NYC detective returns Holocaust letter 75 years later to family

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NYC detective returns Holocaust letter 75 years later to family

A letter from one of history’s darkest days has finally found its way home.

Written more than 75 years ago at the end of the Holocaust, the emotional correspondence between a survivor and her long-lost sister resurfaced in the rubble of a New York flea market.

Now, tied to Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, the letter has been returned to a living family descendant thanks to “heirloom detective” and interior designer Chelsey Brown, who scours flea markets and works through genealogy records to reunite historical artifacts with their original owners.

The letter was sent from Berlin in 1945 by Ilse Loewenberg, who was born in 1908 and survived the horrors of the Shoah in the 1940s despite being forced to board a train to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

“It was beyond emotional for me,” Brown, 28, told The Post. “Ilse still lives in the back of my mind.”

Identification papers: photograph of Gerhard Grun copy of birth certificate 1838-1946" 1971
Identification papers for Ilse Loewenberg from Berlin, 1946.
Credit: United States Holocaust

In 1943, Ilse escaped by jumping out of a moving train car near Ruda, Poland. She found herself traveling back to Berlin where she continued to hide in order to evade capture. By 1944, she was arrested again and thrown in several prisons in the German capital until she was freed by Russian troops a year later.

Ilse had lost her mother Hannchen, father Simon, her sisters Margarete and Lieselotte, as well as her husband Gerhard Grün during the Holocaust.

Her sister Carla was the only member of Ilse’s family left after the war. Carla had immigrated to the United Kingdom just before World War II and moved to the United States shortly after.

In the heart-wrenching letter, Ilse detailed the unspeakable horrors the family had endured.

“Through the kindness of our liberators, I am able to give you a sign of life from me after so many years,” she wrote. “Dad, Mom, Grete, Lottchen and Hermann: no one is alive anymore. My pain is unspeakably big. My husband, whom I married 3.5 years ago, was also taken from me! … When there will be a regular mail connection, I will tell you everything in detail.” 

Brown devotes much of her time traveling to thrift stores and flea markets in the Big Apple and returns items and antiquities she finds to their rightful owners — the family descendants.

Chelsey brown
Chelsey Brown found the letter in New York City and tracked down Ilse’s great niece, Jill Butler, to give it to her.
Courtesy of Chelsea Brown

After retrieving the letter, Brown launched an investigation to bring the historical document to any of Ilse’s living relatives. Through her extensive research, Brown discovered that Carla and her husband Siegfried never had children. However, Siegfried’s brother Ludwig did, and had a granddaughter.

Jill Butler, Ludwig’s granddaughter, was especially close to Ilse. Brown used the family history website MyHeritage.com to contact Butler and gave her great-aunt’s letter to her.

“Almost everyone’s first reaction of ‘Is this a scam?’ quickly transformed into bewilderment,” Butler said of Brown’s efforts. “We all loved our great-aunt Ilse and are thrilled beyond words to read her thoughts in her own handwriting after she emerged from the depths of the European inferno.”

Jill (Bride) Carla (Brown vest) Ilse (black outfit with head down). This photo was taken at Jill’s wedding approx 27 years ago.
Butler on her wedding day in 1995 with Ilse’s sister Carla (wearing a black dress with her head down) and Ilse (in a brown-and-white vest).
Jill Butler

As for Brown, she doesn’t consider her hobby as an “heirloom deceive” to be an actual job.

“I don’t get paid [for my work],” she said, adding that she discovers many genealogical antiques across thrift stores and flea markets. She explained to The Post that she has relationships with different flea market vendors because she purchases items from them weekly.

“In the back of my mind, my heart just sunk, because ever since I started this heirloom-return journey, finding Holocaust documents has been a goal of mine — to find as many as I can,” she said.

Jill (left) and Ilse (right)
Jill Butler and Ilse Loewenberg.
Jill Butler

In the course of her project, Brown learned more about the family’s tragic history. Grün was arrested and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1943 where he was shot and killed. The couple had joined the underground resistance group Gemeinschaft für Frieden und Aufbau (Association for Peace and Development) earlier that year.

Lieselotte, Margarete and their mother were brought to Auschwitz in 1943 where they died. Their father was murdered at Theresienstadt camp that same year.

After the Holocaust, Ilse married Ludwig Loewenberg and moved to Forest Hills, New York, in 1948.

Carla and Ilse lived out the rest of their days in New York, where the latter died in 2001. Ilse passed away on 9/11. While she did not die at the World Trade Center site, her friends believe her death was hastened because she couldn’t possibly witness any more tragedy in her life.

Brown started looking into Ilse’s life in September 2021 and it took her many weeks to find Jill. She explained it was a “long process” to find her, and it “wasn’t easy.”

Once she found Jill using MyHeritage.com, Brown sent her a message through Facebook Messenger. The two had a two-hour phone conversation. Jill was “overjoyed.”

The two women still keep in touch and when the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, Brown hopes to visit Jill for the very first time.

“Ilse still lives in the back of my mind every time I do a return because her story is so miraculous,” Brown said. “She proves that we need to be kind and do good in a world that isn’t so kind.”

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