Countless Holocaust survivors and their descendants, as well as World War II veterans, have the ghosts of the past tucked away in the darkened nooks and crannies of their homes. Photographs, documents, passes, Stars of David and armbands, camp uniforms, diaries masses of them are scattered across the nation and across the globe, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is trying to track them all down, collect them, and give them a home.
Florence Cantor, left, speaks with Emily Jacobson of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum after Jacobson’s presentation at Classic Residence in Teaneck. Photos by Debby Teicholtz Guedalia
Museum officials have embarked on a campaign that will help survivors and others decide what to do with this valuable but decomposing legacy. Left as they are, these heirlooms will disintegrate if they aren’t properly cared for.
To engage the survivors, the museum created a "road show" that travels from city to city and town to town, from one assisted-living center to another. In June, it went to the Classic Residence in Dallas.
Last week, it held two sessions at the Classic Residence in Teaneck, reaching about 90 people with a presentation of "Out of the Ashes: A Holocaust Diary Revealed." It’s the story of the recovery and restoration of a diary by someone named Debora, found in 1945 in what had been the Warsaw Ghetto by her friend Lucia, a survivor who hid the charred and illegible pages for decades and surrendered them to her children only on her deathbed in ’00’. They had no previous knowledge of the precious pages’ existence.
Emily Jacobson, the museum’s conservator of paper and photographs, told the story. Intrigued by the sentence fragments she could make out, she made it her mission to decipher and recover as much of the text as she could. She managed to get nine out of ‘0 pages deciphered.
"I took digital photographs of what we had and used Photoshop and forensic techniques, like they do on TV shows like ‘CSI’ to recover the handwriting. It was also like doing a jigsaw puzzle, because pages needed to be fitted together. It was quite a challenge." The Polish was translated by Manya Freedman.
The diarist, Debora, wrote of the terrifying, suffocating moments hidden with others during a deportation when her friends and her mother were taken and how, from her hiding place, she could hear shots and her mother preventing the discovery of the hiding place. Debora describes the aftermath of deportation and how she found her father alive, when the deserted streets at night began to fill with human ghosts and how they went to find her mother only to discover her body in the kitchen, where she was shot through the mouth for trying to prevent drunken Nazis from having their way with a young girl. Debora describes how her father pinned her mother’s star to her own clothes and how they fled through corpse-strewn fields; how babies were shot as target practice and how she, her father, and brother refused to bury her mother in a common grave, opting instead for an individual funeral, where she glimpsed, among the pile of corpses nearby, a ‘-year-old girl. "She made the illusion of a little angel," she wrote," such a child. It’s guilty! What crime [words unknown]?" Debora, last name unknown, died in Warsaw in August 1944.
From left, Lili Grunfeld, Sidney Sternbach and Martha Sternbach attend the USHMM presentation.
To donate items to the museum, write Kyra Schuster, Division of Collections, 100 Raul Wallenberg Place, SW, Washington, DC ’00’4-‘1’6; phone (‘0’) 488-‘649; or e-mail email@example.com
The museum is on record as saying it will assume full responsibility for the long-term care and storage of donated items and will make the materials accessible to curators, scholars, and researchers in perpetuity.