A conversation across time: Digitizing the Sylvia Prager Mathon papers
This is a guest blog post by digitization lab assistant Abigail Watson, who has been with Stanford Libraries' Digital Production Group since March 2021.
Content warning: this blog contains mentions of the Holocaust, death, and trauma.
My name is Abigail, and I have been working in digitization with the Digital Production Group at Stanford Libraries for nearly 2 years. We look at papers, books, photographs, and other materials, and work to capture the objects in their truest form while making the images as legible as possible. Digitization is capturing a high quality image of an item and making sure that the image is up to our standard before uploading to a database. Basically recreating, as much as possible, what it would be like if you had the actual item in your hands. Usually a few people will work on the same project, and depending on the materials we have to learn how to handle or maneuver different types of paper, fabric, velum or print. We also work with the curator of the project or conservators as well if there are any uncertainties. I have worked on many interesting projects in my time at DPG but my favorite items so far are the letters of Sylvia Prager Mathon.
Sylvia was a court stenographer and reporter at the Dachau War Crimes Trials and the Mauthausen Concentration Camp trials. She had been working in Washington D.C and was sent to Germany in 1945, and was there just over a year. She was originally assigned to go to Nuremberg, but that was changed and she was instead sent to the War Crimes Tribunal in Dachau. Another woman working in Washington D.C followed a similar path, and her name was Sylvia Gavurin. They became lifelong friends. To not be confused between the two Sylvias, I will call her friend by her last name, Gavurin. A funny side note regarding my work while imaging was my intense confusion as to why Sylvia had so many photographs of herself with captions written in the 3rd person. I kept wondering, “Why is she writing Sylvia and I? Did this photograph belong to someone else? But it’s in her handwriting? Why does she never mention her friend’s name?” And after a few weeks of confusion, I finally saw it: a photograph captioned “Sylvia and Sylvia”. I honestly think these women would’ve gotten a chuckle out of causing some unfortunate person working with archives such distress over a wild coincidence.
Dachau, Germany, February 6, 1946 Sylvia and Sylvia being sworn in at court by the President of court: https://purl.stanford.edu/qm213kv1849
“Sylvias and two peers, Dachau, Germany; March 1946”: https://purl.stanford.edu/fr917fn5338
The Sylvia Prager Mathon collection contains letters, postcards, photographs, and a few copies of reports. I understand the main historical outcomes of WW2, but these letters gave me not just a look into the courtroom, but into the day to day lives of the people working on the fallout. Here Sylvia describes one of her first days looking at the evidence used in court:
“But all that was changed this morning. Here at the office I picked up a file and photograph album of the Dachau concentration camp. The pictures that we saw in the movies back home are mild compared to what I saw this morning. Right then and there I vowed that I would never again forget. It’s amazing how easily one forgives and forgets. I, being a Jew and knowing that I had relatives over here who are probably no longer living because of the Germans, began to forget. If that happened to me, what has happened to the boys over here who had no immediate concern with the horrors of prison camps. This morning I changed and never again will I trust the Germans.I suppose it just takes time to adjust oneself to this new mode of living coming in contact with the people who tried to conquor [conquer] the world.” - January 10 1946
This letter was written nearly 80 years ago. It is just incomprehensible for me to wrap my head around having to watch somebody, a Jewish woman, learn about the full scope of the horrors that happened during the war. From my perspective as someone who grew up in the 21st century, when learning about this history the entire context of the war was fully known. Reading these letters provided an important historical perspective - even a year after the concentration camps were liberated and the war in Europe was over, people did not really know what had happened. It was unfathomable. Following along through her letters in what felt like real time as Sylvia learned the details of what happened was a haunting experience. This is not a dramatization, or a film based on history, what I am holding is the real moment. And not just that, but in this short paragraph that she wrote to her family they only got a glimpse of what she saw.
Another moment that stuck out to me is her writing to her family about the janitor that cleans her and Gavurin’s office. He is an SS Officer, now a prisoner, and his punishment is to serve time and work at the War Crimes Office. Sylvia describes his sweet demeanor, and how the three of them talked about gardening, and how she can’t believe he actually did kill people:
“As far as I’m concerned, the Germans one by one should be exterminated without exception, but when that PW [Prisoner of War] comes in the door to sweep the floor and acts like a perfect gentleman, I’m going to say thank you to him when he finishes.” - January 24, 1946
It truly is shocking to be so close to violence while in such a mundane situation. At the end of this same letter, she writes to her family about her night out. They went to a show in Munich, she played poker for the first time, and she had to wear her American army uniform so she wasn’t mistaken for a “fraulein.” Also, she mentions how all the American boys are extremely infatuated with her! She says she’s never experienced this type of attention back in the States, and the German women seem quite jealous! At the end of this paragraph she tells her family she just plans on staying home on Friday night because she’s too tired from her other nights out. But the letter gets cut off, and a few days later she adds this:
“(a couple of days later) Sorry I had to run the other day and couldn’t finish this letter”
And this is part of what makes these letters feel alive. There isn’t much editing, no drafting or backspace, and it feels like a stream of consciousness. You can visually see her thoughts and actions on the paper. The way the last sentence is tilted because she had to adjust the typewriter, the faded ink, it's almost archaeological when you look at it. It’s just so amazing to see moments of the past captured in minute details right in front of you while taking the photos to digitize these letters.
