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'Letters to Gerda' brings the written word of a Holocaust survivor to life

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 5, 2013: We all have a story to tell, but being heard? That can be the most difficult part.

Gerda Nothmann Luner will have her chance to be heard in a dramatic reading  “Letters to Gerda: The Story of a Family Shattered by the Holocaust”on Aug. 18 at Congregation Shaare Emeth,

Born in Germany in 1927, six years before Hitler came to power, Gerda had to grow up at an early age. She was sent to live with a foster family in Holland at the age of 12, and there marked the origin of the "Letters to Gerda." The selections are divided into three parts: letters from Gerda’s parents to Gerda, letters from Gerda’s parents to the foster family, and letters Gerda’s parents wrote to friends during their attempt to escape Germany.  

Staged by actor JoAn Segal, the dramatic reading is based on the book Gerda’s Story: Memoirs of a Holocaust Survivor, a memoir containing the correspondence between Gerda, her biological family and her foster family. The memoir was written by Gerda herself and published by her husband Charles Luner after her death.

Gerda’s Story is not just a historical account but also a look into the hope and faith of a family desperate to be reunited. Gerda, who died in 1999, wrote the memoir for her children, including her daughter Vera Emmons, a member of Shaare Emeth and a docent at the Holocaust Museum.

“She sat down for one week straight and did nothing else but write,” Charles Luner said. “It was in the family for quite a number of years but I thought it’s a legacy I should put in book form and allow others to learn from the experience.”

Segal, a family friend who speaks German, helped translate some of the letters. In the announcement of the event, Segal said, “One night after translating a particularly moving letter, I called and read it to Charles. The drama of that letter was overwhelming. Charles said we have to do something dramatic with this.”

Gerda was the only immediate member of her family to survive the Holocaust; Gerda’s  parents, grandparents, sister and the Dutch foster family she lived with for a time were all exterminated by the Nazis in 1943.

Despite this tragedy, Charles says, “She didn’t wear her holocaust experience on her sleeve. She did wear her number, though, and was always open about her experiences, but only discussing it when someone asked her.”

Vera Emmons says, “[While growing up] I don’t remember it being traumatic. We weren’t talking about war all the time. My story every night was her way of telling me about her family because I didn’t have grandparents or much family on that side.”

“Letters to Gerda” is hosted and presented by the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. Having been in existence for eighteen years, the Holocaust Museum contains photos and artifacts that are all connected to a local holocaust survivor.

Jean Cavender, director of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, says, “One of the things we try to do is bring Holocaust education programs in many different formats, we do lectures, tours, and sometimes you cant reach all people that way. We try to do a couple of artistic programs each year that will bring an audience in that wouldn’t necessarily come to the museum or the lecture otherwise.”

Cavender explains the focus of the museum is to hone in on specific stories of survivors. She says, “rather than thinking about 6 million, when you come down here, it has a very personal feel to it.”

Emmons reiterates this endeavor and draws a parallel in the goal of the dramatic reading stating, “When you look at the Holocaust through the eyes of one family, it makes it very intimate.”

Determined to keep the voice of her mother resounding, Emmons is excited and proud to educate the community of her mother’s story.

“It’s my duty to carry this on; my mother can’t do it anymore, “she says in the press release.

“I’m lucky to have those letters, my father, who went through all the work to put together the book, and JoAn, an amazing woman who brings the letters to life.”

Light refreshments will be served after the reading. There is no charge to attend “Letters to Gerda,” but reservations are required. Contact Andrew Goldfeder at agoldfeder@jfedstl.org or 314-442-3711 to reserve a spot.

“Letters to Gerda” is presented by the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in collaboration with Congregation Shaare Emeth, in partnership with Brodsky Jewish Community Library, Nishmah, Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School and Hadassah. It is graciously underwritten by the Regional Arts Commission, Harlene and Marvin Wool, and Hannah and Larry Langsam.

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