Holocaust Survivors’ Grandchildren Keep Stories Alive With Help of Vast Archives
JNS.org – As the world marks Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) this week, staffers at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) say they’ve seen a growing phenomenon: third-generation Holocaust survivors fascinated by and determined to honor their grandparents’ experience.
With vast archives available at institutions like the Washington, DC-based museum, survivors’ descendants are coming to experts so “we can help them put the pieces together,” said Sara-Joelle Clark, a researcher with the museum’s Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center, which fields about 250 requests each month.
After repeatedly interviewing their grandparents and recording the results, the USHMM works to anchor family stories in a historical context. Much of the museum’s resources come from the International Tracing Service (ITS), an archive of Holocaust records established by the Allies after the war as families searched desperately for relatives or at the very least, knowledge of their fates.
Headquartered in Bad Arolsen, Germany, the archive boasts millions of pages of documentation. But until a decade ago, these were hidden from view. Only since 2007, after the museum and others pushed for it, did the public receive access. Eight nations now have functional copies of the ITS.
“It blows people’s minds how much we have available,” Clark said. “When we sit down and I show them what they can learn about their family, they’re amazed and the other kids gather around. It’s eye-opening for everyone.”
Beckah Restivo’s interest in Holocaust history was stoked while she attended George Washington University, which is located near the USHMM, though she had been curious about it since the age of 11, when she first the story of her grandfather, Hy Auerhan.
Auerhan, was a teenager in Frankfurt, Germany, when he was snatched from the jaws of the oncoming Nazi scourge in 1936 and sent to live with a Jewish family in Los Angeles. This was three years before Hitler’s plan to rid Germany and later all of Europe of Jews took full effect, but the noose had already started to tighten on the country’s Jews in the form of increasingly restrictive antisemitic laws. Many parents, feeling the encroaching danger, were willing to be separated from their children to ensure their safety.
Though Auerhan was Jewish, Restivo, a California native, was raised and remains a religious Christian — a fact that does not appear to diminish her commitment to publicizing the history of the Holocaust.
“My great-grandfather Felix, whose housewares store was burned down during Kristallnacht, was sent to the Riga ghetto in Latvia and no one is known to have returned from there,” she says. “My grandfather and great-uncle managed to escape and miraculously found each other after the war. Then my great-uncle returned to Germany with the US Army and helped liberate the camps. Both of them went on the have families and live good lives. The fact that my family and I are alive today is proof that Hitler didn’t win after all.”
“Beckah’s story shows that this third generation, which is more comfortable with technology, is engaged with the search for their family legacy, and getting more engaged all the time,” adds Clark. “Her dedication is such an inspiration to others her age.”
A typical highlight of her job, Clark says, is when a child on a field trip to the museum approaches her to say their grandparent or great-grandparent was a Holocaust survivor.
It’s important for the public to know that access to the museum’s resources is completely free, says Diane Afoumado, chief of research and reference for the Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center.
“Even 70 years later, we are still helping to bring families together or bring closure to families who didn’t know what happened to their loved ones,” she says.
Not just families, but also researchers and scholars can access the museum’s voluminous and continuously updated 200 million digitized pages, according to Betsy Anthony, program manager at the museum’s Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.
“Everything I know about my family history, besides my grandfather’s and great-uncle’s actual firsthand accounts, has been driven by the resources at the museum, and I’m so grateful,” says Restivo, who is hoping to write a book on the subject.
“For me and everyone else who’s passionate about keeping these stories alive, with survivors dying every day, it’s our generation’s job to learn more,” she says. “Sharing it is the most important way we can honor those who survived and those who didn’t. To keep genocide from repeating, the museum is an important reminder of what can so easily happen when hate takes over.”