What can be the value of a silver sugar bowl? That's what William Buckingham, 48, wondered as he filled in the insurance forms for the Australian courier delivery service. How can you put a price tag on the only surviving possession from someone's household? Buckingham's grandmother Salme had lived with his family in Melbourne until her death, when he was 11. He was fascinated by her Old World possessions: her silver service, the eiderdowns, the photos of their home in Riga where Grandpa ran the Baptist Bookshop, and her stories of the Jewish shop where she used to buy beautiful material.
Decades later, William noticed that one piece of silver didn't match the others. That bowl wasn't theirs, his mother, Vera Buckingham, explained. Grandma Salme had taken it in for safe keeping for the Slovins, the owners of the fabric store, to hide it from the Germans. Vera had made inquiries in 1947 with the International Tracing Service at the Bamberg DP Camp, but hadn't found any survivors of this charming couple or their five children.
When Vera died last year, William made a personal odyssey from Melbourne to Riga to fill in the blanks of his family's history. He fruitlessly looked for the Slovin family, whose silver bowl had become his responsibility. Failing to find any trace in Riga, he sent a query to the new Yad Vashem on-line Pages of Testimony.
SIOMA SLOVIN, 90, of Haifa, heard the English-speaking voice with the strange accent on the phone, and at first he thought it was a hoax. Only when the caller mentioned a fabric business in Riga did Slovin realize that the impossible was happening.
Ever since Slovin had left Riga in 1935 to study engineering at the Technion, he'd never seen anything from his childhood household. His parents, prosperous textile merchants in the Latvian capital's large Jewish community, were delighted that their son would be studying technology in Haifa.
At first there were letters back and forth, but as the years went on, contact with Europe disappeared. Slovin volunteered for the Jewish Brigade, became a decorated officer fighting the Nazis and helped smuggle would-be immigrants to British controlled Palestine. One day, on the Italian-Austria border a survivor who was a friend of Slovin's brother recognized him. The news from home was devastating: Slovin's entire family had been murdered.
SLOVIN WEPT until he thought he would die of grief. Then he dried his eyes and resolved never to cry again. He decided he'd concentrate on building a new life. He married and brought up two daughters, Ilana and Talya, coping over the years with new losses: the death of his wife and the young husbands of both of his daughters. But he rejoiced over the birth of grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. This year they would be making their Seder in Tivon, at the home of one of his granddaughters because she had the youngest baby.
But about one subject he was mute: the life he'd led before coming to Israel. "He never talked about the family he lost," said daughter Ilana Shulman, a rental-car agent. "I explained to my children that even though Grandpa left before the war, he was a Holocaust survivor."
The silence was more pronounced in a family where talk was highly valued. In contrast to the absence of information about her father's family, her late mother's family was memorialized in a special homemade Haggada in which photos of her family's exodus from Germany replayed the ancient story of the exodus from Egypt.
From Australia, Buckingham sent a package marked with such high value that it caught the eye of the Israeli customs authority. The value, explained Slovin to the understanding clerk, was not in the silver. With trembling fingers he unwrapped the package. "I felt a stabbing in my heart when I saw the family silver," he says. "I held it in my hands and realized I'd fulfilled my pledge to survive. Now, I had a 'gift' that I can pass on to them from my parents' home."
In Melbourne, Buckingham "was thrilled to the rafters to learn of the joy that this silver has brought Mr. Slovin. I've just lost my mother last year and know how important family memories are. I also hope that fragment of the lives of the Slovins of Riga can help some of the terrible losses that this family, and countless others, have endured."
Slovin will be bringing the silver sugar bowl to his granddaughter's Seder table this year. But it's more than a gift of silver. For the first time, Sioma Slovin will be able tell his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren about the family he and they lost. What could be a better time than the night we are commanded to pass on the history of our people in the most personal way? We take this responsibility seriously, just as a Christian family in Australia kept their promise to watch the possessions of a friend.
Over seven million visitors have contacted the Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names (www.yadvashem.org)
Had the Internet been created for this alone, it would have been enough.
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