The story of Martin Greenfield, the 84-year-old, Czech-born tailor to presidents, proved particularly resonant with families touched by the Holocaust—or as in his case, devastated by it. My colleague Alice Crites and I could not have told his story so fully without records from a special archive, maintained at U.S. Holocaust Museum and Library.
Four years ago, seeing those records would have been impossible. In 2007, the museum, and other plaintiffs, won a legal case to open up a trove of records kept in Bad Arolsen, Germany, and administered by the government there. Before the suit, if survivors or their family members sought a record, they would receive only a summary of what the archive contained, not the actual documents.
Now, in Washington and at sites in 10 other countries, archivists are standing by, ready to fulfill requests to see digital scans of horrifying paperwork. Through the new International Tracing Service Archive, citizens have access to 100 million documents on 17 million people. (In addition, Greenfield and others in his path to freedom gave moving video testimonials for The Shoah Project, which can be viewed at the library.)
The documents proved haunting. But what’s so scary about a piece of paper? Above all, the 30 or so we found on Greenfield demonstrated the precise record-keeping of highly premeditated mass murder. The systemization of hatred is evident in every entry in these documents, even in something as mundane as a folder with a checklist of what’s inside it. In many months of looking over documents that pertain to Greenfield, I saw the meticulous handwriting of registrars, who noted the boy’s birthday (August 9, 1928), his hometown (Pavlovo, now in Ukraine), and his assignments inside a concentration camp. The bureaucrats were taking better care of the papers than the prisoners.
Steven Vitto, a 22-year veteran of the museum, did the search for Martin Greenfield’s documents, using some key details. His name was Maxmilian Grunfeld back then. We knew roughly when he entered Auschwitz, when he left, and when he entered Buchenwald. It was late enough in the war that records in the first camp were either less detailed, written in a hurry, or destroyed. Vitto said that the Russians who liberated Auschwitz didn’t have the same success in preserving documents as the Americans who freed Buchenwald.
Since Martin/Max was in both places, Vitto had good luck in finding papers related to the boy’s time in the latter camp. For instance, a document marked with the boy’s tattoo number from Auschwitz — A4406 — and signed by his shaky hand purports to record his personal effects for safekeeping. But the “Effektenkarte” is blank. After all, Martin/Max arrived at Buchenwald after a grueling forced march out of Auschwitz and then a train ride in an open car, where passengers lit fires to keep warm. The boy arrived, in other words, emptyhanded.
His name is listed in Block 58, a barrack that housed new prisoners in that January of 1945. During the Allied occupation of Germany, Martin/Max appears again in records, written in German and English. There’s one chilling answer to a question about “reason for arrest”: the one word response is “Jew.” Mind you, that was written by an American clerk interpreting the German reason, but it’s no less chilling and no less true.
This is a 5-minute video that explains what Vitto and his colleagues do:
Below are some of the documents provided by the Holocaust Museum.
This is a site for anyone to many research requests for documents on Holocaust survivors and victims.
Martin Greenfield never maintained recoreds of his own. He knows some big names among his tailoring clients, here in D.C. and all over the country, but as the suit-selling was often done through Brooks Brothers and Neiman Marcus, he doesn’t really know who are the tens of thousands of men he measured. If you know one, or are one, we would love to know your experience: firstname.lastname@example.org