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"Last Rites" -- Search For Holocaust Survivors Continues, Goes High-Tech
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November 23, 2011
Sixty-six years after the end of World War II, there are still families who don’t really know what happened to their loved ones in the Holocaust. That’s where the national Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center comes in. WYPR’s Sarah Richards reports in this installment of our series, “Last Rites: Death & Remembrance In Maryland.”
Tucked away in a quasi-industrial part of Baltimore is a small office where the souls of countless people who died in World War II await the click of a mouse.
Eighty-three-year-old Mimi Davidoff is scrolling through a computer file at the National Holocaust & War Victims TraCing center. To her left rests a manila folder containing a mystery. Inside is a series of names and dates inscribed on what’s known as Form 1609.
“There are, I don’t know, about 10 people they’re looking for. This particular trace involved most of the people in this family.”
Davidoff is a volunteer at the center, which is run by the Red Cross at its Baltimore office. It was opened in 1990, after the Soviet Union fell and hundreds of thousands of war documents were released. The Red Cross decided Baltimore was the ideal place because of its sizeable Jewish population and its history of volunteering. Most of the volunteers are senior citizens, like Davidoff. She says the trace she’s working on now hasn’t been easy for her.
“This woman was born in 1928. Well that’s when I was born. And to deal with somebody who disappeared from this world that was the same age I was is… when I always see that, I always give pause. And say wow, just for the grace of god. It could have been me.”
There are two large filing cabinets in this office filled with tracing requests from people searching for family members they lost touch with during the Holocaust. The center has received 46-thousand in all. They’re compiled and then sent out to any of the more than 180 Red Cross or Crescent societies around the world that might have more information on the missing.
Requests are also sent to the International Tracing Service -- or ITS -- in Europe. Sue Bornemann runs the center’s day-to-day operations. She has visited the ITS offices twice in Bad Arolsen, Germany, where 46 million Nazi-era documents are stored.
“To go in and see the long line of concentration camp records that they lock up at night, they’re in these massive files. And you see Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau. It’s just… it’s really—it’s overpowering.”
Bornemann’s office is just down the hall from the research room. She’s been working here for almost a decade, and started out as a volunteer.
“First of all, it took me a long time to be able to not lose my breath when I was reading a tracing form. Because they’re full of just horrible information. And you think: this person’s horrible existence is distilled in one sheet of paper? And whenever I saw anyone who was even close to my kid’s age, my god, that just tore me to the bone.”
Some of the mysteries have happy endings. There have been 16-hundred reunions because of the Red Cross work. Saul Dreier is one of the many Holocaust survivors, who has sought help from the center. Dreier is 86. He lives in Coconut Creek, Florida, but grew up in Poland during the war. He lost 35 family members in the Holocaust.
He witnessed the murder of his newborn baby cousin, who was thrown out of a fourth-floor window. In 1942, his mother, then his father and sister were all taken to the crematorium. Years later, he began searching for his cousin Lucy and her mother.
“When you get older, you know, you start to get more involved in those things. I never discussed my past about the concentration camps. Nothing. So, I started to look for them.”
He knew they worked at a factory owned by Oskar Schindler. Schindler was a German businessman, who saved hundreds of Jews from being sent to their death by employing them as factory workers during the war. Dreier tried several Jewish organizations. Nothing.
“I was traveling a lot to Israel, you know, after the ’67 war. You know, I was on missions, you know, picking up money for Israel. I went to Yad Vashem, I went all over, and somehow I couldn’t find her.”
In 2010, he put in a request with the Red Cross tracing service. This time, he was successful. He reunited with his cousin Lucy Weinberg last December.
The meeting was captured by a Red Cross camera crew at an airport in Florida. Lucy Weinberg now lives in Montreal.
Researchers use several tools for their Holocaust traces. Some are high tech, like a Red Cross database that keeps track of individual requests. Others are low tech. For example, Sue Bornemann explains that names can be a problem. ‘Abraham,’ for instance, can be spelled 40 different ways. Bornemann lifts up a massive book.
“This is what we got from the International Tracing Service about three years ago. All it is -- I mean, it’s a huge book -- but it just shows you what they go by when they’re just talking about different spellings of surnames… this is almost three inches thick. Almost 1,200 pages…”
Some cases take months; others stretch on for years. Sometimes, news about a single individual is sought; one case involved 70 family members. Davidoff says prisoner identity cards, bearing the subject’s name, are sometimes found in the ITS archives.
“At that time, the Germans who were running things kept very careful records. All of this information would have originally been hand written. And sometimes we get copies of information that are all very detailed and very hand-written, and you wonder who was it that was entering all this on a form? And then they went home and played with their kids.”
Most of the traces being researched end in likely death at a concentration camp. There are frequently no records for this.
“So often we get information which they’re sending… or they’re being sent to Auschwitz. That’s the end of the trail, because they were probably murdered right when they got to Auschwitz.”
Bornemann says most often, no one bothered recording the names of those who were killed on arrival. Still, some people survived. Today, those who did survive are either dead or elderly. Over time, the number of tracing requests has diminished. Some of the center’s volunteers have retired. Like 89-year-old Eva Slonitz.
“Okay, that’s me at that time, I was about 10 years old at that time…”
Slonitz is showing off a picture of herself as a child in Germany before the war. She escaped the Holocaust by working as a maid for a family in England. Slonitz did German translation for the tracing center until last year. She says her two sons who live in Baltimore aren’t likely to fill her shoes.
“I’m going to be 90. Soon I’ll be dead. That generation isn’t going to be here anymore. More or less, we’re the second generation, they’re the third generation. At least in my family, there’s nothing to… I mean, my sons are interested in the subject, but they don’t have any feeling to continue this situation.”
Next December, the Red Cross plans to amalgamate the Holocaust tracing office with its other tracing service in Washington, D.C. That office helps families reconnect after natural disasters and conflicts around the world. Bornemann says researchers there will continue to offer Holocaust traces. She says a younger generation still wants to understand their family’s Holocaust experience.
“As long as there’s a need, it’s going to continue.”
I'm Sarah Richards, reporting in Baltimore, for 88-1 WYPR.
This project was made possible by a grant from the Maryland Humanities Council, through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this series do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Maryland Humanities Council.
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