DOWNERS GROVE – The letters between Gerda Nothmann Luner and her family, separated by the Holocaust in 1939, are heartbreaking when read with historical hindsight, and yet the love and optimism apparent in the correspondence can't help but highlight the human spirit.
The letters show a young Gerda, then 12, finding spiritual guidance from her father, remembering inside jokes with her mother, enjoying her younger sister Vera's sense of humor, and awaiting a reunion.
"And as God's will, everything that now seems difficult will seem a blessing – and we, (your father and I), will then experience the pleasure that you give us, and we will be happy," Gerda's mother wrote in one letter. "When we reunite, we will happily carry a lighter load."
The family wrote each other often, beginning when parents Max and Adele sent Gerda and Vera to live with separate foster families in Holland when Berlin became too dangerous for Jews.
The letters, which were miraculously saved by a family friend during the Holocaust, and Gerda's written memoir of her survival of several concentration camps are collected in "Gerda's Story: Memoir of a Holocaust Survivor," published by Elmhurst College.
A new batch of 400 copies of the book are being printed this year, the biggest run since it was first printed in 2002. All proceeds go to benefit the Elmhurst College Holocaust Education Project.
Gerda would be the only member of her immediate family to survive, and the last letter from her parents arrived at her foster family's residence on May 3, 1943.
Her family was "about to leave for the trains when (mom) wrote that last letter," Gerda wrote in her memoir. "They went straight to Auschwitz, but I did not know that then. I only learned it for sure after I myself was in Auschwitz, fifteen months later."
A month after that final letter, Gerda was sent to Vught, the first of several concentration camps she would survive before her rescue in 1945.
At Vught, she was fortuitously selected to work for Philips, assembling radio tubes in a camp factory. The Dutch electronics company better fed their workers and spared them from hard labor. And when Gerda and other members of the "Philips group" were moved to Auschwitz, it was their value to Philips that kept them from the gas chambers.
Her memoir reveals the gradual descent from optimism to numbness, to the acceptance of imminent death as she is moved from camp to camp, narrowly avoiding extermination by random luck, chance and coincidence.
When she was finally rescued in 1945, she was near death. She weighed about 70 pounds and needed several months of recuperation in a hospital to regain her strength.
Gerda emigrated to the U.S. in 1946, and later married Charles Luner in 1953, with whom she had two daughters.
The family lived in Downers Grove from 1962 until 1998. She died in 1999.
Charles Luner said Gerda was willing to talk about her experience, but she would have to be asked first. "She didn't voluntarily say, 'I was in the war, I did this, and this happened,'" he said. "She didn't like to be considered a survivor – like having a degree ... She didn't want to have 'survivor' after her name, because it was an accident that she survived."
Her memoir, which forms the first half of the book, was written in one feverish week in 1978 after seeing a televised miniseries about the Holocaust.
"She saw that, and she figured she wanted to leave a record for the children," Luner said.
The single-spaced manuscript remained solely for the family until faculty at Elmhurst College encouraged Luner to share the story with the broader public. The letters were also dramatized by DePauw University in 2010.
"I want to let people know what happened," Luner said. "And the more stories that are told, the better.
There's a lot of deniers of the Holocaust. And the personal stories that are well-written and authentic, they make a difference."
To order a copy of the book, call Luner at 630-932-3187.