Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Man Of Letters

By L.S. Jones

FEBRUARY 1, 1999: 

My dearest Emil, you continue to blame yourself for leaving us here. ... But it is precisely that decision that enables us to bear our fate more easily, knowing that the most precious people we have in the world have been spared all this. ...If only there wouldn’t be that nagging fear that we shall be sent away. ...But we are keeping our hopes up and continue to trust in God.”

Marie Kupler wrote these words to her brother Emil Secher in September 1941, just before she died at Auschwitz.

Her nephew Pierre Secher, now in his mid-seventies, arrives at a newly rented office by 2 p.m. each day to translate the family letters from German.

He plans to compile a book that will enable his relatives to tell their Holocaust story in their own words – words they never meant for public consumption.

But even though Secher wants to give the uninitiated a chance to live the Nazi threat along with those who actually experienced it and perished under it, the suffering conveyed in the letters often prevents him from working at length. Of the almost 400 letters in his possession, Secher has only translated 25 since 1994.

“I am trained in political science and I know about political persecution,” he says, as tears force their way to the corners of his eyes. “But I know these people – they’re not just strangers. These people represented my childhood.”

Secher taught political science at the University of Memphis for almost 20 years. He’s published articles in academic journals such as American Political Science Review and wrote a book titled Bruno Kreisky: Chancellor of Austria. Somewhere in between he ended up with many children and grandchildren, all of whom smile at him from a welter of snapshots on the opposite wall.

His is not an unhappy life.

But Secher’s face – the grim turn of his mouth, the veiled but penetrating cast of his eyes – tells of a different time, a time when life turned nightmarish in the spring of 1938.

On March 13th of that year, Hitler annexed Austria into the German empire. It wasn’t long before Vienna became a segregated arm of Nazi Berlin. Suddenly it became common for Jews to be told to scrub the streets or wear signs denouncing their heritage simply because they happened to be born Jewish.

“When the war came, that was the end,”Secher recalls.

When he was 15, Secher saw friends and countrymen herded into the Viennese ghettos. He saw life-long neighbors head toward the train station after they were told to bring only what belongings they could carry. He saw them wait, confused and frightened, on the station platform. Then he saw the train that would whisk them to oblivion at the gas chambers of Buchenwald and Mauthausen.

Secher recently found out that his maternal grandmother, Regina Schab, then 82, perished two weeks after she was transported in 1942 to the model camp of Theresienstadt in former Czechoslovakia – the same place Sigmund Freud’s sister Sofie Grauf was sent around the same time. The reason for Schab’s death is not known, though Secher suspects she was too old and weak to withstand the rigors of even a model camp.

As he tells his story, Secher pauses. “I don’t want to destroy your faith in humanity,” he says, exhaling a deep sigh.

In 1939, Secher’s father Emil obtained visas for himself, his wife Jean, and his son at the American consulate in Vienna. General Benito Mussolini had not yet committed to join the Nazi cause, so Italy just barely remained open as a travel gate to America.

“Yes, it was very tight – it was a matter of beating the deadline,” Secher recalls.

By the time the Sechers reached New York harbor, the chances of those left in Austria began to fade. And Emil blamed himself for not being able to get visas and sponsorships for his other loved ones.

Emil Secher wrote to his sister-in-law in May 1941: “Believe me, dear Ella, you can hardly imagine how devilishly difficult all this is here: the incredibly long distances we can get used to, but the lack of time, given that we are so totally involved in our daily struggle for existence, hurts most: every minute that is not spent productively at one’s work is immediately deducted. …”

A bookkeeper with an eye for detail, Emil kept and copied all of his overseas correspondence. He doggedly continued his one-man campaign to get visas and sponsorships for his relatives. He even struggled against American immigration laws that had no provisions for Jewish refugees. But his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.

“If your name was Einstein, you might have been let in,” Secher notes.

And when Emil finally realized he could not rescue his mother, mother-in-law, sisters, and brother-in-law from Vienna, he carefully tucked all his letters into a suitcase.

The years passed by.

Emil’s son Pierre quickly adapted to American life. Secher recalls attending the same high school with future notables such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Frank Adler, chair of immunology at St. Judes Children’s Research Hospital during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“We all became famous,” he says.

In 1994, when Jean Secher died at age 95 in New York City, her son found the letters while he went through her effects. They were still tucked neatly into the suitcase in the corner of a large closet.

Since then, Secher has worked on translating the letters from German, putting a few of them on display, along with photographs and other documents, in the lobby of the McWherter Library at the University of Memphis in December.

As political-science professor and survivor, Secher knows the value of those pieces of paper.

“They are the raw materials of history, which are rarely available.”

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