Readers explain their refugee heirlooms
- 18 November 2013
- From the section Magazine
A recent Magazine article discussed the items that refugees take with them when forced to leave their homes. Readers responded by sharing their stories behind some of their family heirlooms.
Earlier this year, a collection of 1,500 artworks looted by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s was found in Munich, Germany. The news was made public earlier this month.
Some were seized from Jewish families, but the BBC's David Mazower pointed out in his story that most European Jews had no such riches and were left with very few reminders of their pre-war lives.
Below are some readers' examples of items salvaged as they or their relatives were forced to flee persecution or conflict.
Isabelle Rozenbaumas, US: My mother rarely referred to the extermination of her neighbours, classmates, and friends from childhood and adolescence spent in Telz [Lithuania]. When the Nazis assaulted Lithuania, her father was able to escape with all the family because he was a carriage driver. My mother has kept three class photographs from that past time [above and at the top]. The faces of several of her classmates and teachers appear there. She still remembered some of their names in the last years of her life. Thanks to her memory I was able to begin this project [about the history and culture of Lithuanian Jewry], and two years ago found 486 files of documents of her school, the Gymnasium Yavne. I am now developing an exhibition. What I discovered was a zenith of Jewish education for girls, combining high religious standards with excellence in all the secular subject matters. My mother passed away in August and I consider myself as privileged, blessed and also responsible for this precious legacy.
Julian Glowinski, Le Bar sur Loup, France: My grandmother, father and uncle were deported from Eastern Poland to Siberia in early 1940. The [Communist secret police] NKVD arrived at 4am and gave my grandmother 30 minutes to pack for "a journey". "Where are we going?" "You'll find out soon enough," was the reply. Amazingly she managed to get the Soviets to load a Singer sewing machine onto the cattle track that was to be her and her sons' home for two weeks. This machine, together with ball gowns, came to save their lives, as she managed to convert the gowns into wedding dresses in the camp in exchange for food. A trunk, without the gowns, originally bought in Paris in 1938, finally made it back when I moved to the "City of Light" [Paris] from London in 1990, it having travelled with my grandmother through Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt as she moved with the Polish Core of the Eighth Army. A much-travelled heirloom.
Rocio, Sweden: My parents came to Sweden from Chile as political refugees in the 80s during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. My father, because of his political beliefs, brought with him a book about communism in a Latin American context. My mother, because of her Catholic faith, brought with her a Bible given to her on her First Communion. Although my parents sometimes have very different perspectives on society they always unite over the love for their home country. So a miniature Chilean flag made of silk on a brass flag pole was also brought to Sweden. I believe that the books and the flag define who they are and represent what is important to them in times of need.
Elke Duffy, California, US: My mother, brother, sister and myself had to flee the city of my birth, Konigsberg in East Prussia, in January 1945. My mother knew there was very little we would be able to take with us before the Russian army would overtake us. We had to leave everything behind, except for a few photos and a couple of beautiful amber necklaces that my mother had made from amber that my older sister and I had found on the beaches of the Baltic, not too far from our home. That is all we had left, except for the clothes on our backs.
Ludmila Rockwell, Massachusetts, US: I am going to be 90 in a month! I live in New England with my parrot. When I was 16 the Germans were about to invade Paris, where I lived with my parents. We packed up and left overnight. When the moment came to jump in the car and go I had hidden a little parakeet inside my coat so my father would not see it. After a few miles I let him peek, my father saw it but did not make any comment. After a few days we were given a barn to sleep in, in the Poitou area. Farmers had taken pity, fed us and kept us for a month. When it was time to leave again to take the train to go to Spain, and from Spain to New York, I gave my little bird to the daughter of the farmer. She found a little cage for it and hung it in her window.
