Search for displaced Holocaust kids seen in photos

August 6, 2011 - 9:43 AM
What The Children Remember

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 7, 2011 AND THEREAFTER - This undated image provided in 2011 by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum shows Zoltan Farkas. Farkas had endured two concentration camps. A labor camp where the weak were dispatched to the gas chambers. Near starvation. Lice. The threat of beatings. The horror of watching inmates hanged for petty infractions. He and his brother, Erwin, agreed when they could no longer go on, “‘we’d lie down together so we could die together” - knowing they’d be shot if they stopped working. (AP Photo/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

There are girls with ribbons in their hair, boys in short pants or wool jackets (one even wears a discarded Hitler Youth uniform). There are teens and toddlers. There are kids who look happy, sad, scared, tense and relieved — greatly relieved.

There are few hints in the photos, aside from some weary eyes or bony arms, of the hardships they endured to get to this moment: hiding in strangers' homes, stealing scraps of bread to survive, gasping for air in cramped cattle cars.

These are children who'd come through the fire, survivors of the Holocaust photographed by social service agencies across Europe soon after World War II. There are more than 1,100 pictures, long stashed away and forgotten in the mists of history.

Until now.

More than 65 years later, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is reaching out around the world to find the people in these extraordinary photos. It has posted the pictures online and spread the word that the search is on.

The plan is to preserve their stories, fill in some gaps of history — and then have them step before the camera once again.

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Theodore Meicler recognized his 8-year-old self immediately: the thatch of dark brown hair, the unsmiling eyes, the distant look that concealed his sorrow. He had never seen the post-war photo — but one glance resurrected the pain.

"It brought me back to a time where I didn't know what was happening to me. I didn't know where I was going or who was going to feed me tomorrow," he says. "It definitely made me very sad for the loss ... and very angry for the damage that was done to me."

Meicler was just 4 years old when his father was arrested. He still remembers the coats the Gestapo agents wore when they took his dad away, and the dark bread his mother packed for him before saying goodbye.

For half the war, the young Theo hid in his native Belgium, shuttling from place to place: A farm. A mansion. A Jesuit school. The home of a family friend.

His mother and younger brother had taken refuge separately in other homes. They reunited when the war ended. By then, his father had died in Auschwitz.

In the decades that followed, Meicler built a life, first in Israel, then in America. He married twice, had three children, bought an upholstery company in Texas and is now retired.

He was surprised to receive an email from the Holocaust museum this spring, asking two questions: Was he the boy in the attached photo? If so, would he share his story?

Yes, he would. Meicler, now 73 and mostly bald, even joked about his photo in a Facebook posting: "This is me indeed with more hair and less wrinkles."

Beneath the humor, though, there are emotional scars. Meicler says he was a moody, rebellious young man, angry even until his 50s when he confronted his mother, accusing her of abandoning him and his brother during the war.

"She said, 'I was 26 years old with two small children. I didn't know where to turn. I did the best I could in order to protect the both of you.' That," he recalls, "was a turning point for me."

He understood her ordeal. But haunting memories remain, along with his photo.

"There are not very many pictures where I look happy ...," he says. "I haven't been happy for most of my life."

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More than 1 million children died in the Holocaust. Tens of thousands of others were uprooted, temporarily or permanently. Some watched as their parents were taken away, never to be seen again.

Some Jewish children were whisked off to live with Christian families on farms or in villages; some retreated to convents. Occasionally, they adopted new identities. Others were forced to fend for themselves on the streets or in forests. Those old and strong enough to work sometimes ended up in concentration camps.

Many didn't talk about these experiences, not even decades later with their own children. But now that they're in their twilight years, the Holocaust museum decided the time was right to harness social media to find them — and collect their stories.

The museum launched Twitter and Facebook campaigns and placed newspaper ads targeting Jewish and Polish readers in Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and New York.

The effort is called "Remember Me?" — the question mark underscores the public appeal for information about the photos. But as the people in the pictures started coming forward, the title assumed a new meaning, says Jude Richter, a historian at the museum's Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center.

"Instead of being a question," he says, "it's more an imperative: 'You WILL remember me. You WILL remember what happened to me and tell it to other people when I'm gone.'"

History usually comes from government documents or accounts from adults, but "now we're seeing it from a child's eye view," Richter says. "You're hearing from a child who may have been taken away from his mother or a father who placed him in hiding. We're understanding what this means to children who weren't able to grasp what was going on."

Most of the photos were taken from 1945 to 1947 and come from the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives. The bulk of nearly 170 others from Kloster Indersdorf, then a displaced Jewish children's home in Bavaria, belong to the Holocaust museum's collection. Those kids are shown holding placards with their names to help reconnect them with loved ones.

When the museum first posted the photos, no one knew what to expect.

Then, within 48 hours, a man from Paris sent an email. He had examined a photo of a leery-looking toddler with a thick banana curl atop his head.

