By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
I sat in a conference room at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as Fred Traum, a man with soft eyes and a quiet manner, paged through documents he had never seen before. There was an application to the Vienna Jewish Community for financial assistance, typed and signed by his father in 1938. Also the Gestapo records of his mother and father's transportation from Vienna to Minsk in 1942, the last evidence of their existence.
It is part of an urgent effort to give a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors back a part of their past. The massive Nazi archives at Bad Arolsen, Germany, were only fully opened in 2007, and they include 100 million original records of arrests, camps, prisons, ghettos and transports. Researchers on the Holocaust Museum staff sift through digital copies of this mass of material, along with other historical sources, with the goal of returning stolen memories. (Disclosure: I sit on the museum's governing council.) For Traum, these memories began with "a pretty happy life" in a non-Jewish neighborhood of Vienna in the 1930s. Pictures show a 9-year-old "urchin" in leather shorts and knee socks. "It was like I stepped out of 'The Sound of Music,' " Traum says.
After the Anschluss -- the Nazi takeover of Austria in March 1938 -- Traum remembers German planes flying overhead on April 20, Hitler's birthday, dropping tiny swastikas "like snow coming down." He recalls how German soldiers allowed him to sit on the large gun at an emplacement down the street.
Traum becomes emotional only when recounting how his neighborhood playmates gradually turned against him after they joined Nazi youth organizations. "At first, they showed me their uniforms and the daggers they had," Traum remembers. But soon they began to shun and mock him.
"I used to come back from school by cutting through the park. One time, they pulled the school satchel from my shoulder and threw it in the grass. Back then, grass in the park was something to look at, not feel beneath your feet. When I went to get it, a policeman grabbed me, gave me a dressing-down, and took my name and address."
Placed on report by the authorities, Traum's mother was called to his elementary school. "Vienna schools were very strict. Whenever an adult entered the room, all the kids stood up out of respect. But when my mother entered the classroom, the teacher said, 'Don't stand up for her. She is a Jew,' " Traum recalls with wet eyes and fresh anger.
From such small tragedies was a Holocaust made.
The synagogue where Traum sang in the choir was burned down on Kristallnacht. In desperation, his parents sent him and his sister to England as part of the Kindertransport.
Traum only hints at the hardness of his life as a refugee. The gentile family that took him in was authoritarian, forbidding him and his sister to converse in German. After the bombings of London began, he was evacuated to the home of an emotionally abusive young couple. "I remember the woman telling me that the best thing Hitler ever did was get rid of the Jews."
Traum celebrated V-E Day in Trafalgar Square. But after seeing pictures from the death camps following their liberation, he knew his parents would not have survived. He went on with an eventful life -- joining the Israeli army when the state of Israel was declared and marrying a Holocaust survivor who had been hidden as a child by a Belgian family. He never knew the details of his parents' fate.
Until this year. In their strange, exacting bureaucratic professionalism, the Nazis kept a record of the transport of Elias Israel and Gitel Sara Traum, who left Vienna by train on June 2, 1942. His parents would have died three to five days later in Minsk. We know from witnesses that groups of men, women and children were taken to open areas, made to dig a trench, and were shot and buried. From Gestapo forms, Traum learned his parents' birthdays and the likely day of their death -- neither of which he had known before.
Museum researchers have given Traum a gift. "I don't like the word closure," he says, "because I don't have any such thing. But it is good to know something of what happened. To put a date to that, so I can commemorate their deaths."
But the greater gift is Traum's to us: the memories of a 9-year-old Austrian boy of how hate and anti-Semitism and a Holocaust begin -- with a satchel thrown in a park.