Leslie Melnick, Utah, US: My grandparents left Russia and Poland (as Jewish refugees) in the early 20th Century. I don't know what treasures, if any, that they all were able to take. The one treasure that I know of, handed down to me, by my mother, is a very heavy mortar and pestle, which my maternal great-grandmother brought from Warsaw. It is handed down through the female line. My assumption is she was a practical woman who wanted to be able to grind spices and food for her family. I see it as my legacy. From my father's side I have my grandmother's Sabbath candle holders. I do not know if they were acquired in the US by my great grandmother, or brought from Poland, but I know those treasures were also valued.
Claire Kulagowski, East Lothian, UK: My father was 17 when the Nazis invaded Poland: he escaped and eventually made it to Britain, when he became one of the early members of the First Polish Parachute Brigade and took part in the liberation of Europe. He never saw a single member of his family ever again, as it was impossible to return to Poland after the war. My earliest memories are of a small silver rose attached to the wristband of his watch. It was a holy medal of St Therese of Liseux, and along with two or three photographs, this was the sum total he had managed to carry with him in the long journey across occupied Europe. Today, I have that holy medal - it is one of my most cherished possessions. I have a tattoo in memory of my father. It depicts the diving eagle of the First Polish Parachute Brigade, along with the motto "tobie ojczyzno " - for thee, my country. In the end, all my dad had left to remember Poland was a silver rose and a couple of photographs. Everything else was lost and could never be recovered.
Michael Kneisel, Fulda, Germany: My grandfather with his family were refugees too. In 1946 the family were thrown out of their house in Danzig by Polish occupiers. The beating and raping was horrible, as I in my later years discovered. But nobody cares about that because we lost the war. The family saved some photographs. One in particular is a photo of the deathbed of my great-grandmother inside the old house in Danzig in 1940. Why is it special? It is the only known picture from inside our house. And so I sometimes look at it and imagine how the rest of the house was like. Of course it is a sad picture and it may be kind of weird to take a photo of a dead person at home nowadays. But at that time it was common.
Herbert Francl, Banyoles, Spain: [We took] absolutely nothing. First, we were dirt poor. Further, to get on this Red Cross train for children was so hard, no further thoughts but longing for safety. I was seven or eight before I got my first toy. Didn't know what to do with it.
Alfred Fiks, Escazu, Costa Rica: Treasures my mother and I took with us from our home in Berlin to Paris, in the summer of 1939 on one of the last trains to make that run (WWII began on 1 September, 1939) were: Old family photos, my Berlin birth and vaccination certificates and the postcard that saved our life. [It was] received from the French Consulate in Berlin dated May 1939 (complete with swastika postmark) advising my mother and her son (me) to appear at their offices to be issued the coveted visas to France, valid for two months. Needless to say these visas were very difficult to obtain at that time and only happened through the intervention of Leon Blum, then prime minister of France.
Ian Carr-de Avelon, Wroclaw, Poland: In 1945, my wife's grandfather was forced onto a train in Lwow (then Poland, now Ukraine) with his wife (both of them afraid they would be exposed as self-employed and shot as capitalists) and their two children. He chose to take his camping stove and his daughters now think he was an idiot. If I was in his position, I would do the same. "Ian! Wherever you are, there is always a way to make a fire and cook. Any group of people will always look after the children first. We should have photographs, we should have our family bible, all we have got is a Primus stove."
Howard Cohn, Connecticut, US: My father, August Cohn, a political opponent of the Nazi rise to power in Germany, was arrested in February 1933 and spent the next 12 years in Nazi prisons and concentration camps, including Esterwegen, Sachsenhausen, Dachau, and Buchenwald. He was a leading member of the underground resistance in all of these camps, which, along with his courage and strength allowed him to survive all those years. My father did not take much from the camps, but he did take a few "mementos". These include his red triangle designating him as a political prisoner, his camp number badge, a scalpel from the typhus barracks in Buchenwald where he worked and was hidden prior to liberation and a handkerchief from a close friend of his who had been murdered in front of him by the SS in Dachau. I have had those few "keepsakes" he brought out of the camps mounted with a description of what they were and what they meant to him. These are the treasures that my family retain, so as never to forget what he went through or the manner in which he conducted himself during that ordeal (he once volunteered to take 25 lashes in place of a man who he did not think would have survived that punishment).
