‘The Last Letter’ wraps up Jewish Bookfest season, commemorates Yom HaShoah
By Deb Silverthorn
Karen Baum Gordon is coming home to Dallas to share her book — “The Last Letter: A Father’s Struggle, a Daughter’s Quest, and the Long Shadow of the Holocaust” — the result of her search for her family’s history.
Beginning at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 24, at Temple Emanu-El, the Margot Rosenberg Pulitzer Jewish BookFest will host Gordon and commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“I’m excited to come back to Dallas, [my] home, where, with my book I can share the story of my father so many people in Dallas ‘knew,’” said Gordon, now a resident of both Brooklyn, New York, and South Hero, Vermont.
“My parents were both from Germany, my father from Frankfurt and my mother from Nuremberg, and I knew a little bit of what had happened but they didn’t talk to us kids about it much at all,” said Gordon. “Dallas was the heart of the Bible Belt but we had a very strong German-Jewish community. We were not alone.”
Gordon lived on North Dallas’ Del Norte Lane with her parents Rudy and Hanne Baum, now both of blessed memory, and her siblings Diane (Clive) Martin and Dick (Robin Camhi). She worked at The Grape while a student at Hillcrest High School, her inner foodie triggered in part by her father’s close friend Karl Kuby, whose restaurant’s delicacies were always in their home. She graduated from Harvard University, where she says there were students like her, second-generation survivors, all holding on to a responsibility to succeed.
After graduation, Gordon trained in France and England to become a chef, then returning to the U.S. to live and work in New York. Thinking she might someday open her own restaurant, Gordon earned an MBA at Columbia University — that dream detoured when she found a position at the global consulting firm of McKinsey & Company, where she spent six years.
Gordon was introduced to her husband Bob by a mutual friend, and the two have been married for 37 years. Together they built a family, with sons Matthew and Adam, and a business, Strategic Horizons, Inc. “As executive coaches, we help leaders become more effective,” she says. “Human beings are really human ‘becomings’ and we help them along the way.”
Gordon’s father was 86 years old when he closed his garage door with the car running — creating, said his daughter, his own gas chamber, nearly killing him. Hanne arrived home just in time from an afternoon at the JCC, and his life was saved. This “moment” in the Baum family had Gordon looking deeper into her family’s history — much deeper — than anything she’d ever heard from her parents, further into that which brought her father such anguish.
Gordon’s grandmother Julie began letters with “My dear Rudolf,” and bade farewell with “Love Muttie” on most of the onion-skin thin handwritten pages that Gordon explores and shares in the book, her deep-dive search allowing her to discover her family’s experiences during the Nazi period and the psychological bearing that echoed for future generations.
It was important to Gordon, who made numerous trips to Frankfurt and one to Poland, that this story be witnessed by the next generation — so in 2013 she, her husband and their sons traveled together to Germany.
In “The Last Letter,” Gordon delves into the lives of her grandparents, Julie and Norbert Baum, whom her father tried to save but couldn’t. His sister, Gretel Merom, had left Germany in 1934 for Palestine, where she died in 2019. His mother visited Switzerland in 1937; his father went to Luxembourg, on business, in 1938. Gordon questions why her grandparents stayed, and how she and her siblings were so unaware of their father’s pain.
“We lit yahrzeit candles, and my grandparents’ names were read in synagogue on the same date each year. It was always very somber but we never spoke more about it,” she said. “When I was young there were albums with photos from the liberation of Buchenwald, which my father participated in. I asked questions and got just a few answers.”
Gordon has the letters, 88 of them, written from her grandparents, mostly her grandmother, to her father from November 1936 to October 1941. Her father donated a copy of the letters to the Leo Baeck Institute and Gordon had them professionally translated into English.
The Baums were involved in Temple Emanu-El’s community from their arrival in Dallas in 1949. Rudy was very close to Rabbi Levi Olan, Rabbi Gerald Klein was a dearest friend and Rabbi David Stern a confidant in later years.
