An old family film tucked in a closet, love letters hidden in an office file, papers set aside in an abandoned suitcase – seemingly commonplace items. Yet these everyday mementos held the key to three lost narratives from the Holocaust. These discoveries allow us to share the hopes and dreams of the youngest inmates of the Terezin Concentration Camp, follow a young Viennese student desperate to join an old love in America and look back at a Jewish community a short time before the Nazi invasion of Poland.
The significance of these finds is striking when you consider how difficult it can be to discover information about many of those swept up in the Holocaust. While the Nazis generally kept meticulous records, the death registers of many camps, particularly in Eastern Europe, were often incomplete. Many victims of the Nazi regime, including prisoners of war, were executed and buried in anonymous, mass graves. Locating information about specific people can be challenging, as records span many countries, archives and languages. Even when records can be found, documents alone cannot convey a full understanding of an individual’s experience. Each of these three chance discoveries offers a unique and personal look into the heartbreaking events of the Holocaust.
I Never Saw Another Butterfly... Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944
Fifteen thousand children under the age of 15 were sent to the Terezin ghetto during the Holocaust - only 100 survived. These are their drawings and poems, found many years later preserved in a suitcase. Terezin was a show ghetto set up by the Nazis in the Czech mountains. They would spruce up small portions of the ghetto to show off to the Red Cross and other international organizations to give the appearance of treating Jews humanely. Many famous intellectuals and even members of the German army who were found to have Jewish blood were sent to Terezin. Life in Terezin was much more gruesome than it appeared to outside visitors; there were regular transports to death camps, and it was never the intention of the Nazis to allow any of the residents to survive. However, given the number of artists and scholars living there, a certain amount of culture managed to flourish. The children had some limited access to art supplies and were taught by a famous artist (Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who died in Birkenau). It is clear that the children who wrote these poems were forced to be wise beyond their years.
Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind
As a child, Sarah Wildman had always been struck by how wonderfully lucky her charismatic grandfather Karl had been to escape from Austria in 1938. With the four other members of his family, he was able to start a successful new life as a doctor in America. It was only after his death that she discovered a cache of letters, hidden in his office files, from relatives who had not been able to leave. In this heart-rending collection, she found a series of letters from the girlfriend of Karl’s youth, Valy Scheftel. In her passionate love letters which spanned from 1938 to late 1941, Valy speaks of her increasingly difficult situation and begs for Karl’s help leaving Nazi Germany. Wildman found it difficult to reconcile these desperate pleas with what she knew of her grandfather’s escape and early days in America. In an attempt to understand this chapter of her grandfather’s history, Wildman decides to try to discover why Valy was left behind and what ultimately happened to her. Her quest is movingly recounted in Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind.
Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film
Very similar to Sarah Wildman’s Paper Love, it is the discovery of a family artifact that propels Glenn Kurtz on a journey to discover the lost world of a vibrant, Jewish town in Poland. At once less personal and yet more heartbreaking than the letters that Wildman finds, Kurtz finds a home movie documenting the six week sightseeing vacation his grandparents took to Europe in 1938. Three minutes of the film survey the thriving Jewish village of Nasielsk, Poland – the elder Kurtz’s birthplace – a town that unbeknownst to all, will be decimated just a short time later in Hitler’s Nazi invasion and extermination efforts. In a town of 3,000 people, fewer than 100 will survive. At first the film is not viewable, “a hockey puck,” Kurtz says. He donated it to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was able to restore it and post it on their website. Amazingly, Kurtz is contacted by a woman who saw the film on the website and believes the film captures her grandfather as a 13 year old. The book is the result of Kurtz’s efforts to track down the people in the film and illuminate a world even the survivors thought had been lost. See Kurtz’s website for a short video produced by the Holocaust Museum about his grandparents’ film.
-Rebecca Wolff, CE, Suzanne Summers LaPierre, KP & Ginger Hawkins, PH