Hidden letters: The fascinating story of one family's secret history

Episode 5 of podcast 'Mismatch,' Season Two, is now available

By Michelle Ganley - Graham Media Group

Willy Weiss as a soldier in World War I.

It all started with a desk. When he was in his 20s, Tim Mallad paid $25 to buy one for his then-girlfriend, only to learn later that the desk was filled with one family’s secret history.

Tucked away inside a hidden compartment of the furniture piece, Mallad found letters from World War II, written in German, that had been stashed. Even though Mallad was young when he stumbled into the situation, he was intrigued.

“Off and on, when I would meet somebody from Germany (who) was older, I would ask them to take a look at the letters, and I probably had three or four individuals look,” Mallad said. “And every time somebody looked at them, they came back with words like ‘horrible, awful, terrible -- I don't want to talk about it, you need to put these back, this is too upsetting.’”

Mallad even asked his butcher for help, as the man’s wife was German. He took the letters home to her to be translated, but soon returned them, saying the letters were giving his wife nightmares.

Mallad remained curious, and a bit haunted by what the letters seemed to entail, despite only having an inkling of what exactly they were about. But life carried on. He even moved from Detroit to Dallas, but brought the desk on his cross-country adventure, with the letters snug in their hiding place. Mallad had a hunch he should get them translated at some point, but kept putting it off -- for 25 years, to be exact.

Then, one day, Mallad found himself on a flight to Nashville. He helped a petite woman with her bag, and once the two got settled into their seats, he realized he recognized her voice. The woman turned out to be none other than Jane Seymour, the actress. The pair got to talking, when the topic turned to family history. Mallad was reminded of the desk and the mysterious letters, so he mentioned them to Seymour, who was fascinated by the story. She made him promise to have the letters translated soon.

“You don't say no to Jane Seymour, so I did it,” Mallad said.

Tim Mallad, Jane Seymour and Frank Pringham examining the desk and the hidden letters.

Mallad's journey up until this point had been strange and serendipitous. It was in college that he’d taken a job at a retirement community, from where he purchased the old desk in an estate sale, after the death of one of the residents there, named Helen Sebba. (More on her soon). Heck, even buying the beat-up desk in the first place, which wasn’t even the furniture that he had wanted, had been by chance. And then Mallad had found Sebba’s faded letters, and instead of tossing them, he decided to keep them. What are the odds that 25 years later, he has a meeting with a celebrity who happened to have her own World War II connection, along with a passion for family history? It was time to get some clear answers, once and for all, on the letters.

Once the process began, one of the biggest challenges became deciphering the German handwriting, Mallad said, adding that he remains deeply grateful to his translator, who worked for more than six months to unlock the story.

But it was a tale worth unlocking, to say the very least. Mallad had been the steadfast keeper of Sebba’s family history. The tragedy gripped him and wouldn't let go. The desk turned into a sort of treasure chest of hidden stories, detailing Sebba’s, and her brother’s family’s, tragic WWII history.

“We've been given the opportunity to see something very personal, and three people's lives ended in a tragic way,” Mallad said. “It's horrible, it's horrific (and) it's gut-wrenching, but it's important, and in many ways, their death is really a gift to us, to help us understand how we need to treat each other as human beings.”

So yes, without giving away too much, there are deaths involved in this story, along with some other horrific elements, which you've probably gathered by now. Thinking about WWII, it’s safe to say that many probably associate the war with the millions of fatalities that took place. Think about that word for a second: millions. In this case, “millions” refers to a number of people, and an overwhelming number at that. But a number doesn’t always seem real, especially when talking about WWII, which happened a lifetime ago.

However, in a story like this one, you’re going to put names to some of those victims. They become more than just a number. You’ll think of a family, and "meet" some of the people who were affected, or at least, one descendant in particular. You might even think of your own family. What if you found out that something awful had happened to your relatives, and there was nothing you could do? What if it were your ancestors? Would you even want to know?

You’ll also “meet” the Weiss family, specifically, Willy Weiss, his wife Dora, and the couple’s 13-year-old daughter, Ursula. Willy was Sebba’s brother. Sebba found out what happened to them, and then likely died thinking the secrets would die right along with her.

Helen Sebba, who kept the letters until her death.

Wait until you hear what happens when Mallad tracks down Sebba’s grandson, who had never even heard of the Weisses, but came to understand just how agonizing their fate must have been for his grandmother to live with.

You’ll also learn just why Seymour cared so much, after you hear the story of what her own mother endured.

All this and more -- so much more -- is available now in episode five of “Mismatch.” Have you heard of the show? “Mismatch” is a podcast from Graham Media that’s practically guaranteed to captivate you once you give it a listen. It’s based on the idea that some of the most compelling stories feature some element of a mismatch: people who don't line up with each other or with their circumstances.

If you're intrigued, give it a listen. You can stream it any time, anywhere.

Editor's note: Podcasts, by the way, are really easy to access -- even if you’re not very tech-savvy. Don’t let the word throw you off. Though podcasting is a new technology, it revives an old art form: pure storytelling. Let’s say you’ve never listened to a podcast before. Just go to our website, hit “play” on the episode of your choosing and it’s as simple as that. iPhones even come with a Podcast app where you can subscribe, and if you own an Android, you can download an app -- Stitcher is a good one -- to accomplish the same thing.

Watch for new "Mismatch" episodes from Graham Media dropping every Thursday.

Graham Media Group 2019