Old photos don't stir memories for Jean-Claude Goldbrenner, but words do.
He was just 3 in his picture posted on the special U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's web site, so he could do little but identify himself. But his mother's letters — given to him by an aunt — are poignant reminders of a childhood shaped by tragedy.
Estera Goldbrenner — known as Elsa — was arrested by German police in May 1943 on a train in Nice, France, as she traveled to visit her jailed husband, Willy. She began writing her family after being shipped to Drancy, a transit camp outside Paris where thousands of French Jews were deported to concentration camps.
She wrote about 10 letters that June and July. At first, she was optimistic she'd be released because she was pregnant.
"I saw the doctor today," she wrote in French. "I'm going to get milk, more soup and bread."
Later, she described living conditions in Drancy and urged family to stay away to avoid arrest. "I want to be alone to bear this burden and I give you my word," she vowed, "that unless they ... kill me, I will come back."
Her son, barely a year old, also weighed on her mind.
"What I suffer most," she wrote, "is to be separated from my little Jean-Claude, of whom I think all the time."
Jean-Claude was taken in by his grandparents and an aunt. He also went into hiding with other children on a farm in southwestern France.
Estera Goldbrenner's despair grew as her deportation became inevitable. In her final letter, she admitted to being a "little scared," but still hopeful of a family reunion.
"My beloved Willy, and all of you dear ones ...
"I am leaving tomorrow and ... to say that I accept this very courageously would be a lie, but it does not do any good to lament about it. ... My strongest wish is to see you again my darling, with my little Jean-Claude and all of you."
She writes about her pregnancy, wondering how she'll fare on a "one-way trip" in oppressive heat. And a jumble of emotions pours out: Anger at her predicament. Resignation. And resolve.
"It is not possible that fate persists incessantly against us ...,'" she wrote. "How is my big son that I love? How he must already walk around! How adorable he must be! Dear God, why was I hit by such misfortune! I will need a heart of stone and I must think of myself only, I must forget everything in order to keep all my courage."
She tries to console her parents — "my dear Papa and Maman ... we will see one another again" — then turns to her husband:
"I love you more than ever. ... How you will have to spoil me to erase all those bad memories. What a beautiful dream: will it happen some day? When I think ... that the war will soon end and that my future is so dark, so dark. But it is not so, I must not fall apart, I want to be strong, I want to live, survive those miseries and be happy again among all of you. ...
"I am saying to you: so long, so long, my dear beloved Willy, my darling Jean-Claude ... may hope at least sustain me ...
That letter was dated Friday, 31 July 1943.
Seven days later, she arrived at Auschwitz. She was immediately killed in the gas chambers.
Estera Goldbrenner was 28. She was expecting her second child in a few months.
Her husband survived, was released from jail that July, but was later arrested. In March 1944, he escaped from a train heading to Auschwitz, only to be recaptured and sent to the camp that June. He was liberated by British forces in 1945, while being held at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Goldbrenner says his father didn't talk about his past and he didn't ask about it.
Toward the end of his life, though, he revealed his soccer skills may have been his salvation — the Nazis had him play at the camps and fed him better. Still, when freed, he weighed only about 80-90 pounds.
He was forever haunted by his ordeal. "He couldn't walk in a big crowd," Goldbrenner says, and when they attended a soccer match, they had to wait for everyone to disperse. He also couldn't wear a seat belt. "That traumatized him," his son says.
Goldbrenner, now 69, lived in France for years before settling in the U.S. He became an investment adviser at the World Bank.
He told his story for the Holocaust museum's photo project on displaced Jewish children but insists he fared better than many others.
"Some of these children went through hell," he says. "Not having a mother — it was difficult for me. But I must say I was cared for lovingly by my grandparents, father, stepmother and my aunt. I'm sure there is some degree of damage. But I have not suffered like the children who were deported or were older and could feel all this. What can a 3-year-old perceive and remember?"
Goldbrenner plans to donate his mother's letters to the Holocaust museum.
"I'm biased," he says, "but she did write beautifully. She keeps her dignity to the last letter."
Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer for The Associated Press. She can be reached at features(at)ap.org.