Arts, Culture & Media

Preserving the legacies of Holocaust survivors

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Remembering victims of the Holocaust (Photo credit: Daniel Estrin)

By Daniel Estrin

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Earlier this week Israel marked its yearly Holocaust commemoration day. A siren wailed throughout the country and traffic ground to a halt to commemorate the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. Israel estimates that more than half of the world's Holocaust survivors today live in Israel. But they are quickly dying out. This year, Israel is calling on survivors and their families to come forward and preserve their legacies before it is too late.
Israel's national Holocaust museum and archive, Yad Vashem, has amassed the world's largest collection of Holocaust-era documents. And still, there is a lot about the Holocaust we just don't know.

"The holocaust is still a black hole in European history," said Haim Gertner. "You have to know, we are still missing 2 million names of Holocaust victims."

Gertner directs the archives at Yad Vashem. He said there are a lot of important artifacts about the Holocaust in Israel, but they are not in the museum. They are stashed in attics and closets and drawers throughout the country.

"We assume that in every house, in the hands of everyone, almost, in Israel, there are fragments of this huge event," Gertner said.

Which is why the museum has mounted a nationwide campaign, telling Holocaust survivors and their families: Dig up your precious Holocaust-era mementos, and give them to us.

"Here it will be kept for generations to come. We have the ability to keep it here better than in your place. And here it will be connected to the rest of puzzle. In your house, it's your personal story. Here it's part of a huge scene," Gertner said.
One morning this week a handful of Holocaust survivors and relatives answered the call.

Miriam Peeri Younger survived Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. She sat with a Yad Vashem archivist, clutching yellowing photos.

Tears welled in her eyes as she told the story of how a man found the photos after the war and searched for her for a year and a half. They were the precious few photos of her parents she had. She was giving the pictures to Israel's holocaust museum, she said, so the whole world would know what happened to them. In the corner of the room, another woman told an archivist she survived the war hiding in a hole under her house. In the hideout, she watched a relative embroider a tablecloth. With tears in her eyes, the woman handed over the tablecloth to the archivist.

Haim Gertner, head of the archives, said it is not easy for people to part with their mementos. Some have only allowed the museum to take pictures — not take the objects themselves. But since the museum launched the campaign a few months ago more than 2000 people called the hotline to inquire about donating.

"I think this is exactly the last minute," he said. "They realize they have to do it now — to collect now the documents with the story behind them — as a last minute mission. This is what they feel. It comes from them."

There are over 200,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel today. A recent study found that in Israel, about 35 Holocaust survivors die every day. In another 16 years or so, they will all have passed away.

That ticking clock has encouraged Israel to launch another initiative: the Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce, or Project Heart.

Its aim is to get Jews from all over the world to report any assets snatched away from their families in Europe during the Holocaust.

Anything from real estate to savings accounts to livestock.

For decades Germany has generously paid Jews reparations for stolen assets, but other Eastern European countries haven't.

Bobby Brown, the project's director, said restitution will take lots of time and diplomatic pressure, but Israel needs to help survivors stake these claims now, while they are still alive.

"If we don't record this quickly it will be lost. The idea is to be able to represent real people in negotiations, in court cases, so we're racing against time," Brown said.

These Israeli initiatives aimed to help Holocaust survivors come at a delicate time. Survivors in Israel have long complained that Israeli authorities have neglected them. Mordechai Hareli survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp and came to Israel when he was 16.

"We have been treated and viewed in a rather condescending way. You went to slaughter like sheep. You didn't fight," Hareli said.

For years, that was the attitude in Israel, and Israeli authorities used German reparation money more to finance Israeli institutions and build the country and less to take care of individual survivors. Today, nearly a quarter of Israel's holocaust survivors is poor — and is struggling to pay for its rising medical bills.

Hareli said he hoped that Israel can help survivors reclaim their lost assets in Europe — if anything, so they have some extra cash to pay for the medicines they need in the last years of their life.