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Jamie Stiehm: Racing Against Time to Remember, Reclaim Pieces of the Holocaust

A desperate race against time is now, here in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and across the Jewish community. A race to save firsthand experiences, shards of the Shoah, in voice and memory.

The last generation of Holocaust survivors are in their 80s and 90s, near the end, and what their eyes have seen when they were young is too important to lose to time.

The museum seeks to preserve their eyewitness remembrances and artifacts (such as uniforms, passports, letters) for its international archives.

A narrative can be done simply with a family member, says Dina Gold, a journalist and author who won a settlement from the German government for the elegant six-story office building in Berlin, which her great-grandfather built in 1910.

Gold recently wrote a compelling book, Stolen Legacy, about her huge moral victory. The Nazis perpetrated the greatest theft in history, in art, land and property.

In an interview, Gold says some survivors prefer to forget the loss and suffering in the Nazi death camps. That was, in a way, a survival skill to build anew afterward.

As survivors know better than anybody, so many millions led unfinished lives. Take Anne Frank, who wrote the famous Diary of a Young Girl before she perished. She would be 86.

Her diary was a testament to her sparkling soul and her Jewish family’s hiding in an Amsterdam attic. If Anne had lived, she’d tell the rest of her tale to the world. I saw the secret attic on my first day of my first trip abroad, at her age. Her voice still spoke in the space.

Holocaust survivors, Gold says, may have lived by the words: “Don’t look back.” Don’t go back there, to that hell of time. Silences become frozen over years, but it’s worth trying to see back to the 1930s and ’40s, when Jewish homes, families and businesses were under siege: rounded up or driven out.

From Berlin and Warsaw to Prague and Vienna, Nazi ruthlessness was everywhere at once. The records of Adolf Hitler’s “final solution” transports are chillingly accurate.

Yet a tape recorder can set the tone for a serious conversational focus on the past. Expect to hear things tumble out you’ve never heard before. It’s amazing what memories — and perhaps documents — you can find, Gold says.

In the process of melting ice, you will hear “glorious snippets,” Gold declares. “Families should do that (interview.) They will regret it bitterly if they don’t. Then you’ve missed your chance.”

Her grandmother, Nellie, who emigrated from Berlin to British Palestine early on, is one example. “She didn’t have a bean,” Gold says, as she raised three children in Tel Aviv and Haifa. But she always looked elegant.

“A lady doesn’t wear jewelry during the day, only a string of pearls.” This was a saying, handed down to daughters. Gold wears her great-grandmother’s Lucie’s pearls often.

A devastating discovery awaited Gold, finding that a relative, Fritz Wolff, was deported to Auschwitz in 1943. He was 52, one of about 1,715 people on the train.

In his memory, she requested a Stolperstein brass plaque on the Berlin sidewalk where he lived. The event last summer brought German neighbors out of their houses, crying.

The plaques mark where a Jew last lived or left, before he or she was deported to death. “Stumbling stones” is the largest public art project in Europe.

Gold’s book, available at StolenLegacy.com, is the only book detailing the successful restitution of a building seized by the Nazis. She says it parallels the film Woman in Gold, which tells of recovering a Gustav Klimt painting.

The building, Krausenstrasse 17/18, is close to the old Checkpoint Charlie. It still stands today. The Soviet occupiers of East Berlin marked it as belonging to a Jewish owner, which aided Gold’s later quest to prove it belonged to her family.

For other resources on Holocaust memory, murder and theft, Gold suggests several sources.

» The Holocaust Museum: The First Person Program may be of interest.

» The International Tracing Service

» The World Jewish Restitution Organization

» The Holocaust Claims Processing Office in New York

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. The opinions expressed are her own.

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