The remarkable yet heartbreaking story of Nazi horrors in the documentary Let Us Die was close to being lost forever.
After all, Tim Mallad didn’t even want the 200-year-old antique desk he wound up purchasing for $25 at a Detroit estate sale 33 years ago. And he certainly wasn’t ready for what was inside.
“We were carrying it up the stairs, and it has pigeonholes that were wiggling,” said Mallad, an executive with the Dallas nonprofit Forefront Living. “It was annoying me. I had heard that old desks sometimes had secret compartments, so I thought to give it a tug and see what was in there. The pigeonholes were actually a drawer.”
Inside that drawer were letters, written in German and hidden for decades, that detail a tragic story of innocent German families contemplating suicide during World War II rather than enduring atrocities committed by advancing Russian troops.
The film, directed by WFAA (Channel 8) political reporter Jason Whitely, will have its world premiere on Tuesday at the Alamo Drafthouse Cedars as part of the Dallas International Film Festival.
German-speaking acquaintances read the letters through the years, so Mallad knew the gist of their content.
“I stopped sharing them because everybody would come back crying after reading them,” he said. “I’m glad that I decided to put them back in the drawer rather than toss them.”
Mallad had the desk restored and moved it around the country with him, from Virginia to North Carolina and eventually to Dallas, where it still sits in his office. He never went any further about learning the origin of the letters until 2014, when he sat next to actress Jane Seymour on an airplane. Seymour became transfixed with the story and encouraged Mallad to dig further.
“It’s an extremely complicated story that was hard to piece together,” Mallad said. “Jane convinced me that I had to find the family. I got fixated on wanting to see where this happened.”
In 2019, the story came to Whitely, who was pitched via text message.
“I’m a history buff. It immediately caught my attention,” Whitely said. “When we started, we weren’t sure what we were going to get. No one knew where it was going to go.”
WFAA ran a segment that summer that lasted about 3-4 minutes, which is long by television news standards, but there was still much more to uncover. That October, Whitely traveled with Mallad to Europe to retrace the specifics of the family history in the letters, and hopefully bring closure. That’s where the story took another turn.
“This is not something that’s in history books or textbooks,” Whitely said. “I’ve never done anything near this [scope], but I knew it was a story that had to be told. This had not been recorded.”
Whitely said the station committed to funding the trip without knowing what shape the finished product would take. After some film festival screenings, it likely will air on WFAA sometime next year.
Mallad still marvels at the coincidences that made him the unlikely shepherd for a story that spanned continents and generations yet remained untold for so long.
“It was an awesome responsibility in hindsight,” he said. “I feel very privileged that I was the caretaker of the story for as long as I have been. It’s a story that brings people together.”