Gathering the fragments

As generation of survivors dwindles, it's of paramount importance that we dedicate ourselves to continuing the process of gathering fragments.

May 1, 2011 22:26
4 minute read.
Hershel Yoffe, his wife Gittel in 1932

Hershel Yoffe, his wife Gittel in 1932 311. (photo credit: Yad Vashem)


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During the Shoah, an entire world was shattered. The remaining scattered fragments vary infinitely in size, shape and texture – from documents to diaries, testimonies to artifacts, photographs to works of art. Despite their wide dispersion, they can still be found in many places – government and private archives, libraries, and even in the homes of people who went through the vortex of the Shoah, and members of their families left behind. Each fragment tells its own tale and, like a thread, has a beginning and an end. These threads of information, intersecting and combining, are then woven together into a broad and deep tapestry that depicts a multifaceted story stretching over time and space. In this way we can reconstruct as much of the shattered Jewish world as possible, the events that led to its destruction, and the lives that continued to be lived while the devastation unfolded.

Since its inception, Yad Vashem has strived to collect every relevant source of information, each of which enlightens us in its own unique way about the six million Jews murdered and the millions more persecuted and victimized during the Holocaust. Yet some shards remain locked in the memories of those who were there, still waiting to be expressed in word or art. Others languish in desk or dresser drawers, in old suitcases, or in shoeboxes. And some are precious, kept close to the heart and seldom shown to others. The fragments we collect have universal meaning for us as human beings, national meaning for us as Jews, and often very personal meaning as well.

AS A child I always knew that my grandmother Irma, my father’s mother, had been in Auschwitz. My grandmother died in 1970, when I was still quite young, and all I knew of what she had endured were the disjointed bits and pieces she had told me. Among other diffuse facts, I remember her telling me she had engaged in some sort of factory work, and that she was together the entire time from her deportation to her liberation with her daughterin- law. At the end of the 1970s, when I first read Raul Hilberg’s monumental book the Destruction of the European Jews, in which he discusses labor in Auschwitz, it seemed to me I had learned that she had probably worked for the giant IG Farben concern.

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Quite a few years later, when I was already director of the Yad Vashem Library, I saw a fragment that told me a bit more about her travails. It was a deposition my grandmother had written for a lawyer to obtain compensation from the German government. When the lawyer passed away, his family sent his entire archive to Yad Vashem. From that document I learned that my grandmother at some point had been transported from Auschwitz to Trautenau. It would be a long time before other fragments would come to light.

Among the millions of documents recently made available to at Yad Vashem by the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Arolson, Germany, I found several references to my grandmother, with the help of my colleagues. She appears on a list of women prisoners in Parschnitz, which is also known as Parschnitz-Trautenau, dated October 1944. Directly following her on the list is her daughter-in-law. So they were definitely together in the camp in autumn 1944. At the head of that list, it says the women were working for AEG. So now it much more plausible that the factory work my grandmother engaged in was in Parschnitz, not Auschwitz, and for AEG and not IG Farben. Lastly, on her daughter- in-law’s ITS registration card, the date she (and most probably my grandmother) reached Parschnitz is listed as August 1, 1944. According to the card, the two were in the camp until it was liberated on May 9, 1945 – the last day of the war in Europe.

So uncovering one thread, following others, and weaving them together has yielded at least a tiny part of the greater tapestry. Yet even from such a small illustration there are things we can learn. This story illustrates that Hungarian Jewish women sent to Auschwitz, later reached other camps, where they worked and suffered. It shows that companies besides the infamous IG Farben concern, some still thriving today, were complicit in their suffering.

So, especially now, as the generation of survivors dwindles, it is of paramount importance that we dedicate ourselves to continuing the process of gathering fragments and putting them into context. The tools of the 21st century – the Internet, social networks, digitization and international cooperation – offer much hope that we will enrich and expand our portrait of events. Seventy years after the advent of the systematic mass murder of the Jews and the coalescence of the Final Solution, it is vital that the enriched tapestry – and the insights we draw from it – remain in constant view. The more we further our knowledge of the Holocaust and keep it in our consciousness, the better chance we have of molding a world free from prejudice, hatred and crimes against humanity.

To donate Holocaust-related material to Yad Vashem, please call [in Israel] 1800 25 7777, or email

The writer is director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts, Vallentine Mitchell, 2005 and a soon-to-be published study on Hungarian Jewish forced laborers on the Eastern Front

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