"C'est moi," he declared.

Since then, about 180 children have been identified from the U.S., Canada, France, Italy, Scotland, Belgium, Hungary, Switzerland, Israel, England and Australia. (About 10 are dead, including Jerzy Kosinski, author of "The Painted Bird," who committed suicide in 1991.)

The website has attracted more than 61,500 visitors from 150 countries, including amateur sleuths and others offering tips on possible variations in the spelling of names or clues to someone's whereabouts.

One Canadian Holocaust survivor has been a tremendous resource, tracking down dozens of children, then providing the museum with their email addresses and phone numbers.

Five museum workers conduct interviews — so far they've been done in English, French and Hebrew. The interviews, Richter says, are a delicate balancing act.

"You're trying to learn about this person and trying to be comforting ... and at the same time, you're the ones stirring up what's causing them the most pain," he says. "One person said (to a colleague), 'I've spent my whole life trying to forget this and now you want me to remember?'"

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Bernard Icore recalls little about his turbulent childhood.

Born a year after France fell to the Germans, he was far too young to understand why he and his sister had to hide. Everything about his life then is vague. "I don't want to remember or I can't seem to remember," he says. "I don't know if it's purposely or subconsciously."

The young Bernard, about 4 in his photo, is a playful-looking bundle with a round face, gleeful grin and sparkling eyes.

In reality, he'd already had been victimized by war. His father was deported before he was born and died at Auschwitz. Bernard and his older sister, Georgette, found sanctuary with a Christian family outside Paris for a time. His mother visited on weekends, then returned to hiding in the city.

She never remarried. "She always thought my father was going to come back," Icore says.

At 70, Icore considers his days in France a closed chapter of his life.

He's called America home since he was in his early 20s, served in the Army, became a mechanical engineer and with his wife, raised four U.S.-born sons. "It may sound strange but the time I spent during the war — it's over for me," he says. "I have eight grandchildren. Our life is here. My life is here."

Icore is not interested in Holocaust movies and books or searching for familiar faces among the photos. Finding someone now, he says, would be like connecting with a stranger.

"I know it's a period where people say 'never forget' because it could happen again," he says. "I don't think you can do much about if it does happen again but protect yourself and not let it happen the way it did."

"Even if you look at what is going on in the world today, there are always people trying to destroy other people," he adds. "This is something I don't understand. Why would one group of people be trying to annihilate another?"

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Zoltan Farkas stood solemnly for his photo, his hands clutching a placard bearing his name, his heart hoping for a miracle

His survival was amazing in itself: He'd endured two concentration camps. A labor camp where the weak were "selected" and shipped to Birkenau, where they were gassed. Near starvation. Lice. The threat of beatings. The horror of watching inmates hanged for petty infractions.

Weak and emaciated, Farkas and his brother, Erwin, finally were led on a death march to Dachau. They agreed that when they could no longer go on, "'we'd lie down together so we could die together" — knowing they'd be shot if they stopped walking.

"We felt they will never let us live," he says, "but we weren't afraid of dying."

Both, instead, were liberated by the Allies. An American soldier ordered a German POW to give Farkas his boots.

Months later, a wary-looking Farkas, then 18, was photographed at Kloster Indersdorf, the children's home. By then, he'd realized some women had survived, and he began wondering if his mother and three sisters might be alive. (He'd been separated from them when they arrived at Birkenau.)

Farkas assumed his father, who'd been arrested by Hungarian police, was dead.

Slowly, reality set in. There was no hope for any of them. "At one point," he says, "I felt physical pain at their loss."

Farkas sees his photo as a milestone. "It was like being reborn. ... I had the feeling, 'Look, I'm alive!'"

Farkas moved to America, served in the Army, earned an engineering degree and worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California.

His hair is now talcum powder white, his face creased by a lifetime, but at 83, some things are constant.

His Auschwitz prisoner number, A-7897, remains visible on his left arm.

And his brain burns with memories of labor camp inmates who "wanted to survive and tell the world what was happening. Sometimes," he says with a pause, "I'm a cynic and I think the world doesn't want to know."

For decades, Farkas saved photos of concentration camp inmates. "At the beginning, I felt I should mourn — I shouldn't separate myself," he says. Finally, he threw them away.

"I didn't want to see them. I didn't want to dwell on them," he says. "There are things, of course, I cannot throw away — and that's what's in my mind."

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Nathan Kranowski sees his frightened face, but still finds it soothing.

"Even though I know many people had stories like mine, when I see the picture, I find it comforting to know that, indeed, I wasn't alone," he says. "One of the worst things in the world when something bad happens is to think it only happened to you."

Kranowski was orphaned by age 4. His parents, Polish immigrants living in Paris, died in Auschwitz's gas chambers.