This letter, like most of them, is an emotional rollercoaster. Because most of what Sylvia writes to her family is about her nights out with the soldiers, her vacations across Europe, and questions about what is happening in her family’s lives. But in between these mundane and normal parts of life, Sylvia discusses the gruesome atrocities she has to bear witness to at her job. The disjointedness between regular life and the war can best be seen in this paragraph from this same letter:
"We had a little excitement the other day. One of the bunkers where the prisoners are kept was holding Russians who were about to be taken back to Russia. They didn’t want to go and we had a nice little mutiny on our hands. They tried to kill themselves and when they were finally caught by our MP’s, they pleaded to be killed so they wouldn’t be shipped back to Russia. It happened right here at Dachau, but the funny part of it was we didn’t know a thing about it until we read it in the Stars and Stripes. That shows you how far removed we are from actual goings on of the camp, and why it’s so difficult for me to realize that I’m right here at the Dachau Concentration Camp." - January 24 1946
I did start to read through a few of the reports and witness statements that she typed up but I chose to stop reading them because it was just too intense. I took a break from that and decided I wanted to go back to reading the letters for her family instead. Even reading just a few of these letters made me wonder, how can somebody really write about all the wonderful things they’ve seen when they spend their day job locked in a room with “the people who set out to conquer the world”? Having to listen and type out the atrocities committed by the Nazis - who would want people like Sylvia dead if they had the chance - and then watch them be condemned to death themselves must have been harrowing.
“Charlie Deibel and I, Mauthausen Case; Dachau, Germany”: https://purl.stanford.edu/tg580ny0215
“Mauthausen concentration camp case Hans Spatzenegger "You shall be hanged by the neck until dead": https://purl.stanford.edu/yw376gt3107
Meanwhile, her letters are her recalling the friendly nights out, the vacations to new countries; she described what she considers the best food she’s ever had. I realized at that moment - that’s the exact reason she writes these letters. It was all an escape. Sylvia understands that she has a job to do, but that the love for her family, the fun experiences of a lifetime, and even her homesickness, these are the aspects of humanity that she should not push away. What brought her to Europe was a nightmarish scenario, but she perseveres through that darkness. Her photographs included here are some from her trips around Europe. It was her first time visiting any of these places.
“Versaille Palace, Paris; July 1946”: https://purl.stanford.edu/gd768gn8251
Zugspitze, Germany; “10,000 Leagues above Sea Level; Jimmy Ualade and I; April 1946”: https://purl.stanford.edu/vy437gn6173
“March 1946 Berchtesgaden Hof - famous hotel in Berchtesgaden Germany”: https://purl.stanford.edu/ff825vf6048
“March 1946 Berchtesgaden Hof - famous hotel in Berchtesgaden Germany”: https://purl.stanford.edu/ff825vf6048
Sylvia in “London, England; August 1946”: https://purl.stanford.edu/bh311zt8307
I’ve discussed the uniqueness of these letters, and how I consider them little slivers of time. We are learning about Sylvia’s perspective, but Gavurin had a different experience. About halfway through the year Sylvia writes that her friend Gavurin was so traumatized by the work that she would just freeze up while in court, and would be ill for days at a time. Gavurin went home a few months before Sylvia finished her work. Gavurin channeled her trauma into art later in life and would create paintings expressing what she experienced. These women had very different experiences in their time abroad, causing both of them to suffer for years to come. In an LA Times article from 1993, both women reflect on their time as well as the horrors of WW2 - reminding readers to never forget what happened. Sylvia states, “I thought many times after I returned home about how one country like Germany could have been capable of doing what it did,” she said. “I also thought about how, at the end of war, people sat down and communicated and carved up nations and I asked myself, why couldn’t they do that before the killing--before the war?” (LA Times).
I am in a very special circumstance because I am learning not just from the wise Sylvia in the 90’s, but I learned a lot from her in the 40's. The words of this young woman, just a few years older than myself, taught me so much about living. It truly is a conversation through time. And the letters I discussed are just scratching the surface of Sylvia’s interesting life and I encourage you to look through more letters and photographs here. And though I know I will never truly understand everything she went through, having just a glimpse into this woman’s long life has been something I will cherish forever.
“Sylvia & Sylvia; Munich, Germany; January 1946”: https://purl.stanford.edu/gd209pj9969