Out of respect to Baum’s lineage, the congregation promised perpetual care of the grave of his ancestor, Rabbi Abraham Geiger, a founder of Reform Judaism and the namesake of the Abraham Geiger College — the first rabbinic seminary founded in Central Europe after the Holocaust.
When “Gates of Prayer” was introduced at Temple, Baum’s dedicated efforts, and that of a few others, were credited with the formation of the congregation’s Union Prayer Book (UPB) minyan that continues today.
“Rudy was a stalwart of our congregation. His life was one of strength and vitality, he was funny and smart and phenomenal — and yet he held so much in,” said Rabbi Stern. “We sometimes think survivors have just ‘survived’ by emerging from the Shoah, but for some that means surviving from being a survivor. This is a reminder that the finish line wasn’t just making it out, but it is making it through every day since. Patient and powerful is how Karen tells this story.”
In tribute, Temple Emanu-El’s choir, directed by Chris Crook, will present liturgy of the Union Prayer Book and other selections, beloved by Baum and appropriate for recognizing Yom HaShoah, which, this year falls on April 28. The temple’s cantors, Leslie Niren and Vicky Glikin, will also participate.
“We’re honored to fuse our voices with this beautiful story and to allow our audience to connect,” said Cantor Niren. “Music touches people, it’s in our soul and it sparks a connection to our memories.”
The Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum (DHHRM) honors Baum in this program as he was a docent, regular speaker and lifetime member of the board of the Museum.
Baum came to the United States in 1936 and worked, first as a stock boy, then as a driver for a traveling salesman. He registered for the draft in 1940, reported for duty to the U.S. Army in 1941 and became a naturalized citizen in 1942.
Later that year, Baum discovered his parents had died in the Lodz Ghetto, the circumstances unknown.
In 1943, he was assigned to Camp Ritchie in Maryland with its troops, many of them German-speaking immigrants, a primary source of intelligence to counter German troops, weapons, equipment and strategic plans. In 1944, Baum was sent to Germany.
“The first rotating special exhibit I worked on at the Museum was about the Ritchie Boys. We supplemented it with material from our own archives including Rudy’s U.S. Army footlocker and examples of the propaganda flyers that his unit dropped over Germany,” said Sara Abosch Jacobson, the DHHRM Barbara Rabin chief education officer. “Rudy was one of the soldiers that liberated Buchenwald and a display photo, in that 2012 exhibit, was of a young Rudy in uniform with other American soldiers and German civilians who had been brought to see what had been done to Jews and others.”
“I don’t know how he went back,” said Gordon. “He returned to Frankfurt and saw his partially bombed childhood home and the synagogue ruined from having been filled with armaments. At Buchenwald he saw carts of bodies and lampshades of human skin. Before his suicide attempt, I never fully knew his reality.”
After Baum returned to the U.S. it was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that he and Hanne (her family came to the States in 1934) first settled, shortly thereafter moving to Dallas, where he began his 40-year career as a traveling shoe salesman.
In their later years, the couple moved to the Edgemere senior community, where he lived seven more years as “the mayor.” Hanne Baum died in 2007, and Rudy Baum, in 2009.
“The Last Letter” closes the season for the JCC’s Margot Rosenberg Pulitzer Jewish BookFest; this event, shared with other organizations in the community, brings the community together as one.
“We’re thrilled to have Karen share the story of her father, her family, through her voice and we are so happy to welcome her home,” said Rachelle Weiss Crane, the director of Israel Engagement and Jewish Living for the Aaron Family JCC. “With Temple [Emanu-El] and the Museum, the J is honored to provide this special afternoon of education, enrichment and togetherness.”
In Baum’s last letter, to his children, he asked them to observe the yahrzeit of the grandparents they never knew, but who had contributed so much to their lives. Gordon does that and more with “The Last Letter,” keeping their memories a blessing.
For more details and to register, visit jccdallas.org/event/karen-baum-gordon.