Red Cross effort intends to aid Holocaust healing

September 25, 1990|By Diane Winston

From 1942 to 1946, Emmy Mogilensky lived on the ragged edge of uncertainty. A German-Jewish teen-ager shipped to England in the early days of World War II, she did not know if her parents were dead or alive.

"The pain was not knowing where they were or what happened to them. Were they murdered in a camp, and which one?" the Pikesville resident recounted to a rapt audience at the Central Maryland Red Cross yesterday. "The pain was indescribable. It haunts you. It does not let you rest. It is with you constantly."

Her uncertainty ended in June 1946 when the Red Cross reported that her parents had died in a concentration camp. Now, similar answers will be available to thousands.

The Soviet Union has released copies of German documents captured at the end of World War II with the names of 400,000 people who died or were interned in Nazi concentration and forced labor camps. The American Red Cross, through the newly opened Holocaust and War Victims Tracing and Information Center in Baltimore, will tap those records for people still seeking loved ones.

"Can you doubt the value of these 400,000 made available by Russia?" asked Mrs. Mogilensky during opening ceremonies for the new center. "Can you imagine after 45 years still not knowing, still not being sure? All the maybe's can now be settled for those 400,000 victims.

"There are still more records to be released, and each one can be a blessing."

The roots of the Baltimore center stretch back to 1947, when the International Committee of the Red Cross began the International Tracing Center in Arolsen, West Germany. The center, which helps people track civilian victims of the Third Reich, has gathered information from the archives of German civilian agencies, files found after the liberation of Nazi concentration camps and the archival records of clergy, factories, hospitals and German businesses.

Since its inception, the International Tracing Center -- with 46 million documents pertaining to 13 million people -- has responded to requests from 1.8 million Holocaust survivors or their families. Still, Red Cross officials knew many more could be assisted if the Soviet Union released the records that liberating troops removed from the Nazi camps.

But appeals to the Soviet government went unanswered -- until this May.

In late spring, Soviet authorities gave the International Committee of the Red Cross a hefty cache: 70,000 death certificates from the Auschwitz concentration camps, 130,000 names of prisoners used for forced labor in various German firms and 200,000 names of victims in other camps, including Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Gross Rosen and Buchenwald.

"The whole idea of humanitarian exchange received a big boost after perestroika," said Georgi Oganov, a press secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, referring to the changes in his country since Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power. "It has made possible a practical deed like this -- opening the archives to Americans looking for kin who disappeared during World War II."

The Central Maryland Red Cross offered to house the new center because there are large local communities of Jews, Catholics and Poles. Staffed mostly by volunteers, the center can help people obtain certification of incarceration, forced labor or death of family members. It also can assist interned survivors receive compensation and, in some cases, it may even reunite family members.

For Emmy Mogilensky, the new program is just one more example of the Red Cross' compassion.

During her years in England, the international agency had helped families, separated like hers, send letters across enemy lines.

Now was the time, she said, to thank the Red Cross for what it did for her and all it will do for others. In the center's first five hours, nearly 100 calls were received.

"This offers an opportunity for closure," said Mrs. Mogilensky, her voice thick with choked-back tears. "The information will allow people to say, 'Now I know what happened.'

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