Packed with pain

Racing against time, Yad Vashem mounts an operation to rescue Holocaust-era artifacts.

Yad Vashem Museum_311 (photo credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner)
Yad Vashem Museum_311
(photo credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner)

The Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem is on an urgent mission. Racing against time, the aptly named “Gathering the Fragments” project is a last-minute rescue operation to collect Holocaust-era artifacts, which today are like a few brittle twigs that remain of a huge forest devastated by fire.

The time when there will be no more living witnesses is inexorably approaching and with it the final opportunity to gather these fragile fragments. Since April 2011, in a well-advertised national campaign, Yad Vashem has been urging the more than 200,000 survivors estimated to be living in Israel and their families to donate personal items to the museum to be catalogued, scanned, undergo conservation and be preserved for posterity.

“This is a transition period between the generations and it’s a last-minute call,” says Dr. Haim Gertner, director of Yad Vashem’s Archive Division. “Our efforts are not only to collect the items but to also connect each item with the story behind it.”

The museum’s staff has fanned out across the country in designated twice-weekly collection points and has accumulated more than 32,000 items from some 2,000 people, including documents, letters, diaries, artworks, photographs and artifacts. The staff includes professionals such as archivists, curators, photography experts and people who speak several languages.

“We understood from the very start that we need experts, people with the knowledge to understand the stories and ask the right questions,” explains Gertner.

There is more pain packed into these items than is consistent with human capacity to understand. Gertner makes it a point to attend these collection days at least once a month to interview donors. He can’t forget the story of a Hungarian woman who donated seven photos of her family murdered in Auschwitz that she found while working in the death camp’s “Canada” section, the place where the victims’ items were sorted before being shipped to Germany.

“She told me that she decided to take the risk and keep the photos. She took plastic, wrapped the photos and covered the plastic with margarine. She then put it between two pieces of bread so it would look like a sandwich. She kept it on her body for the rest of the war. She showed me the photos. I noticed that one photo had a piece missing. I asked her about it. She said that when she arrived in Tel Aviv after the war she found a neighbor who had survived. A relative of his was in the other half of the photo, so she cut it in two and gave half to him. Talk about gathering the fragments.”

Documents and photographs are scanned into Yad Vashem’s vast archive. The project’s staff has at its disposal a cadre of historians and experts in every field.

“We have the largest collection of Holocaust-related items in the world including 140 million pages of documentation, 400,000 photographs and more than 100,000 testimonies, but still there are black holes,” says Gertner. “In order to reconstruct the stories it is crucial to collect every piece of evidence. You never know in this huge puzzle which piece will be the most important.”

Lit al Beer, head of the project in the Archives Division of Yad Vashem, says that on collection days there is a sense of anticipation because there is no telling what will surface. Usually there are yellowing letters that had been kept throughout the years in drawers; black-and-white photographs that had been stashed in envelopes; artifacts placed in closets, hidden in attics, wrapped in tissue paper, stored in shoe boxes.

One recent item was a small comb. It belonged to Prof. Shlomo Breznitz’s mother. She died 36 years ago in Israel, and when he and his sister were sitting shiva, all he wanted of his mother’s possessions was this one small comb.

“It’s the one thing she brought back with her from Auschwitz,” says Breznitz in a telephone interview. “They shaved the prisoners’ heads and once her hair started to grow a little bit, she was willing to sacrifice a whole day’s food ration in order to get the comb so that she would look more respectable.”

Breznitz, former rector of the University of Haifa and a former Kadima Knesset member, is himself a survivor. He spent the war hidden in a convent orphanage in Czechoslovakia in constant fear of discovery. After his mother’s death he kept the comb in a cupboard where he kept practical things, like stationery and passports, so that he would have occasion to look at it often.

“I thought that I am getting older. I have more than one child and I didn’t want to break the comb. I wanted it to be in the place where it should be. My children accepted my decision to donate the comb graciously and it probably made it easier for them because each one would have liked to have it.

Letters and photographs or anything that have some value to a person, the value is halved every generation. After two or three generations the only things that can survive are the stories themselves because people are enchanted by stories. The stories have more value than the things themselves. The life of the comb depends on the story alone and nothing else.”

There have been more than 2,000 donors so far and 2,000 stories, says Beer. She meets The Jerusalem Report in the project headquarters on the campus of Yad Vashem. The space for this shortterm project, expected to continue through 2012, is bare except for desks, telephones and computers. There is a wall of shelves at one end of the room, and plenty of space to store the artifacts before they are sorted and moved to various departments within the museum.

“Many people who have documents are unaware of the importance of the materials in their possession and of the need to preserve them professionally. It is clear that time is running out. This is an urgent venture,” says Beer.

“The new thing about this project is the fact that we are going out of Yad Vashem to cities and towns across Israel, close to where survivors live, to make it convenient for them. Some people find it hard to part with these cherished items but feel that they belong not just to the family, but to the Jewish people as a whole,” she says.

