On a recent Monday morning, David Dembowitz, 67, arrived in Washington on a drive that originated at his home in Lenox, Mass., in the Berkshire Mountains.
Riding along were his nephew Joshua, 24, and his niece Abbe, 21 — and several World War II-era items that Dembowitz was donating to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
There were original photographs taken by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, documenting the aftermath of the Nazis’ massacre of civilians in the German town of Gardelegen; a poster the Army hung throughout Ohrdruf, Germany, so residents could see images of the horror that had occurred in the concentration camp in their midst; photos showing the Army’s exhumation and dignified burial in caskets of bodies the Nazis had dumped in a mass grave near Stuttgart; a partial list of Jews deported from in and around Rouen, France; and a vinyl recording of the singing of two boys who’d survived Buchenwald and were recovering at an orphanage in Écouis, France.
All were brought to America by Dembowitz’s late father, Morris, a U.S. Army chaplain who served in Europe in 1945 and 1946.
At his stage of life, and with no children of his own to safeguard the items, Dembowitz decided that the relics required a proper home.
Many others have reached a similar conclusion.
The museum is witnessing an increase in donations of artifacts, documents and photographs related to the Holocaust — averaging four collections a week — that it hadn’t foreseen when it opened in 1993.
The trend spurred the museum two years ago to consider how best to accommodate holdings that it expects will double over the next decade.
In preparation, it will break ground April 15 on The David and Fela Shapell Family Collections and Conservation Center in Prince George’s County whose 100,000 square feet will dwarf the 40,000-square-foot space in Anne Arundel County that now serves the museum.
When the $40 million center opens in early 2017, it will include 16 separate climate-controlled areas to account for the varying materials — among them paper, textiles and plastic — being preserved; rooms for seminars; and possibly a studio for hosting Webcasts of curators discussing newly arrived collections.
Because of space limitations, museums typically exhibit only a fraction of their holdings. In the Holocaust Museum’s case, some materials not exhibited are temporarily stored on-site, including in a basement conservation lab.
For the rest, the museum has made do with the low-rise suburban warehouse it first rented as a staging area for exhibits that were headed to the as-yet-unopened museum. The warehouse evolved into a permanent storage facility, but after more than two decades’ use it is considered an inadequate repository for the present holdings and for the surge washing in. In addition, it can’t alone provide a state-of-the-art environment to preserve the items long after the people intimately linked to them are gone.
The ranks of survivors and their liberators, a full 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, are thinning markedly. And their children are hardly spring chickens themselves.
A report by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany estimated that 127,300 Jewish victims of Nazism resided in the United States in 2010 and that by 2020 the number would drop by about half, to 67,100, with 57 percent of those being age 85 and older.
The march of time, said museum officials, appears to be impressing upon victims, liberators and their children the importance of addressing the future of their precious, personal keepsakes.
And while a museum’s building a new storage facility is hardly flashy, the circumstances underlying this project are unique.
“It really is a moment of transition because of the eventual loss of the eyewitness generation,” said the Holocaust Museum’s director, Sara J. Bloomfield. “Our ability to collect over time is going to diminish. Time is the enemy.”
Along with receiving items that have been donated, the museum is being proactive. Its “Rescue the Evidence” program is publicizing the collection effort and sending curators across the country and worldwide.
No less important is learning the objects’ roles in their donors’ lives and even in their survival, information imbuing each object with a personal history that otherwise would go unknown, Bloomfield said.
As she witnessed her uncle explain the provenance of what he was handing over to museum officials, Abbe Dembowitz said, she gained insight into her grandfather, who died in 2006, when Abbe was 12.
The museum’s future visitors who gaze upon the pictures her grandfather kept, look at the poster, read the names on the list and listen to the two orphaned boys singing — a 1946 recording her grandfather hired an Amsterdam man to make — will be able “to connect on a personal level, as opposed to just learning it in a textbook,” she said.
Scott Miller, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs, said, “We’re obviously in a race against the clock to get the stories from the survivors.
“They’re facing their own mortality,” he added. “I’m convinced that survivors are more willing to part with their items than they were 20 years ago.”
