Tapestry

How a secret trove of letters helped 2 sisters learn about the father they never knew

Michèle Dawson Haber and her sister Ruti pored over letters, photographs and audio reels to painstakingly assemble a profile of their father, who died when they were very young.

Michèle and Ruti Dawson grappled with whether to take a box of letters from their mother, who has dementia

Michèle Dawson Haber, right, and her sister Ruti pored over letters, photographs and audio reels to painstakingly assemble a profile of their father, who died when they were very young. (Submitted by Michèle Dawson Haber)

For decades, Michèle Dawson Haber and her older sister Ruti knew very little of their biological father. They only knew that his name was Eliahu Balva, and he died in Canada in 1965, when Michèle was three months old and Ruti was five.

"There was all this mystery around him, and my mother sort of just refused to talk about it," said Michèle, who is based in Toronto.

But in 2018, Michèle heard audio reels that contained recordings of her father's voice, and she uncovered hundreds of his letters and photographs.

She pored through the materials — translating some of the letters which were written in Hebrew; tracking down and interviewing some of the other people mentioned in the letters — to painstakingly assemble a profile of the father they never knew. 

Those disparate documents painted the picture of an accomplished Israeli opera singer, a prolific photographer, and the writer of passionate, romantic love letters to their mother.

Michèle and Ruti's parents in Jerusalem, 1959. (Submitted by Michèle Dawson Haber)

"It gives us such beautiful insights into our father that we couldn't have had [otherwise]," said Michèle.

But their the quest was fraught with its own emotional and ethical quandaries, including Michèle and Ruti's decision to take a trove of letters from their mother — now elderly, and living with dementia.

The first letter

Michèle and Ruti grew up with their mother, stepfather and two half-siblings in Seattle as a family of six, leaving their previous life behind, despite Ruti's occasional questions.

As a young girl, Ruti would ask their mother about her father to no avail. "I just thought, oh, I'm not getting anywhere," recalled Ruti, who currently lives in London, England. "So then that's when I started snooping."

Michèle, right, and her sister Ruti. (Submitted by Michèle Dawson Haber)

One night when their mother and stepfather were out, Ruti — then 14 — went looking through her mother's belongings. It uncovered the first bombshell revelation: a letter that turned out to be their biological father's suicide note.

"She showed it to me, and I was only nine. I have no idea what I would have made of it," said Michèle, who was born just months before her father's death. With no living memories of him, she didn't feel compelled at the time to uncover more about him.

Ruti was more insistent. But their mother refused to give any more than a tiny drip feed of details.

'Why don't I remember him?'

Michèle received 25 audio reels in 2007, from a cousin in Jerusalem, who had found them in her parents' home. Along with the audio reels were thousands of photographic negatives of their parents and Ruti, who was a little girl at the time.

After getting the reels digitized in 2018, Ruti and Michèle could hear their father's voice for the first time, 53 years after his death.

They contained recordings of Balva singing Israeli folk songs around their house — often to an infant Ruti.

"I thought, oh my God, you know? This guy really loved me. And why don't I remember him?" Ruti said.

A selection of the letters, photographs and audio reels the sisters went through. (Submitted by Michèle Dawson Haber)

Hearing the tapes also alleviated Michèle's earlier reluctance to learn more. Now, she was obsessed.

'This is our story, too'

The sisters remembered that they did find a possible clue in 2014. They had moved their mother, who was developing dementia, from Vancouver to a nursing home in Montreal in 2014.

During the move, they found a cardboard box full of their parents' letters. They didn't think much of it at the time. But now, it held the promise of long-lost memories.

In the past, their mother would vehemently refuse telling them more about their late father. Now that she had dementia, their daughters weren't certain she could reliably consent to giving them over.

The two debated, along with their half-sister, whether to take them.

"It's interesting that she kept that quantity of letters in all the different moves we've made. I mean, there has to be a reason, and I think she felt that she owed us something. And she did," said Ruti.

We deserve to know our history.- Michèle Dawson Haber

Michèle had her doubts, even as she walked into her mother's apartment, surreptitiously carrying a large, empty suitcase.

"I was the one that had the most conflict over it. But Ruti said, 'This is our story too, and we deserve to know our history,'" she recalled.

Still, Michèle felt the need to ask her mother beforehand. She showed her mother a picture of their father, and asked if she could tell her what she remembered of him.

Through tears, her mother said she could no longer remember anything of the man she was married to for six years. It was a devastating revelation.

"There was nothing more I could do. Just as I was ready to know, she was incapable of answering," Michèle wrote in Salon.

Michèle would try one more time. She asked her mother hypothetically if old letters existed, would she let her and Ruti read them, knowing they could help them know more about their father. 

"Her answer was, 'Sure,'" Michèle recalled. "I felt much more at ease after that, about taking the letters."

The treasure trove

The box contained about 400 letters in total, Michèle estimated, written over seven years — from the time their parents first met, until Balva's death in 1965.

Michèle and her sister found a box full of their parents' letters to each other. About a quarter were written in Hebrew. (Submitted by Michèle Dawson Haber)

Some were written by their father, mother and family members, as well as friends and co-workers the sisters had never heard of. About a quarter of them were written in Hebrew.

Michèle was spurred to track down some of the people mentioned in the letters.

She met a woman named Margalit, who worked as an accountant in Jerusalem at the same time Balva was working the telephone switchboards. They became fast friends when they learned of their mutual love of singing.

"It's astounding that there's so many people Michèle interviewed who remember him clear as a bell, and they maybe have only known him for a short space of time. I mean, it's just beautiful, isn't it?" said Ruti.

Michèle also visited the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, and found more recordings of his soloist opera performances as part of Kol Zion La Gola, a popular chorus in the 1950s.

But perhaps most moving of all, were the love letters between their parents between 1961 and 1965. The 1961 letters were written while their mother lived in Vancouver, and Balva spent time in Winnipeg working at the family photo shop.

Michèle and Ruti's parents, pictured here in Jerusalem in 1959. (Submitted by Michèle Dawson Haber)

In one letter, her mother responds with a degree of incredulity to Balva's romantically-worded letter, translated from Hebrew:

"I received your special delivery letter today, and I really don't know how to take it seriously or not. I mean, the romantic parts, I can't tell if you were writing in an exaggerated way in order to be humorous or to be romantic. I swear I don't understand, so I'll take it as it is: an exaggeration that is based on something true. OK? OK."

His response to that letter reads, in part:

"Your last letter was very warm, I swallowed it up in a few seconds and then I got upset that I read it so quickly, so I read it again. And when I got home, I read it for the third time. Do you think I'm here all alone and lonely to joke and exaggerate my feelings towards you? You don't think I'm allowed to be romantic? And not because I want to be that way, but because that's the way I feel."

Michele now cherishes the newly-found memories that she wasn't interested in when she was young.

Family secrets are never a good idea and children can handle the truth.- Michèle Dawson Haber

"Now the role is reversed. I'm the obsessed one," said Michèle, who is working on a memoir based in part on the stories she's learned from the letters, photographs and audio reels.

"I hope that what people get from my story is that family secrets are never a good idea and children can handle the truth," she said.

"And if you have some family history that you want to uncover, go for it. Because it's really transformational."


Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Kim Kaschor.


Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated that Michèle Dawson Haber was born months after her father's death. In fact, she was born three months before his death. The story also previously stated that Michèle first received audio reels of her father from a relative in 2018. In fact, she received them in 2007, and listened to them after they were digitized in 2018.
    Dec 20, 2021 12:43 PM ET

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