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Racing to collect New England Holocaust artifacts and research family histories in Vermont

US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Niusia Gordon’s false papers; her parents’ marriage registration; photos kept in hiding; postwar photos; three postcards sent to Niusia by her mother, Basia, from the Vilna ghetto; and the violin of Boruch Gordon, who was murdered in 1943 by the Nazis and their collaborators in the Ponary forest near Vilna, Lithuania.

Six million Jewish people were victims of the Holocaust. During World War II, Nazi Germany, its allies and collaborators killed nearly two out of three European Jews and millions of others. Those who survived are now in their 80s.

On March 9, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. is offering a free live virtual program to Vermont and New England residents about opportunities to preserve their family's Holocaust history. VPR's Mary Engisch spoke with Zachary Levine, the museum's director of archival and curatorial affairs, about the urgency to collect survivor stories. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: The museum is asking to rescue Holocaust survivor stories specifically from folks in our region. Why Vermont and New England states? Can you tell us more about that?

Zachary Levine: So, in terms of the Vermont and the Northeast region, we have been collecting since before the museum opened. And we do have a handful of materials that have come from there. And we're canvassing now to get more.

We've collected from the Northeast in the past, but this is the first time that we're making a really concerted effort for the entire Northeast. From Vermont, we've collected from 31 donors in the past and acquired 46 different collections. You know, if you take in all the papers, the film, oral histories, it’s about a little over 100 all together. And this is similar for Maine, New Hampshire and a bit more for Massachusetts.

More from VPR: Survivors And Witnesses: Vermonters Commemorate The Jewish Holocaust

But you know, this is a major resource. We hope to tell the stories of survivors and victims from the families that live in the region now. When the survivors are no longer able to share their stories themselves, the artifacts and the collections that we have will be the most authentic teachers of that history. This becomes critically important as the truth of the Holocaust is increasingly under assault.

So, how will this work? How will you go about collecting and then preserving survivor stories?

So, the museum collects artifacts, films, photographs, documents and much, much more to create this collection of evidence of the Holocaust.

The March 9 program — which is going to be a live, virtual event — is designed specifically for the New England region. This event is going to include a number of staff from the museum from our National Institute for Holocaust Documentation, including curators and representatives from our Holocaust survivors and victims resource center.

In both cases, they will present materials from our collection, and talk about the types of resources that we offer for survivors and their descendants so they can learn about this history and its impact on their families and their place within this history. And so what we ask them to do is to consider donating their family’s objects from this era.

The event will be fascinating. It's going to provide audiences with a glimpse into the incredible materials that we have in our collection, as well as the wonderful resources that families can utilize to discover their own history, their place within that history and to learn much more about this history, and its parallels in the present.

So, you're giving Vermonters the opportunity to donate artifacts to the museum. I'm curious how that works, especially for some survivors who haven't spoken to their families about the Holocaust.

These are incredibly difficult conversations to have, for many. Survivors that are still with us are in their 80s, and our role in the museum is to really be a resource for them to answer questions sometimes about their own story. We have stories of survivors and their descendants that see themselves in our collection. That comes to us frequently.

Can you reveal more about how the pandemic has made it either more difficult or easier to continue this work of collecting artifacts?

The collecting never stopped. And in fact, as the people went into their houses and found time to go through what they had collected over the course of their life, we received even more offers. On average, we take in about two collections a day. We are offered many more on a daily basis.

Our oral history archive, in particular, has really grown by leaps and bounds in this period. The oral history collection is one of the largest and most diverse collections of Holocaust testimony in the world. And even during the pandemic, the museum has had one of its most productive years. In fact, we've collected well over 400 interviews during this period of time from survivors and witnesses, both in North America as well as in Europe.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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