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Saved by a Letter
Morris, Ralph, Betty, Rachel, Mimi, and Marlene Capeluto. The letter was written by Claire, age 10, to Ralph.

Last summer, when several of my college friends got together for our 30th reunion, we realized something for the first time. Most of us were daughters of immigrants. Five of us had parents directly affected by the Holocaust.

Even though we had met each others’ parents during the four years we lived together at the University of Washington AEPhi house in the mid-1980s, we never realized the details of our parents’ lives: After Audrey’s grandfather was murdered at Auschwitz, her father had to hide. Marina’s parents fled to Israel from Czechoslovakia and Romania. Deanne’s mother was born in the Netherlands and fled during the war with her parents and brother. Ann’s father grew up in the Warsaw Ghetto, was sent to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and was liberated by the Americans. And my mother was forced to flee Rhodes after Benito Mussolini allied with Hitler. The family members who stayed were deported to Auschwitz.

I’m embarrassed to say that despite the heroic survival of our parents, we didn’t pay much attention when we were in our 20s. We were more interested in studying, partying, and boys than we were in learning where our parents came from — or how they got to this country.

This disinterest changed for me in 1994. My mother, Claire Barkey Flash, had died three years earlier. Her Uncle Ralph and Aunty Rachel Capeluto had also passed away. While cleaning out their parents’ home, Ralph and Rachel’s children came across a box of letters and documents written mainly in Ladino. Since most of the letters had my mother’s name on them, the Capeluto children turned them over to my father, Phil Flash. Being a historian and pack rat, he knew not to throw them away and instead mailed them to my uncle, Morris Barkey, in Los Angeles, who could translate them. Once they came back translated, my father put them in chronological order, handed them to me, and said, “You’re the writer. Please do something with these.”

Growing up, we had heard the story about how Uncle Ralph and Aunty Rachel helped bring my mother’s family from Rhodes through Tangier to Seattle. But we had no idea what the story really entailed — the years of effort, the multiple rejected attempts, the haste in which the family had to flee Rhodes — or what happened to the relatives left behind.

Here’s just one example from a letter from Claire to Ralph on November 11, 1938: “Dear Uncle, they are punishing not only us but those who will remain in Rhodes. No more circumcision of babies, no more slaughtering for kosher meat, no more synagogues, and everything is getting dark for the Jews of Rhodes.”

As I sat down to read the hundreds of pages of translated letters and documents I not only got a detailed history of the family’s journey to America, but a glimpse into what it was like to be a Jew during the Holocaust, forced to flee home, extended family, and community. In my 20s, this story may not have resonated with me. But now in my 50s, with only two of my mother’s five siblings still alive, this story has gained importance — to me as a Jew and as the mother of Jewish children.

And more than my Jewish journey, this is a story that in a way represents Seattle’s Sephardic community — one of resilience, determination, and a strong will to survive.

Cynthia Flash Hemphill is the author of A Hug From Afar, the collected letters of Claire Barkey Flash and Ralph Capeluto.
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