Remember when becoming pen pals was a major way to reach out, meet, and form fascinating relationships with people who lived half a country – or half a world away?

Back in the day, pen pals expected letters, with real words, information, and emotion. There was an actual address. There was time; time to absorb, learn, and think before replying. It was an intimate journey led by well-constructed words and feelings. Many led to lasting friendships, revelations, and more.

Let’s look as some of the more fascinating “alliances” made by Members of the Tribe – and others.


“When I received the letter, I shed tears,” Betty Ann recalled.

A teacher started it all. Birdie Mathews taught for years at the Danville Community School, near Burlington. During vacations overseas, she saw the benefit of connecting students with pen pals abroad.

In 1940, one student, Juanita Wagner, age 10, wrote a letter, detailing her life on the family farm, and posted it to an address in Amsterdam. The recipient was a young Anne Frank.

Juanita’s letter prompted two replies from both Anne and her sister Margot (who wrote to Juanita’s sister Betty Ann). The letters were in English. No doubt Otto Frank translated. Anne also included a photo.

Anne’s letter was dated April 29, less than two weeks prior to the Dutch surrender to the Nazis, though there was no talk of the war in her correspondence.

“It was such a special joy as a child to have the experience of receiving a letter from overseas,” Betty Ann recalled years later.

The Iowa sisters wrote back but never again received answers from Anne or Margot.

After the war, Betty Ann, now a teacher herself, once again wrote. Otto Frank, in a long, hand-written letter described the now legendary story of the girls’ fate.

“When I received the letter, I shed tears,” Betty Ann recalled. “The next day I took it with me to school and read (it) to my students. I wanted them to realize how fortunate they were to be in America during World War II.”


If ever there was an odd pairing, it had to be between the incomparable, incorrigible, and unconventional Jewish comedian and the anti-Semitic T.S. Eliot, author of The Waste Land. The letters were written between 1961 and 1964.

Perhaps Groucho couldn’t resist the challenge or the opportunity to unleash his rancorous humor when he received a surprising missive from Eliot for a headshot of the comedian.

Groucho obliged and received another note from the poet asking for a photo of Groucho with a mustache and holding a cigar. Groucho again obliged. Eliot then wrote a thank you.

“This is to let you know that your portrait has arrived and has given me great joy and will soon appear in its frame on my wall with other famous friends such as W.B. Yeats and Paul Valery.”

Groucho was then off and running, pushing his own Jewishness, and punching holes in the Anglophile’s pomposity given the poet’s American roots.

Excerpted from Groucho’s letter: “Dear Tom…I think I read somewhere that your first name is the same as Tom Gibbons’, a prizefighter who once lived in St Paul.”

He may have feigned ignorance of the poet’s known information: “My best to you and your lovely wife, whoever she may be.”

He calls him an “early American, (I don’t mean that you are an old piece of furniture, but you are a fugitive from St Louis). The name Tom fits many things. There was once a famous Jewish actor named Thomashevsky. All male cats are named Tom—unless they have been fixed.”

In 1962, they finally met for dinner in London. It was one of the great dining disasters in history. In person, the two fizzled. "There were awkward lulls in the conversation," according to Anna Knoebel at The Outlet. "Neither man was inclined to discuss his own work, while the other was eager to praise it. They stopped writing shortly thereafter."

Groucho’s famous quip: “I have had a perfectly wonderful evening,” he once said to a host, “but this wasn't it" may well have been said of the dinner. And so ended the pen pals.


We all know of Albert Einstein’s legacy in science. His very name is used in popular speech to mean “genius.” What is less known is his commitment to human rights, in an era where such views were not the norm. Among many examples, Einstein and Freud wrote to each other about human nature, violence and peace. Forgotten as well, was his friendship with the African-American singer, actor, and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. He also wrote to a small girl in South Africa, encouraging her not to let gender stop her from her scientific aspirations.

