The Nazis and their collaborators sought to exploit Jews and strip them of their property and valuables.1 German authorities forced them to surrender belongings in ghettos and upon arrival in the Nazi camp system, profiting from the theft of Jewish property while seeking to deny Jews the means to survive or preserve their sense of humanity. Jewish people only rarely managed to hide or keep belongings of sentimental or practical significance and they did so at great risk. For some, these were personal items owned before World War II that held the memories of lost loved ones and a world destroyed by war. For others, objects kept or made during the war and its aftermath would help to maintain an identity or serve as a form of spiritual resistance. Some objects later became personal mementos or proof of Nazi crimes for future generations.2
The objects featured in this collection include items used in everyday life, artifacts created with available materials, religious objects, and objects linked to the machinery of Nazi persecution. In many cases kept by their owners for decades following the war—and often later donated to museums—these objects acquired new meanings that can be read through their physical qualities. The objects’ provenance—the history of who owned them—may be clearly explained by owners in testimonies, diaries, memoirs, and other documents. In other cases, memories or documents are too sparse and inconsistent to retrace the object's exact history. In addressing how Jewish victims of the Holocaust discuss the origins of the items they managed to save, this collection shows the intersection of material culture and memory, especially in terms of the ways in which survivors, scholars, and others ascribe meaning to objects from the past.3
Whether imprisoned in Nazi camps and ghettos, emigrating to escape persecution, or trying to survive in hiding, Jewish people saved personal items linked to memories of lost loved ones through tremendous effort and often at great risk. Margaret Hantman’s photograph of her sister Eva bears traces of folds made as Margaret hid it in her mouth after arrival at Auschwitz. The photograph not only testifies to the deep emotional importance placed on this object but also tells us about the experience of arrival at Auschwitz, a concentration camp that had multiple barracks to hold objects plundered from prisoners.4 Similarly, Hannelore Temel hid this silver friendship ring throughout her imprisonment in the Riga ghetto and several concentration camps. The ring, which was made from a silver spoon and features a detailed inscription, links the ring with a place, a time, and a particular person. This ring became a sign of their friendship and after the war, it offered Temel a means to keep the memory of her friend alive.
Jewish people who survived the Holocaust also saved items directly linked to Nazi persecution in order to document and commemorate their experiences of persecution. Preserved long after the war, these objects took on new meanings. Katie Frankfurter saved this silver-plated cup that was created through forced labor in the camp where she was imprisoned. When she had it engraved in Hebrew decades after the war, it also became a symbol of survival and an object of religious significance. William Luksenberg’s prison uniform jacket offers a window to the physical experience of life in a concentration camp: its material provided no warmth for cold weather, and its pattern marked innocent people as criminals, preventing their escape. But when he decided to save his jacket, and decades later to donate it to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the jacket became a form of evidence and testimony.5
Everyday items that normally might not appear commemorative can become linked with specific memories. In 2007, Richard Weilheimer donated to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum what might seem like an unremarkable item. However, on the eve of his son’s emigration to America and his own deportation to a Nazi camp, Richard’s father turned this notebook into a souvenir for his son. It bore the addresses of family and friends who could help Richard. This book not only traces Richard’s experience of the war and of emigration, but documents the passing of knowledge and memory from father to son. Likewise, this segment of a wooden floor from a house in a town in occupied Poland would not be noticeable when in place in the home. However, this object is actually the wooden trap door that Clara Kramer describes in her memoirs and diaries. As a central part of her memory of life in hiding in a crawl space, the Museum decided to acquire this object in 2017. The small trap door shows how a physical object can reveal tangible aspects of the experience of hiding. At the same time, it became a central feature of Kramer’s memory and a means of telling her story.6
Sources in this collection invite an exploration of Jewish memories of the war and the Holocaust through the study of material culture. Analyzing the shifting uses and intentions behind an object, changes in its appearance, and the context in which it was saved can help to establish its biography.7 The unlikely survival of these rare items presents a contrast with Jews’ common experience of losing all belongings. These objects provide glimpses of everyday, intimate struggles in which the choice to save an object can tell us much about the memories that victims of wished to preserve.8