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UMBC Professor Brings Holocaust Story to Life

A box full of letters tucked away in a closet becomes the inspiration for a unique, new account of the Holocaust.

Suzanne Ostrand-Rosenberg’s chance discovery of her family’s correspondence before, during and after World War II became a project much greater than she dreamed when she discovered the first box buried in her mother’s closet. 

The discovery piqued the Biology professor’s curiosity which led her to colleague Rebecca Boehling, an associate professor at UMBC specializing in Holocaust history.  Boehling in turn has collaborated to create a unique account of the struggles of German Jews during the Holocaust.

After working on the project for almost six years, Boehling hosted a reading Wednesday in the Albin O. Kuhn Library for the book Life and Loss in the Shadow of the Holocaust. She co-wrote with Uta Larkey, an associate professor at Goucher College.

Boehling began by her talk by addressing how the book came to be. 

When Ostrand-Rosenberg discovered the letters she began deciphering them, but the job wasn’t easy.  Her mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and could not answer her questions.

“One day I went into the department office, and I was in the Xerox room chatting with a colleague, and she said, 'You should talk with Rebecca Boehling,” Ostrand-Rosenberg said. 

Boehling decided the letters would be a good project for a graduate student with background in archiving, but by the time the thesis project was done, Ostrand-Rosenberg had contacted her cousins in Israel and Chile to share the news of the letters and to see if they had any letters themselves. 

In all, they unearthed close to 600 letters as well as two diaries.  All of the documents told the story of a Jewish family in Germany at the time of the rise of the Nazi regime, of their struggles and emigrations.

“The collection of letters was just amazing,” said Boehling, who at that time was in the middle of another project.  She did not consider tackling the book until Larkey, a friend and neighbor, offered to co-write it with her.

The team began sorting out a unique and complex correspondence that crossed continents and generations.  Neither the publishers nor the authors wanted to create a general history, but tried instead to make a very accessible history book according to Boehling.

“The chapters all have a theme but focus on an individual,” said Boehling. 

At the reading, Boehling focused on introducing these people and their world, and also warns her audience of the dangers of reading history backwards rather than in context.

Copies of the book in the area were becoming sparse already, according to the UMBC bookstore, but can also be purchased on Amazon.

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