While certainly his experience with anti-Semitism furthered his beliefs, his early correspondence on justice pre-dates the war. One superb example is his correspondence, starting in 1931, with early civil rights legend W.E.B. Du Bois, who requested a piece from Einstein to the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which Du Bois had co-founded 1909, 20 years after receiving a PhD. from Harvard, the first African-American to do so.

Excerpted: “Sir: I am taking the liberty of sending you some copies of THE CRISIS magazine. THE CRISIS is published by American Negroes in defense of the citizenship rights of 12 million people descended from the former slaves of this country. We have just reached our 21st birthday. I am writing to ask if in the midst of your busy life you could find time to write us a word about the evil of race prejudice in the world. A short statement from you on this subject would help us greatly in our continuing fight for freedom. I should greatly appreciate word from you. Very sincerely yours, W. E. B. Du Bois”

The 51-year-old Einstein answered within two weeks.

“My Dear Sir! Please find enclosed a short contribution for your newspaper.”


This last correspondence between pen pals is perhaps the most bittersweet, reflecting a universal human experience at a time of inexplicable inhumanity. It comes from Fragments of Memory: From Kolin to Jerusalem by Hana Greenfield who writes of her experience in Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust which includes correspondence with a relative of Jewish composer, Gustav Mahler.

Michael Mahler was a young boy, and Hana, a young girl. Hana explains that just prior to the war, as Jews were increasingly cut off from the world, the Jewish community created pen pals opportunities, so Jews could feel less isolated and share news.

The first letter Hana received was from the young Michael Mahler, an ardent Zionist, who was at “hachshara” where he was preparing to make aliyah to Palestine. Hana, who was raised in a more assimilated family, was a bit wary of one who would abandon his homeland. Yet, she wrote back, describing her family, town, the Elbe river (called “Labe”) as well as restrictions imposed upon Jews by the Nazis … and added her own dreams.

With each letter, their mutual curiosity about each other grew. Photos were shared. Hana was taken with the slim, tall, attractive boy. She sent a photo of herself in her new Rosh Hashanah coat.

The restrictions in Hana’s town grew, as the Jewish women became forced labor. Their holdings were confiscated, and food was scarce.

Michael wrote that his preparatory group had been dissolved and he was being sent home. As Jews needed a permit from Gestapo for all trips, he asked for and got permission to stop overnight when his train passed through her town.

A first meeting between the pen pals. He arrived hungry and tired … but he was everything she had imagined, with dark hair, blue eyes, and a beautiful smile. They talked the entire night. Young Hana, at age 15, fell instantly in love.

Hana watched the devastation around her worsen. She was taken to the Terezin Ghetto. A year after her confinement, the Jews of Hradec Kralove, Michael’s town, arrived and as was customary, they were brought into the Schloize, a large hall.

Hana managed to slip in.

And there he was with his parents. Their eyes met.

He awkwardly shook her hand, and introduced her to his parents. She gave them food which she smuggled from the kitchen where she worked.

Then next time she saw Michael, he was lying on a thin mattress burning with fever from an inflamed appendix. With food, Hana bribed someone to transfer Michael to one of the ill equipped hospitals in the ghetto.

She was told he was undergoing surgery.

The following day, a friend who was assigned to nursing duty, ran to tell Hana, that Michael had died from a ruptured appendix. The funeral would take place in a few hours.

Shocked and dazed, she made her way to the mortuary, which was much like a factor with wooden boxes piled upon each other. Names were called quickly while a rabbi said Kaddish

Wrote Hana: "Michael’s mother and I walked together behind the hearse, piled w/wooden coffins pulled by prisoners up to the gate from where only the dead had the privilege to leave the ghetto."

Hana gave his mother their pen-pal letters and the two were never to meet again. The date was Jan.7, 1943.

Michael’s dream became hers. Said Hana: “It was I who fulfilled Michael’s aspirations. I survived the concentration camps, made aliyah and became a Hebrew-speaking Zionist in my own free country, Israel.