For 68 years, a faded lilac undershirt journeyed around the world with Holocaust survivor Helena Flaum. She had it in Poland, where she was born, clung to it when she was a slave laborer in Germany and in refugee camps in France and Israel, then, at last, it accompanied her to the United States.
The tattered garment is the last of three shirts made by her aunt to keep her niece warm while she was disguised as a Christian slave laborer in Germany — and is the only object remaining from her life before the war. Not a single member of Flaum’s family survived. She had taken no pictures or mementos from her childhood home. One day, the significance of the undershirt hit her. “I realized this is the only thing I had that someone in my family touched,” said Flaum, 83, in a phone interview with NJJN from her home in Farmingdale. “At that moment I took that shirt, folded it, and put it away. Wherever I went I took the shirt with me. It was my dearest possession.”
The lilac undershirt is one of more than 600 objects that will be preserved at New Jersey’s first archive of its kind for Holocaust and genocide survivor artifacts. On Nov. 14, the Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Education Center at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft announced the creation of the archive at a brunch honoring survivors and center supporters. More than 150 people attended the event at the campus’ Student Life Center, including 40 survivors from Monmouth, Ocean, and Middlesex counties.
The center, founded 32 years ago, also announced that it will move from its current 1,600-square-foot facility to a much larger home. The new 3,800-square-foot space in the center of campus will house the archive as well as a permanent exhibit, “The Journey to Life.” The project is slated to be completed next fall; the center will continue to operate in its current location until then.
Two volunteers are instrumental in the effort: Suzanne Scott of Red Bank, a professional archivist and historian, and Spondon Dey of Long Branch, a technology and multi-media expert who works with AT&T. Dey will integrate digital video footage into interactive presentations and create interactive educational activities. “It’s exciting for me to have the opportunity to apply my business knowledge to such an important humanitarian effort,” Dey said.
Preserving the survivors’ history and developing learning tools for community members based on the artifacts and documents is the founding principle of the Brookdale center, said Dale Daniels, its executive director. The contributors to the archive “are a testimony to the history of Jewish life before the war. They came to New Jersey to start new lives with less than nothing. This is a very powerful lesson for schoolchildren. When they hear them speak they become heroes. The archives are just one of many ways we preserve tangible objects of history for students, scholars, and historians.”
In 2009 the center obtained a $6,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to undertake a preservation study and has received donations of archival material from more than 200 individuals. The items include artwork, books, correspondence, diaries, clothing, memoirs, oral histories, photographs, and documents.
The center is committed to preserving the material and ensuring that the items are stored, handled, and displayed appropriately. The contents of the archives will be made accessible to qualified researchers, scholars, and historians and to educators and institutions of learning.
Among the items is a two-inch leather-bound book donated by the family of the late Ruth Knopp, who lived in Middletown. The book, which was given to Knopp by a slave laborer whom she nursed back to health, is illustrated by minuscule drawings of a nurse caring for a patient.
The collection also includes a concentration camp uniform worn by the late Catherine Woolf, who lived in New York City. “About 10 years ago, after a visit to the center,” Daniels said, “Woolf gave her uniform to her son John and asked him to donate it to the center. John had no idea she still had her uniform.”
Daniels said that over the years at the center, she has noted that survivors, when sharing their stories with local children, “have recognized the impact of their memorabilia on our youth. These survivors have entrusted the center with the care and safekeeping of these valuables because they want their testimonies to continue to teach their legacy in our community long after they can do it themselves,” Daniels said.
“We consider it an honor to preserve these archival materials and to display and teach with them. They remain here, so our children and tomorrow’s children will be able to bear witness to their history.”