The elderly men and women trickled in one by one, carrying physical scraps of memory: yellowing letters and postcards, old photos, personal belongings and frayed documents left behind by relatives who lived through the Holocaust.
At tables set up in a senior citizens home in this coastal city, the visitors talked as interviewers listened and took notes. The stories swirled through the room — told in Hebrew, Russian and Yiddish, conjuring up the painful past as pictures and papers were carefully passed back and forth, examined, read and registered.
The scene unfolded at a collection day organized this week by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial center, as part of a national campaign to find and preserve materials from that period that are scattered in homes across the country. Since its launch in April, the project, called “Gathering the Fragments,” has accumulated more than 33,000 items, including diaries, art works, personal belongings, letters and photographs.
Israel has the largest population of Holocaust survivors of any country — some 200,000 — and organizers say they are in a race against time to locate the items while aging survivors can still tell the stories behind them.
“We consider this as a last-minute rescue operation, to pass on the story to the next generation,” said Haim Gertner, the archives director of Yad Vashem.
Although many items from the Holocaust years have been discarded over time by people unaware of their significance, the campaign is an opportunity to recover materials that have been saved by survivors and their children, Gertner said.
To preserve what remains, the items brought to collection points across Israel are examined on-site by a team of Yad Vashem staff and volunteers who interview the donors and evaluate the materials and scan them for digital documentation. The materials are then added to the Yad Vashem collection in Jerusalem, conserved, catalogued and made digitally accessible. Organizers say items of special interest could be considered for public display.
On Monday in Netanya, Mendel Roizman, an 82-year-old emigrant from the former Soviet Union, handed over two items left by his father, who was sent to a labor camp in Nazi-occupied Ukraine in 1943 and survived the war. They were a Yom Kippur prayer book and phylacteries, the small leather boxes containing parchment strips of Hebrew Scripture worn by Jewish men during morning worship.
“I kept these for years and brought them to Israel, and I want them preserved for the next generations, so they won’t end up on the street,” Roizman said in Russian, his words interpreted by the Yad Vashem interviewer, who examined the items with gloved hands.
Yisrael Zvi Halevy, a 61-year-old school principal, produced a letter sent by his father in 1945 to a sister in Jerusalem informing her that he had survived the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. Halevy said he could not part with the letter, written from a hospital days after the camp’s liberation, but he was happy to have it scanned for the Yad Vashem archives.
Although he handed over other documents and copies of photos salvaged from the family home in Hungary after the war, Halevy said he had not brought phylacteries found and used by his father in Dachau, because they were too precious to give up, and his children had promised to safeguard them. Still, he said, bringing the materials to Yad Vashem “will benefit the Jewish people and refute the Holocaust deniers.”
Sara Peled, 65, a retired teacher, grew tearful after handing over a sheaf of family papers, including her father’s report cards from a Jewish school in Poland — documents in Hebrew that testified to the vibrant Jewish life in the country before the war. Peled’s father immigrated to British-ruled Palestine before the Nazi invasion of Poland, but the rest of her relatives who stayed behind perished in death camps, and she brought albums filled with their pictures.
“I feel like I’m giving up part of me,” she said, “but I discussed it with my children, and it’s better that it be preserved for generations to come.”
Natan Rom, 82, who escaped the Nazi occupation of Poland and, after a tortuous journey through the Soviet Union and Iran, reached Palestine with other orphaned children in 1943, handed over an autograph book signed by fellow child refugees. “I’m leaving the most precious thing I have,” he said, “but it shows that this once happened.”
Gertner, the Yad Vashem archivist, said that donors described a sense of closure and even relief at having unburdened themselves of items that evoked painful memories, but he said they also voiced confidence that the objects were in safe hands. With its vast Holocaust database, library and research tools, Yad Vashem could enhance the understanding of these materials, he said.
“These items connect us with the stories of individuals,” he said. “Through our documentation, we can link them to the bigger story and give them meaning.”