He wasn't aware of his photo until a teacher at a Virginia middle school who'd invited him to speak about his childhood — something he does regularly — alerted him. She'd stumbled across it while Googling his name.

Kranowski says when he first saw the faded image, he almost fell over. He was struck by his sadness — his watery eyes, his tremulous mouth. But the photo showing him as a tiny, red-haired little boy also gave him a sense of peace.

"The more I can picture my past and fill in the gaps, the more satisfied I am," he says. "I want to know why I am the way I am. I want to understand what happened to me, to make sense of it."

The photo, as it turns out, helped solve a personal mystery, too.

Until recently, Kranowski had known only that he'd been harbored by a Catholic couple on a farm, attended church and was called Pierre. But a French historian researching a group of Jewish children hidden in one village contacted him, through the museum, with details of his life.

He revealed that Kranowski had lived in the small village of Bais, Ille-et-Vilaine in Brittany and his protectors were the Fouchets.

"For over 60 years, I've been wondering about this," he says. "That's a long time, you know?"

Kranowski arrived in America at age 10. He became a professor, first teaching French, then accounting.

At 73 — and proud to still have some reddish hair — Kranowski is a charter member of the Holocaust museum. But surprisingly, he's never been there.

"I know all these things," he says. "I don't need to make myself suffer. If I go to the museum, it affects only me. If I speak to a group of people ... I feel like I'm really doing something worthwhile."

So he devotes part of his retirement telling school and church groups his story.

"I don't have nightmares," he says. "I never saw any atrocities. What it did to me was give me a kind of sadness that permeates me. It doesn't go away. I have a tremendous need to speak and tell people this really happened and it's not ancient history. The reason I do all this is because I don't want to forget."

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Sarah Modern Irom remembers small details about her photo.

It was taken at a portrait studio on the Boulevard de Belleville in Paris, near her family's apartment. She wore a dress with a red tie and a braid atop her head. Her baby sister was photographed, too.

Unlike most pictures on the museum's website, hers was taken during the war, probably in late 1942. Sarah was about 9, a quiet girl who loved Mozart, Beethoven and dance more than her studies. Her welcoming smile and direct gaze concealed a tumultuous childhood of bombs, sirens and roundups of Jewish men.

She, too, would go into hiding, on a farm in Normandy. In 1944, Sarah was surprised when her mother and sister arrived in the village with a new family member, a brother.

Sarah, the former schoolgirl, was a 77-year-old grandmother living in Tulsa, Okla., when she heard about the photo. She'd received an email from a nephew in Paris.

"It was a shock to see my picture," she says, her French accent still firmly intact. "I was displaced — that was it. I never talked about it. I never talked to my children about it. It was part of my life that was over. Maybe I didn't want to remember. Who knows?"

Irom chooses to deal with her past in doses.

She knew her father was deported while she was in hiding but it wasn't until about 10 or 15 years ago that she visited a small Holocaust memorial in Paris. She saw documents identifying the convoy that delivered him to Auschwitz and his name on a memorial wall.

She was stunned. "Although I knew his fate," she says, "I was staring and staring and staring. ... For many years, I kept thinking what a shame it is I had to grow up without a father. But time has gone on and ... I can talk about it as calmly as I can talk about the weather. ... If you dwell on it, you're just going to ruin whatever you have."

There are days, though, when Irom returns to history, a bit at a time.

She recently was reading two books about French Jews during the Holocaust, but had to take a break.

"I don't have the guts to go through a whole book until the end," she says. "Basically, I know the end."

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The search goes on.

From her office at the Holocaust museum in Washington, Michlean Amir collects stories from Israel. Amir, a reference coordinator, conducts Hebrew interviews. She lost relatives in concentration camps, and she knows the importance of treading lightly.

One woman revealed that as a girl, she hadn't spoken at all during the war. Another recalled a kind nurse in a youth village in Israel where she stayed after the war — amazingly, it was Amir's mother-in-law.

Amir helped reunite two "children" in Israel, 60 years after they became friends in a Paris orphanage.

And she tracked down a photo of one man's mother — taken in Belgium before she was sent to a concentration camp. He was just a year old when his mother died; he never had an opportunity to know her.

When he saw the picture, he cried.

Once the "children" stop contacting the museum, the staff will turn to ship passenger lists and other records to look for others, trying to pick up where the trail went cold.

But Amir says they've already heard many stories of resilience and success, children who've turned harrowing pasts into happy endings with families and careers as engineers, doctors, teachers — even a ballet dancer.

"The amazing thing for me is most of them established normal lives," she says. "They managed to marry, have healthy relations, have children and grandchildren. People go through much lesser trauma and are unable to function in society. I don't know — maybe it's to prove they were not defeated."

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Online:

http://www.ushmm.org/rememberme

http://www.ushmm.org/research/collections/resourcecenter/

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Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer for The Associated Press. She can be reached at features(at)ap.org.