siegmund, who was a spiritual leader and chief cantor, died of enteritis while a prisoner in Theresienstadt. Before he died, he blew the shofar and gave the last of many moving sermons there on Yom Kippur in 1942.
A cousin, Kurt Jellinek, who survived Auschwitz, told Jellinek in a letter before he died in 2003 that he remembered Siegmund "tried to give hope to the hundreds who attended and tried to give them strength to survive."
Jellinek's parents, Karl, a successful criminal defense attorney, and Karla, were lucky, escaping from Vienna in 1939 after his former colleague, a Nazi, took over his practice. A letter from that colleague indicates the end date of his lease, but it doesn't say how he also gave the couple just enough money for ship passage - as Jellinek's father explained later.
Karl and Karla boarded a Dutch ship with their infant daughter, Michaela, celebrating Purim along the way (as evidenced in a typed copy of Karl's speech, in which he expresses his belief in the eventual rescue of all persecuted Jews in Europe). They arrived in New York as "poor refugees," trying to rebuild their lives, including learning a new language. "They rarely talked about their past," said Jellinek. "It was hard for them."
Jellinek stares at her parents' passports, each stamped with a red J. The resolute look in her mother's eyes inspired a painting displayed on a living room wall of the home she shares with her husband, Sid Perloe, a retired Haverford College professor. The couple has two children, Alexandra, 30, and Gabriel, 27.
Other inspired works include charcoal and wax drawings of her maternal grandmother's eyes, as Jellinek tried to imagine her as she entered the gas chamber.
Jellinek's research has taken her around the globe: Israel, including numerous visits to Yad Vashem; Vienna, where she obtained vital documents; Prague; France; Terezin; and Hollabrunn, Austria, where her grandparents once lived.
Over the years, it's been an investment of hundreds of hours, but one, she says, that fills her with purpose. Some nights, she finds herself up late poring over documents. "It has taken time away from my artwork," she admitted, but that has been her choice.
Although Jellinek doesn't track visits to her website (a webmaster oversees its maintenance), many people have offered support and encouragement. Renowned Holocaust historian and author Bernard Wasserstein wrote to Jellinek, praising her endeavor and calling the website "an extraordinary memorial" filled with multifaceted historical treasures. And Laura Jockusch, one of her translators who also teaches Holocaust studies at the University of Haifa, plans to use the website to teach her students. In addition, a local artist wants to integrate some of the website images in an exhibition at Gratz College in Melrose Park.
Jellinek feels a personal responsibility to keep alive the memory of those who perished and those who survived. She is compelled to share the evidence - as horrific and unimaginable as it is.
"These are universal lessons that apply today, not just among Jews," said Jellinek, citing the hateful, inhumane acts still taking place throughout the world. "We must never be complacent."