“Survivor Sweethearts Reunited After 64 Years,” the headline of the article read. Renate Grossman was just a teenager in 1927 when she met Carl Mahler, a non-Jewish Polish boy in the Tarnow ghetto. Carl was not much older than she was, but his bravery preceded his years.
He helped Renate survive the horrors of the Holocaust and in the process, he fell for her. They vowed to each other that if they both survived the war, they would marry, but like so many others during the Holocaust, they got separated.
Renate came to terms with the fact that she may never know Carl’s fate. Her assumption? Carl didn’t survive. Sixty-four years later, Renate met face-to-face with the unbelievable: Carl.
This is just one of many stories concluded for those who have travelled to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to take advantage of a very powerful database: the International Tracing Service (ITS) archives — a collection of documents that entail unique, individual information about Holocaust victims and survivors. And on Sunday, March 18, the Jewish Federation of Howard County honored the museum’s 10th anniversary of opening these archives with an event at Temple Isaiah, “Preserving & Accessing History at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.” The Federation hosted the museum’s director of the mid-Atlantic regional office Andres Abril and chief of research Diane F. Afoumado as they educated the Howard County Jewish community about the most complex database in the world and why they should care about it.
“Let me tell you, it’s not for the faint of heart,” Fryda Fraeme, a Temple Isaiah member, said. Fraeme was the driving force behind bringing this event to fruition, her inspiration being her own experience with the ITS archives. Fraeme herself took advantage of how easily accessible these archives were to her, merely an hour or so drive from her Howard County home. To learn more about what happened to her mother during the Holocaust, Fraeme went to the museum and up to its second floor for answers. All she needed was a name, date of birth and place of birth.
This is the kind of question the ITS archives can answer that was unanswerable to so many before: What happened to our loved ones in the Holocaust? “I think it just made it more real in a horrible way,” Fraeme said. “Every little piece is just proof of what happened, and that’s why I think it’s so meaningful.”
“I hope the ITS
inspires people to ask new questions about what happened to their family.”
— Andres Abril, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum mid-Atlantic regional office
But the archives at the museum weren’t always as easily accessible as they were for Fraeme.
In 2001, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies Paul Shapiro requested to have the archives made public, but this request was met with much resistance from the 11 countries that controlled the accessibility of the archives. “Every country had a reason not to sort of shake the tree,” Abril said.
Some of this had to do with politics and views on privacy, but Shapiro believed there was a moral imperative in opening up the archives for Holocaust survivors. And it’s not hard to understand why.
The petition “A call to the International Tracing Service (ITS) to open their archives for public access” found on Petition Online stated, “Many survivors die each year not knowing details of family members’ deportation, incarceration, and death. The international community has a moral obligation to address this injustice. Over 60 years after the end of World War II, the ITS remains one of the few, and certainly the largest, closed archive on the Holocaust.”
Shapiro’s fight paid off. In 2007, all 11 countries agreed to open the archives to the public. Today, the Holocaust Museum is home to the largest collection of the ITS archives, filling rooms from floor to ceiling with roughly 200 million pages of documents, one of the most monumental events to happen to the museum.
This collection helps fulfill the reason for its existence: to tell the story of the Holocaust and the stories of the people — their lives, deaths and fates. The cost? Nothing to the public. It’s free of charge with unlimited access all accompanied by an expert to sift through the digitized documents. And the expert is necessary.
The documents aren’t exactly Google-friendly. Consisting of 26 different languages, many hand-written, and changing names throughout, it isn’t as simple as entering a few keywords and watching relevant documents appear. It takes someone highly trained to piece together these stories. The resource center’s staff is small, relying on some volunteers for help, but they’ve been able to fulfill 89 percent of the research requests the museum has received.
Since the opening, the museum has gotten 28,929 requests. Of these requests, 17,928 have come from survivors and families of the Holocaust — completing chapters in these people’s lives that have been left open for far too long.
Requests have come in from all 50 states, but knowledge of the museum’s collection has stretched even farther. People from around the world have benefited from this powerful service offered in Washington, helping survivors and families in 78 other countries. Why the Holocaust Museum, instead of seeking to access these archives in the other 10 countries? Not all are so fortunate to have the unlimited access that is enjoyed here.
It has nothing to do with a price tag. Privacy laws in many European countries create barriers, leading some to travel from country to country in order to piece together the puzzle of Holocaust narratives, whereas those who come to Washington can have all the pieces right there in front of them. This is why many scholars travel here to take advantage of this access.
“For Howard County I think it’s really important … because it’s right down the street,” Ralph Grunewald, interim executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County and one of the founding directors of the museum, said. “And you notice that there were people here who had a sole connection to the Holocaust … and very direct connections to the Holocaust: grandfather, parent, whoever it may be.”
As Fraeme bustled around the room that night with a microphone in hand while others from the audience shot up with questions, it was clear that the ITS archives’ ability to reunite and bring closure to families peaked an interest. “It was excellent. I think that a lot of people got a lot out of it,” secretary of the Federation Jeffrey Gold said.
“I hope it inspires them to ask new questions about what happened to their family,” Abril said. He also hopes that it will bring awareness to the deeper sense of the work the museum does: remembering. Each of these documents is essential to authentically remembering the Holocaust and preserving so many of its stories, giving the world a new perspective that brings it to life like never before.
With such an enthusiastic audience, Afoumado might have her work cut out for her. “She’s going to be busy,” Gold said.
Kelsey Marden is a local freelance writer and photographer.