This post is by Emily Woessner, one of two students leading the project digitizing selections from the Hasterlik-Hine Collection at the Institute of World War II and the Human Experience. More materials have been added to the digital collection and may be viewed here. The first post about this project is here.
Giulia Hasterlik was only 13 years old when her mother arranged for her to leave Vienna, Austria and travel to Switzerland to live safely without fear of Nazi persecution. Giulia was taken in by a minister’s wife named Alice Sigerist who already had a daughter of her own, Gretli Sigerist, close to Giulia’s age. Giulia lived in the small town of Schaffhausen, Switzerland for 7 years (1938 to 1946). While living in Schaffhausen, she attended an all-girls Catholic school and had many friends. However, she kept in contact with a number of her schoolmates back in Vienna. Letters from Evi Leib and Elizabeth “Lisl” Urbantischitsch, in particular, detail the lives of young girls who are dealing with such situations as crushes, boredom, school work, and prospects of the future. The girls draw pictures in their letters and used secret languages— they worry, joke, and dream just like young girls of today. Their letters to and from one another allowed them to maintain their friendships and a sense of normalcy during the war years.
Giulia was not the best student, a bit mischievous at times, but generally, she enjoyed her life in the small town of Schaffhausen. Although she noted that it was quite different from her middle-class upbringing in Vienna. Unfortunately, in August 1941 at 16 years old Giulia contracted poliomyelitis and was taken to Kanton Hospital in the center of Schaffhausen. She had to pause her studies at school. During this time the letters to and from her classmates served as a window to the outside world where she could escape the boredom of the hospital and maintain her friendships. At times the letters to Giulia simply wished her well and asked how she was progressing with her treatment. Other times her classmates detailed holiday trips, plans for future jobs and schooling, or fun puzzles and poems for Giulia to enjoy. These letters provided relief and laughter for Giulia during her most intense treatment.
It was not only school friends who wrote to Giulia at this time, though. Alice Sigerist had informed both Paul Hasterlik, Giulia’s grandfather, and Auguste Hasterlik, Giulia’s aunt, about the polio diagnosis. Paul and Auguste wrote heartfelt and uplifting letters to Giulia, but they also warned her against saying anything to her mother, Mia Hasterlik, about her condition. They feared the news would be far too upsetting for Mia and worry her unnecessarily because she was already living in New York City and would be helpless to take care of Giulia. For her part, Alice worked diligently to ensure Giulia was properly cared for and enlisted the help of her in-laws and countless doctors. In December 1941 Giulia was transferred to Insel Hospital in Bern, Switzerland where she underwent many months of treatment while continuing to receive letters from her friends and family.
When studying World War II one often forgets that people still had to contend with daily life and its unexpected occurrences. When Giulia Hasterlik fell ill with polio the war was in full swing, her family was strewn across the globe, and she was doing her best to live a normal life in Switzerland. Oftentimes all she had to keep in touch with her friends and family were these letters. They kept her relations, faith, and sanity strong despite all the hardship and uncertainty she endured as a young woman.
A discussion of these letters and letters like them from other tumultuous times in history will be presented at the Letters in Troubled Times: Study of Epistolary Sources conference happening Friday, February 16, 2018, in Tallahassee, Florida. Please contact Dr. Suzanne Sinke for questions regarding the conference.