Sylvia Rowlands, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: My maternal grandparents fled from The Ukraine to the East End of London at the turn of the 20th Century. They brought with them a brass samovar and some silver Kiddush beakers, which I have. I also have a letter of reference for my grandfather, recommending him to a future employer. My paternal grandparents fled from Lithuania to Newcastle, also in the early 1900s. My great-grandfather was a coppersmith and I have a saucepan he made and one of my cousins has a kettle. All these items are very precious to us.
Frank David Gutmann, Colorado, US: We left Germany in 1937 to immigrate to the US. Our family consisted of my mother, father and their two sons, the latter both being born in Nazi Germany. My father saw the handwriting on the wall in 1935 and it took him two years to arrange our emigration from Nazi Germany in a timely fashion with all our family possessions and savings discounted by 75%. For my father who cared relatively little about worldly possessions, the most prized "possession" he brought to the US was the knowledge that he had saved his immediate family from tyranny to raise his boys to be fine amateur musicians and athletes in their youth, and physicians in adulthood. For my mother, the trove of household possessions we were able to bring with us, which included books, china, silverware, furniture, clothes and the like, were all important. However, the most prized possession she emigrated with was a small photograph of my father's three nieces. Perhaps they were her surrogate daughters she never conceived. Their names were subsequently immortalised in "Stolpersteine" (literally translated as "tumbling blocks" that are small, cobblestone-sized memorials) embedded in the sidewalk in Regensburg, Germany in front of their residence from which they and their parents were deported and exterminated in Piaski, Poland in 1942.
Tamar Eskin, Maryland, US: My mother was from Zamocz, Poland. The only possessions she kept throughout the war was a doctor's bag (her grandfather's) that served as her suitcase and unbelievably, some photographs she found in a pile of photographs at a railway station, which she recognised as belonging to her cousins (they and others were forced to leave them behind). These are the only items that survived the war. We still have the treasured bag and miraculously, the photographs were returned to her cousins who had managed to survive.
Carol Newborg, Albany, California, US: When my grandfather had to leave Poland (then Russia) due to pogroms, after conscription in Siberia, he brought his professional fabric scissors. Someone else from his family brought their only items of value - a pair of very thin hammered silver shabbat candlesticks and a silver kiddush cup. I still have all of these. My grandfather never made much money, but ran a tailor/furrier shop in Chicago. The family of five lived in one room behind the store.
Andy Zdan-Michajlowicz, Potters Bar, UK: My father, his sister and father were taken from Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania, and put on a train to the interior of the USSR in 1941, like millions of other Poles and Eastern Europeans, and indeed Soviet citizens too. Many died of hunger, thirst, cold and disease on the way. Amongst the few possessions my grandfather was able to take was a German-Russian dictionary, although he spoke both languages fluently. It was a remarkable act of pragmatic foresight and a strong grasp of geopolitical realities. However, in the end, it wasn't of great use as they were finally able to settle in the UK after the war.
Juan Sepulveda, Heredia, Costa Rica: When I left Pinochet's Chile, at 22, I took my bunch of rock 'n' roll LPs. My parents brought the family photo albums. My sister Marcela, though, we couldn't find her, and she is still on the "desaparecidos" list.
Richard Schmidt, London, UK: My father left Frankfurt am Main on 3 July 1939, two months before war was declared. His parents sent him away with a household's linen, as the plan was that they would follow, but they never did. They also entrusted the family photograph albums to him. Everything else was lost, but I still have a couple of feather beds and the photo albums. I recognise some of the characters in them from when my father tried to tell me about them - an activity we would now call bonding with me, but which didn't have a name then. Maybe I should have spent more time with my father, to let him explain who was who, and where the pictures were taken. But that's my link with my father's ancestors. I wonder what my children will do with them.