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Heirlooms back in Germany for 'new' Holocaust remembrance

(AFP)

An 80-year-old blonde baby doll called Inge. A hand-carved Torah scroll case that survived a concentration camp. A beloved piano that joined a German Jewish family in exile.

Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial has for the first time in its 70-year history lent prized possessions from its permanent collection to Germany, for an exhibition opening on Tuesday in Berlin.

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The 16 family heirlooms, one from each German state, bear witness to individual survivors and victims of the Nazis’ campaign to wipe out European Jewry.

Lore Mayerfeld, 85, was just a toddler when her grandparents gave her the doll she describes as a “parting gift” as her Jewish family fled Kassel, Germany for the United States.

“The pyjama that she’s wearing is the pyjama that I wore on Kristallnacht,” Mayerfeld told AFP, referring to the November 1938 pogrom.

“My father was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. My mother and I were hidden that night by neighbours and in the meantime the Nazis came in and destroyed our home. And outside of course the synagogues burned, the stores were broken into, the glass shattered. It was a difficult night, it was the start of things to come.”

Mayerfeld and her mother were able to join her father in the United States in 1941, but only learned after the war that her grandparents and several aunts, uncles and cousins had been murdered by the Nazis.

– ‘Happy hour’ for deniers –

Now living in Jerusalem, she said she never allowed her children to play with Inge “because she’s breakable”. The family eventually decided she belonged at Yad Vashem. 

She felt it was essential to make the journey back to Germany while she still had the strength.

“It’s a very emotional trip, I’m kind of reliving my story,” she said.

“The whole world has not learned the lesson (from the Holocaust) and that is very sad. There are those who deny it even happened. My generation, when we pass on, who’s going to be here to tell the story?”

Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan told AFP it was key to find new ways of connecting with younger generations as the “post-survivors era” of Holocaust remembrance looms.

“I’m afraid that it will be the happy hour of the denialist, of the distortionist of the Shoah. And therefore we have to prepare now the ground to confront it,” he said. 

“I never forget that six million Jews were never able to sit down in front of the camera and give their testimony. Their objects, their documents, their photographs — these are their testimonies.”

The lovingly engraved Torah Ark, which represents Hamburg in the exhibition, was handmade in 1939 by Jewish World War I veteran Leon Cohen.

When he, his wife Adele and two children were sent to the Theresienstadt camp, Leon took his treasured case with him. Before the entire family was deported in Auschwitz in 1944, Leon left the Torah Ark for safekeeping with a friend, Henrietta Blum.

While Blum and the artifact survived, the Cohen family perished.

– ‘Miracle’ –

The piano at the centre of the exhibition belonged to the Margulies family of textile traders from Chemnitz.

Many of its members went into hiding as the Nazis’ noose tightened around them, but soon realised escape was the only option. They boarded a ship for Haifa in 1939 and eventually arrived in Palestine. 

Their beloved piano arrived days later in a shipping container, thanks to arrangements made by their 15-year-old son Shlomo. The family eventually donated it to Yad Vashem in thanks for their survival.

“With these objects, you start to imagine how these people who felt completely German were slowly ripped out of the heart of German society,” said Ruth Ur, who curated the exhibition in Berlin’s government quarter which runs until February 17 before heading to Essen in western Germany. 

She called the piano’s journey a kind of “miracle” and part of a “new way of telling stories” about the Holocaust.

“That boy (Shlomo) is still alive today at the age of 99,” she added. “And that is wonderful.”

Deborah COLE

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