ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A steamer trunk. Banquet table cloths. A nearly 160-year-old dollhouse.
As aging Holocaust survivors living around the United States age, they are slowly donating to museums everyday personal items that advocates say shed light on their plight in Nazi Germany.
The donated items are some of the survivors’ last physical links to the Holocaust, and they don’t want them collecting dust in attics and basements when they could be used to help tell a story, museum officials and curators say.
The Holocaust and Intolerance Museum of New Mexico, for example, this week will officially unveil an exhibit entitled “Hidden Treasures,” featuring a 158-year-old dollhouse owned by a German-Jewish family and hidden away during World War II.
In addition, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is offers to museum members a 2012 calendar highlighting 12 “extraordinary ordinary objects, each with an unforgettable story to tell.” Among the 12 items are a typewriter, a camera and a wedding band.
By donating items, survivors are connecting people to normal life at that time, something usually overshadowed by horrors, said Jerry Small, the New Mexico museum’s co-president.
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“These simple, everyday items represent and show a destroyed culture,” Small said. “To have these artifacts means we can show how people lived.”
Until recently, many Holocaust survivors spoke regularly to audiences and schools about their experiences in concentration camps, losing family members, living as refugees and fleeing to the United States.
But Regina Turner, founder and executive director of the New Mexico Human Rights Projects, said many survivors have passed away and only a few remain or are healthy enough to speak publicly. Seven years ago, for example, 15 Holocaust survivors took part in an Albuquerque school speakers’ series sponsored by Turner’s organization. Today, only six participate and most were young children living in hiding during the war, she said.
“This is truly the last generation,” Turner said. “Some of them have realized their mortality and they are donating what they have in order to tell their story.”
That’s what happened to Lilo Waxman, 91, of St. Louis.
In 1936, her family left Nazi Germany before the major persecution of Jews by Hitler started. They landed in New Mexico with the help of an uncle who was a major merchant in the state at the time. Her family was forced to leave many of their possessions in Germany, including a dollhouse that had been in the family for generations.
The dollhouse was hidden in a Christian friend’s attic in Germany, said Waxman, who lost family members to concentration camps. “The woman’s family didn’t even know it was there,” Waxman said in a telephone interview from her St. Louis home. “But there it was, hidden from the Nazis.”
After the war, Waxman’s family recovered the dollhouse, and she periodically showed it to friends and members of Temple Israel in St. Louis.
“But now I just can’t keep up with it, and I wanted to find a home for it,” Waxman said. “I don’t want these rooms getting lost.”
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