In 1945, a young Jewish woman named Ilse was grateful to be alive.
Russian troops had just liberated a prison in Berlin, Germany, where Ilse had been held as a prisoner of war for nearly two years. She was arrested in 1943 after bravely jumping from the fast-moving train that was taking her to Auschwitz, the same Nazi concentration camp that would soon claim the lives of her mother and two of her sisters.
On July 18, 1945, the liberated woman was coming to terms with the fact that her husband and most of her family members had been killed in the camps. Overwhelmed by sadness, she wrote a letter to her one remaining family member, her sister Carla. Carla had been fortunate enough to escape to Great Britain, and eventually to the U.S., before the war began.
An excerpt from the letter, translated from the original German, reads:
Through the kindness of our liberators, I am able to give you a sign of life from me after so many years… Dad, Mom, Grete, Lottchen and Hermann: no one is alive anymore. My pain is unspeakably big. My husband, whom I married 3.5 years ago, was also taken from me! … When there will be a regular mail connection, I will tell you everything in detail.
Carla never received the letter, but in 1948, Ilse finally made her way to New York City to start her new life. Ilse remarried but never had children, and she was well-loved by her extended family until her death in 2001.
No one knew where the letter she’d written Carla ended up for the past 75 years, but in 2021, an interior decorator and “heirloom detective” named Chelsey Brown happened to unearth it in a New York City thrift shop. The letter fell into the perfect person’s hands!
For the past few years, Chelsey has been scouring antique shops and flea markets in hopes of finding long-lost mementos that can be linked to modern family heirs. Using her genealogy skills and software, she tracks down any living family members and returns these sentimental treasures to their rightful owners. She has already reconnected more than 200 artifacts with their original owners’ descendants.
Through her research, Chelsey discovered that Carla’s husband Siefried had a brother named Ludwig. She managed to track down Ludwig’s granddaughter, Jill Butler, who actually grew up knowing and loving Ilse! Jill was thrilled to receive the letter and relive her great-aunt’s legacy of bravery in the face of unspeakable evil.
“We all loved our Great-Aunt Ilse and are thrilled beyond words to read her thoughts in her own handwriting after she emerged from the depths of the European inferno,” Jill wrote to Chelsey, adding that her whole family is “in awe” of her work.
“Almost everyone’s first reaction of ‘Is this a scam?’ quickly transformed into bewilderment at your selfless dedication to reuniting heirlooms with families,” Jill continued. “May God bless your noble work and may you receive many blessings in return for all you do for families like mine.”
Chelsey has done it again! This incredible woman has found a way to bring history home — literally and figuratively. We’re so grateful for her dedication to keeping the memory of people like Ilse alive.
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