She and her staff had collected items in Hadera, in central Israel, a few days earlier and some of the finds are still in her desk. She shows this reporter a heavy silver fork that 70 years earlier had become separated from the rest of the cutlery set to which it belonged. For some mysterious reason, it had been stashed in the purse of Malca Shpringer’s mother when the family fled their home in Tarnobrzeg, Poland.

Refugees in Russia, the family had traded away all their possessions for food, but no one wanted to buy just one fork, and so the fork remained. “It’s the only thing left from our home,” Shpringer told her Yad Vashem interviewer. “My mother saved it in her purse, and when she died in Germany after the war, my father gave it to me. I kept it as a memory of my parents’ home.”

Shpringer, 81, who lives in a moshav near Hadera, also donated another item. She was just nine years old when the war broke out and she had a tiny doll, the kind that can fit in the palm of the hand or be hidden in a pocket. She had named her blondehaired doll Basia, and had sewn a dress for her from fabric scraps. Of all her dolls, perhaps because of her diminutive size, it was Basia that she took with her when the family escaped from the Germans. She had kept Basia safe in her pocket throughout the war years.

“The doll accompanied me everywhere. She was my friend and my confidant. I told her all my secrets. The doll was in my pocket throughout all the running way from the Germans. She was also with me in Cyprus and came with me to Israel. I am giving my best friend for safekeeping to Yad Vashem,” she told the researcher who wrote down her story in a special form filled out for each donor.

Contacted by telephone, Shpringer told The Report that it was hard to part with the doll.

“I had shown it to my nine grandchildren and whenever I would organize my drawers I would come across it and a feeling of sadness would come over me. I hope it is in good hands. I’m not sure that the doll would be kept after my death. I was afraid that it would be thrown into the garbage along with the fork. What can you do with just one fork? Nothing.”

Many elderly survivors worry that after their death the keepsakes will be thrown out, says Beer. One item did in fact come from a garbage bin on Reiness Street in Tel Aviv. It was a hotel guest book that turned out to have belonged to a Pension Pines in Rome.

“The man who found it saw the dates, 1937-1941, and came to the Tel Aviv collection point to give it to us,” says Beer.

“It was a signed by Jews from all over the world. After some research it turned out that it was the only kosher pension in Rome. Our expert on Italian Jewry tracked down the owner’s grandson who brought us photographs of the pension. One of the guests who signed the book was Yosef Burg [German-born Israeli politician and government minister] who was on his way from Germany to Israel. One person wrote ‘I came here as a refugee, and I wish for myself to come here one day as a tourist.’” Sometimes collection days are slow.

One such day took place in Jerusalem last spring and Beer had already sent most of the staff home when, towards the end of the day, Israel Shapira walked in.

Shapira celebrated his third birthday on September 1, 1939, the day that the Germans invaded Poland. His parents hid him with a Christian woman in Warsaw and after the war, at age eight, he was taken to Salvino, Italy, to a camp where more than 800 orphans were cared for by the Jewish units in the British Army.

“I spoke only Polish and there were children there from all over. I always liked to draw, so I would communicate with them by drawing,” the 75-year-old Shapira tells The Report.

In Salvino, perhaps in exchange for one of his drawings, an older boy gave Shapira a small, well-executed pencil drawing as a keepsake. It is a chilling depiction of Jews being herded into Treblinka. In the foreground stands a gun-pointing German soldier drawn in great detail from the insignia on the shirt collar down to the polished boots. There is a long line of people – at the front, a man with a yellow star on his coat with the word “Jude.” Beside him stands a woman cradling a baby, and beneath her a small child.

The faces of the other people disappear in the distance. In the far background is the train that brought the people to Treblinka and another German soldier who is threatening the people at the back of the line. At the bottom of the drawing the boy wrote two words in Yiddish, “To Treblinka.” The drawing is tattered at the edges, soiled by many brown and yellow age spots and lined by hair-thin cracks. On the back of the postcard-size drawing is a dedication written in Hebrew: “To remember forever, [with three exclamation marks] for my young friend, from Shlomo Schwartz.”

Shapira kept the drawing safe for 66 years but decided to donate it to Yad Vashem where it could be better preserved. Yad Vashem researchers attempted to track down the boy who had given Shapira the drawing and to answer at least one question from the gaping holes in his childhood memories.

“We located a Shlomo Schwartz who lives in Israel and was in the Salvino camp and had given testimony to Yad Vashem. He says that he is not the one who made the drawing,” says Beer.

“I called him and wanted to meet him, but he said that he prefers not to talk about the past,” says Shapira with sadness in his voice. “It’s one of the many questions and mysteries that remain unanswered in my life and there is no one that I can ask.”

There is one item that Shapira could not give up. It’s a pair of a child’s pajama pants which his mother kept with her as a memory of him throughout the war years after she had hidden him in Warsaw. She even managed to keep it in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, which she survived.

“I could not part with that,” says Shapira.

“It’s too personal. Maybe I’ll give it to my grandchildren if it doesn’t fall apart by then.” Gathering the Fragments is a joint project funded by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Education and the Office of Pensioners’ Affairs.

For more information, or to donate a Holocaust-related item, call 1-800 25-77-77.