From Things Lost book cover

An intimate history of the Holocaust that casts new light on our understanding of victimhood and survival.

In May 1933, a young man named Rudolf Schwab fled Nazi Germany. His departure allegedly came at the insistence of a close friend who later joined the Party. Schwab eventually arrived in South Africa, one of the few countries left where Jews could seek refuge, and years later, resumed a relationship in letters with the Nazi who in many ways saved his life. From Things Lost: Forgotten Letters and the Legacy of the Holocaust is a story of displacement, survival, and an unlikely friendship in the wake of the Holocaust via an extraordinary collection of letters discovered in a forgotten trunk.

Only a handful of extended Schwab family members were alive in the war’s aftermath. Dispersed across five continents, their lives mirrored those of countless refugees who landed in the most unlikely places. Over years in exile, a web of communication became an alternative world for these refugees, a place where they could remember what they had lost and rebuild their identities anew. Historian Shirli Gilbert takes readers on a journey through a family’s personal history wherein we learn about a cynical Karl who attempts to make amends for his "undemocratic past," and a version of Rudolf who spends hours aloof at his Johannesburg writing desk, dressed in his Sunday finest, holding together the fragile threads of his existence. The Schwab family’s story brings us closer to grasping the complex choices and motivations that—even in extreme situations, or perhaps because of them—make us human.

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The Family Tree

Schwab Family Tree in miniature

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The Letters

Rudolph Schwab's temporary Belgian ID

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"Beautifully written and deeply researched, Gilbert’s empathetic but unblinking investigation of this transnational story suggests that the belated and well-intentioned inclusion of refugees as ‘Holocaust survivors’ can obscure their particular ambivalent and traumatic experiences." – Atina Grossmann, author of Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany