The best books on contemporary WWII family searches

Who am I?

Carolyn Porter is a graphic designer, type designer, and unapologetic lover of old handwriting. “Marcel’s Letters: A Font and The Search for One Man’s Fate” recounts Porter’s obsessive search to learn about Marcel Heuzé, a French forced laborer who mailed love letters to his wife and daughters from a Nazi labor camp in Berlin—letters Porter found 60 years later at an antique store in Minnesota. Porter’s book was awarded gold medals from Independent Publisher and The Military Writers Society of America, and was a finalist for a 2018 Minnesota Book Award.


I wrote...

Marcel's Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man's Fate

By Carolyn Porter,

Book cover of Marcel's Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man's Fate

What is my book about?

A graphic designer's search for inspiration leads to a cache of letters and the mystery of one man's fate during World War II. Seeking inspiration for a new font design in an antique store in small-town Stillwater, Minnesota, graphic designer Carolyn Porter stumbled across a bundle of letters and was immediately drawn to their beautifully expressive pen-and-ink handwriting. She could not read the letters--they were in French--but she noticed all of them had been signed by a man named Marcel and mailed from Berlin to his family in France during the middle of World War II. As Carolyn grappled with designing the font, she decided to have one of Marcel's letters translated. Reading words of love combined with testimony of survival inside a labor camp transformed Carolyn's curiosity into an obsession to find out whether he ever returned to his beloved wife and daughters after the war.

The books I picked & why

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Alex's Wake: The Tragic Voyage of the St. Louis to Flee Nazi Germany-And a Grandson's Journey of Love and Remembrance

By Martin Goldsmith,

Book cover of Alex's Wake: The Tragic Voyage of the St. Louis to Flee Nazi Germany-And a Grandson's Journey of Love and Remembrance

Why this book?

In 1939, Goldsmith’s grandfather and uncle were passengers on the St. Louis and hoped to receive asylum from the mounting threats of Nazi Germany. The St. Louis was turned away from Cuba, the United States, then Canada, and its passengers returned to Europe. In this book, Goldsmith recounted his six-week journey across Europe to retrace the final steps of his grandfather and uncle’s long and harrowing journey. It’s a powerful memoir that has stayed with me years after reading it.

Alex's Wake: The Tragic Voyage of the St. Louis to Flee Nazi Germany-And a Grandson's Journey of Love and Remembrance

By Martin Goldsmith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Alex's Wake as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Alex's Wake is a tale of two parallel journeys undertaken seven decades apart. In the spring of 1939, Alex and Helmut Goldschmidt were two of more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany aboard the St. Louis , the saddest ship afloat" ( New York Times ). Turned away from Cuba, the United States, and Canada, the St. Louis returned to Europe, a stark symbol of the world's indifference to the gathering Holocaust. The Goldschmidts disembarked in France, where they spent the next three years in six different camps before being shipped to their deaths in Auschwitz.In the spring of…


Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind

By Sarah Wildman,

Book cover of Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind

Why this book?

In this book, Wildman recounted her years-long quest to discover what happened to her grandfather’s true love, a woman named Valy who he had to leave behind when he fled Vienna in 1938. As Wildman pieced together answers to Valy’s fate, she was forced to reconcile heartbreaking truths with long-held family lore.

Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind

By Sarah Wildman,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Paper Love as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One woman’s journey to find the lost love her grandfather left behind when he fled pre-World War II Europe, and an exploration into family identity, myth, and memory.

Years after her grandfather’s death, journalist Sarah Wildman stumbled upon a cache of his letters in a file labeled “Correspondence: Patients A–G.” What she found inside weren’t dry medical histories; instead what was written opened a path into the destroyed world that was her family’s prewar Vienna. One woman’s letters stood out: those from Valy—Valerie Scheftel—her grandfather’s lover, who had remained behind when he fled Europe six months after the Nazis annexed…


Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film

By Glenn Kurtz,

Book cover of Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film

Why this book?

In this book, Kurtz recounted the discovery of a snippet of film at his parents’ home in Florida that captured pre-WWII life in Nasielsk, Poland. Fewer than 100 of the town’s 3,000 Jewish residents survived the war. Kurtz embarked on a quest to learn about the place immortalized on film, and ended up making goosebump-inducing connections with some of those 100 survivors. It’s a remarkable story of dogged research (with more than a dash of serendipity).

Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film

By Glenn Kurtz,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Three Minutes in Poland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Traveling in Europe in August 1938, one year before the outbreak of World War II, David Kurtz, the author's grandfather, captured three minutes of ordinary life in a small, predominantly Jewish town in Poland on 16 mm Kodachrome colour film. More than seventy years later, through the brutal twists of history, these few minutes of home-movie footage would become a memorial to an entire community, an entire culture that was annihilated in the Holocaust. Three Minutes in Poland traces Glenn Kurtz's remarkable four year journey to identify the people in his grandfather's haunting images. His search takes him across the…


Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter's Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy

By Elizabeth Rynecki,

Book cover of Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter's Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy

Why this book?

Rynecki’s great-grandfather, Moshe, was a painter who documented moments of Jewish life in the interwar years: women sewing, children playing, wedding celebrations, men in prayer. When WWII broke out Moshe’s paintings were hidden, and afterward only a fraction were recovered. In this book, Rynecki recounted her decades-long quest to locate and archive the lost artwork. It’s a memoir about the lengths one will go to to ensure a lost family legacy will never be forgotten.

Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter's Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy

By Elizabeth Rynecki,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Chasing Portraits as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The memoir of one woman's emotional quest to find the art of her Polish-Jewish great-grandfather, lost during World War II.

Moshe Rynecki's body of work reached close to eight hundred paintings and sculptures before his life came to a tragic end. It was his great-granddaughter Elizabeth who sought to rediscover his legacy, setting upon a journey to seek out what had been lost but never forgotten...

The everyday lives of the Polish-Jewish community depicted in Moshe Rynecki's paintings simply blended into the background of Elizabeth Rynecki's life when she was growing up. But the art transformed from familiar to extraordinary…


The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War

By Louise Steinman,

Book cover of The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War

Why this book?

After Steinman’s parents passed away, she found a trove of WWII-era letters her father wrote along with a silk flag inscribed to a man named Yoshio Shimizu. In this book, Steinman recounted her years-long quest to learn who Shimizu was, a search that resulted in a trip to Japan to return the precious artifact. At the same time, by reading her father’s letters, Steinman discovered a tender and expressive side of her father—a side that had been wiped away by trauma. Steinman’s book shines a light on the universal cost of war.

The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War

By Louise Steinman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Souvenir as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A soldier’s daughter unravels the secrets of her father’s experience in the Pacific Theater in this “graceful, understated” World War II memoir for fans of The Things They Carried (The New York Times Book Review)
 
Louise Steinman’s American childhood in the fifties was bound by one unequivocal condition: “Never mention the war to your father.” That silence sustained itself until the fateful day Steinman opened an old ammunition box left behind after her parents’ death. In it, she discovered nearly 500 letters her father had written to her mother during his service in the Pacific War and a Japanese flag…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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