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February 21, 2006 > Book Review: War Orphan in San Francisco: Letters Link A Family Scattered by World War II

Book Review: War Orphan in San Francisco: Letters Link A Family Scattered by World War II

By Phyllis Helene Mattson

by Robert A. Garfinkle

Imagine the terror of being a 10-year-old Jewish girl, ripped from the warmth and love of your family in Vienna, and sent alone to begin a new life in San Francisco. On top of that, your name is changed, your mother is left behind in Nazi-occupied Vienna and your father is living in England in the days leading up to the start of World War II, and you do not know English. This is the situation in which Bay Area author, Phyllis Helene Mattson, nee Felicitas (Lizzi) Finkel, found herself in when she arrived in New York City en route to San Francisco in April 1940. The only way that Phyllis could communicate with her family was through letters and this poignant memoir tells of her coming-of-age communications back home.

Through this family's war-era letters, Mattson, as both the sender and receiver, tells a compelling page-turning story of her early years and how she over came the loneliness of being in San Francisco, being passed from one foster home or orphanage to another, learning English, and wanting nothing more than to be reunited with her parents.

One can only imagine the shock and horror the day Phyllis received the news that her mother, Laura, had been taken away to the Nazi concentration camp at Nordhausen in June 1941. What can a little girl do in such a situation? Think about how you would handle it. Letters from her mother became few and far between and she learns that her beloved mother was killed at Maly Trostinec in Belarus in May 1942. In May 1939, her father, Samuel Finkel, was able to flee Nazi-occupied Austria and go to England. Suddenly in June1940 he found himself being declared a prisoner of war and shipped off to Australia on the Dunera.

His letters to Phyllis reveal the struggles of her father to understand why this was happening to him and how he tried to reassure his daughter that all would work out somehow and that they would soon be reunited. Her father was released from the Australian internment camp in December 1942, but he did not get to San Francisco until September 1946. He died of cancer in December 1971, and Phyllis spends the last few pages of the book writing a letter to him, 30 years later, telling the reader about his accomplishments after their reunion. The letter also lets her father know that she is using their wartime letters as the basis for her memoirs. A very touching end to this intriguing story of a family's struggle to stay together even through the horrors of World War II.

Phyllis apparently left nothing out of her letters, even including her grades to show her parents that she was studying hard and trying to be the good loving child that they expected of her. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the lives of people during World War II or San Francisco during that period. Phyllis has certainly put together a warm and loving memorial to not only her parents, but to her struggles to keep her family together through the only method available to them, letters.

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