For one Sandy Springs man, hidden letters found in a desk that once belonged to his grandmother are the key to a side of his family he never knew existed.
Frank Pringham lived in Detroit for 26 years before moving to Sandy Springs in 1980. His grandmother, Helen Weiss Sebba Dawe, died in 1989, and her retirement community, The Whittier Towers in Detroit, held an estate sale to sell the pieces of furniture her family didn’t want.
Tim Mallad, who worked there at the time, was going to buy a dresser and made a $25 deposit to hold the item. When Mallad went to pick up the dresser, it was gone, but The Whittier offered him her desk instead, and he bought it. Not long after bringing the desk home, Mallad noticed the desk’s pigeon hole was rattling.
“I was going to put a screw in (that area) to tighten it. I gave it a tug and the secret compartment came out and that was full of letters,” he said. The compartment also included some old photos and Dawe’s passport.
The letters were written in German, and Mallad, who can’t speak or read that language, would have individuals who could read them.
“They’re in cursive writing, a form of German that’s hard to read and they don’t teach it anymore,” he said. “I was having older people read the letters for me. They never came back with translations but a synopsis. By the tears coming, I knew it wasn’t something good. I knew they were talking about the death of a 13-year-old but didn’t know the details.”
But Mallad, who moved to Dallas in 2000, didn’t have the letters translated into English until about five years ago, after meeting actress Jane Seymour on a plane from Dallas to Nashville.
“It is one of those serendipitous things,” he said. “ … She sat next to me and actually kicked up the conversation. She was talking about her family and a little bit of her history. Her mother was interred in a Japanese concentration camp (during World War II) and her father liberated (the) Bergin-Belsen (concentration camp).
“I told her I had these letters. She looked me in the eye and said, ‘You must have those letters translated.’ She was emphatic about it.”
Mallad promised that if he ever found the heirs of the family written about in the letters, he would invite Seymour to meet them.
Once Mallad had the letters translated, he finally knew what they were all about. They were written in 1946, near the end of the war, to Dawe, who with her husband had fled Germany before the war because they were Jewish, by a woman named Olga Holzapfel.
Holzapfel was a refugee taken in by Dawe’s brother, Willy Weiss, a doctor who lived in Neustrelitz, Germany a city about an hour north of Berlin, with his wife Dora and daughter Ursula, 13, also known as Ulla.
Holzapfel’s letters detailed what horrible things Russian soldiers did to German civilians in the last days of the war.
“They found the family in the basement,” Mallad said. “They raped the wife and made Helen’s brother watch as his wife was raped and they took (Ulla) and put her in a burlap sack, and Dr. Weiss sat on her and pretended she was a chair while they raped his wife.”
Holzapfel wrote, “Continuously, the Soviets entered, looted and took possession of the young girls. They were particularly crazy about Ulla.”
Said Mallad, “The Russians kicked the door down. They grabbed … Ulla. Basically she was raped multiple times. They brought her back and threw her in the house and said, ‘We’re coming back in a half hour. There are other guys that are coming for you.’ She said, ‘Daddy, I want to die. Daddy, please kill me.’”
Holzapfel wrote, “But your family, in despair, grabbed the one thing they always planned: potassium cyanide. Death came in a flash and I envied it. … Everybody who chose to end their life, more than 500 people, were all picked up and buried in mass graves.”
Pringham said they committed suicide because they didn’t want to face what would come next, with the war ending and Germany losing.
As horrible as the details of the letters were, Mallad wanted to find someone related to Dawe to let him or her know about them. Most of the letters were addressed to the Sebba family, but one mentioned the Pringsheim family (Pringham’s family anglicized their name after escaping to London). Through internet searches, Mallad eventually found Pringham.
“Somehow he found me on Facebook,” Pringham said. “And it just so happened at the time, my profile picture on Facebook, and I’m not on Facebook a lot, was a black and white shot of my brother and I with my mom on board the SS Liberte, which was the boat we came over (to America) on in 1954 from England.
“He had recognized my mother’s face in that little black and white photo from one of the photos that was in the (desk). So that’s when he set out to find me.”
In June 2018 Mallad reached out via email to Pringham, who was apprehensive about him at first.
“I thought it was a scam or some kind of ransom thing, (as if he was asking), ‘OK, how much do you want for the letters?’ he said. “But the more he described what was in the letters, the more I listened, and he didn’t want anything for them. He was just amazed that there was somebody still living in that family and was very surprised that person is still living in the (United) States.”
In October Pringham went to Dallas to meet Mallad, Seymour and Roger Weber, a former reporter with the WDIV TV station in Detroit who did a podcast on the letters. Mallad has kept the letters since he owned the desk they were found in, and he and Pringham plan to have them displayed at a museum somewhere in the U.S. in the future.
“I have been the caretaker or steward for these letters for 30 years and words are hard to describe how much it means to find him, having thought there was no family. It’s really the embodiment of these,” Mallad said. “These are just really good people, to meet Frank. I met his grandmother 30 years ago. You see this embodiment of this person. It’s like Frank and I have known each other our entire lives. It was a fluke to find him. The worst part was, in the desk, after we met, I found a postcard addressed to Frank.”
Pringham said learning about the letters was an eye-opener.
“Well, I knew nothing about that side of the family,” he said. “I knew a lot about the Pringsheims. They were quite famous (in Europe) and interesting, with some scholars in that family over a couple of centuries. But the Sebba family I knew nothing about. My mother never told me about what happened. I assume she knew.
“My grandmother certainly didn’t bring it up, though in her late years she reverted back to her German language. Every once in a while I would hear her say, ‘meine bruder,’ which means ‘my brother.’ So at that point, for the first time, I realized she had a brother. … But when Tim called me, that just opened up a whole new world for me.”
Pringham and Mallad may visit Neustrelitz in the near future to view his ancestors’ grave. Pringham also said his family has expressed an interest in the letters.
“Well, my daughters are interested,” he said. “… It was tough for them to listen to the letters being read. Every time I hear someone read the letters (aloud), a tear comes to my eye. It’s expanded the heritage, the legacy of my family.”