The trend is apparent in Israel, too. Yad Vashem, the world’s preeminent Holocaust-commemoration institution, will next year begin building a collection/conservation center that, at 54,820 square feet, will be about 20 percent larger than its current one. From 2011 to mid-2014, the Jerusalem museum received 125,000 donated items, compared with 45,400 in the prior three-year period, said Estee Yaari, a Yad Vashem spokeswoman.
In 2011, it launched a campaign it calls “Gathering the Fragments,” announcing visits to cities and towns throughout Israel where survivors can meet the museum’s curators.
The campaign, said Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev, has helped convince survivors that what they’d kept during the Holocaust and lovingly held onto required a more permanent home.
Previously, “it was very difficult for them, emotionally, to part with the items they had from the Shoah,” Shalev said, using the Hebrew word for Holocaust. Now, “they’re afraid that the items will not be kept by the second generation, will not be preserved in a professional way and will be lost.
“People are ready to give and to share. We had to accelerate the process because they’re passing away. We’re opening our hands, and they’re opening their hearts.”
Shalev mentioned an academician he knows who recently gave Yad Vashem the comb his late mother used as an Auschwitz inmate. The man, 78, had considered the comb a family member he couldn’t surrender, Shalev said.
Something similar occurred in the case of Channette Alexander.
In 2001, she visited Washington’s Holocaust Museum, lugging two boxes of images taken by her late father, Charles Alexander, who’d been assigned by the U.S. Army to photograph the Nuremberg Trials in 1945 and 1946. A crowd of museum employees gathered to view the pictures she showed. The staff was interested in procuring the photographs, but Alexander wasn’t yet ready to yield them.
Judith Cohen, a photo archivist who’s now director of the museum’s photographic reference collection, supplied Alexander with protective sleeves for the images and urged her to store the photographs in acid-free boxes. The experts’ appreciation of the photographs’ historical importance, and their concern for their condition, made an impression.
Now 66 and the head of the University of Kansas’s engineering library, Alexander recalls something else: the seriousness with which researchers visiting the museum’s library that day were treated by staff members and volunteers.
She eventually concluded that the museum’s research and digital capabilities would make her father’s work broadly available to scholars.
So as 2015 began, Alexander kept busy in her Lawrence, Kan., home, packing boxes to ship to Washington. They contained more than 300 photographs her father had taken at the trial, plus newspaper articles and even an album of photographs snapped at her parents’ wedding ceremony in Switzerland, where they worked as journalists after the war.
“As a librarian, I know the value of researching original objects,” Alexander said of her decision to donate the materials to the museum.
Ruth Thaler-Carter, a resident of Rochester, N.Y., contacted the museum, too. She was seeking a permanent home for family documents, including the Austrian passports belonging to her late parents when they emigrated, separately, to America in 1938 and 1946.
With no children of her own, Thaler-Carter, 61, said she wanted “to hand off this paperwork to the museum because it shows what one family went through to survive the Holocaust.”
There’s one piece of paper tied to the Thalers’ exodus that won’t end up in the new conservation center. That’s because the document no longer exists, a fact that hardly detracts from a moving family story that might someday make it onto a museum wall’s explanatory text. It was the Nazi-issued affidavit her grandfather, Heinrich Thaler, a physician, was forced to sign in Vienna in 1938, pledging that his family would never return to Europe.
In the summer of 1969, Heinrich’s son and daughter-in-law, Otto Thaler and Elizabeth Rothruther Thaler, along with their children — Thaler-Carter and her brothers Rick and David — flew from their home in New York to vacation in Switzerland. The quintet landed in Zurich, and in the airport terminal, Otto Thaler grasped his father’s copy of the affidavit. Amid the throng of travelers, he set it afire.
‘Thaler has brought his family to Europe. Take that, you sons of b------,” Thaler-Carter recalled her father announcing loudly.
“Of course, we were horribly embarrassed at the time, but ever since then we’ve been proud of him for it,” she said. “I wish we had a copy of that document or a photograph of [the scene]. It was just wonderful.”
Kuttler is a freelance writer.