Red Cross service helps trace relatives who were among victims of Holocaust

March 31, 1991|By New York Times News Service

Siegmund Spiegel, an architect in East Meadow, N.Y., last had contact with his parents before June 1941.

"They were deported from Germany shortly after Kristallnacht, to the eastern part of Poland, which was occupied by the Russians," he said.

"In June 1941, the Russians and Poles opened up the fighting in that area. I don't know if they were shot on the spot or sent to the camps. I know they are dead. I'm 71; my mother would be 102, my father, 106. But there is no grave site, no individual way to memorialize them. It is as though they vanished into thin air."

Mr. Spiegel is one of many Americans who has begun tracing family members who were victims of the Holocaust through a new service made available by the American Red Cross.

The service, which started in October, uses documents released from the Soviet Union almost two years ago that list more than 400,000 people who were interned in camps and died under the Third Reich, said Ann Stingle, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Washington.

The documents were recovered by the Red Army during the liberation.

"These documents have increased our capacity to trace people," Ms. Stingle said.

"The Soviets claim they didn't know the documents existed, but we feel that it is really a result of glasnost and an article that appeared in the Soviet government newspaper Izvestia regarding the camp records."

Included in the documents are records of 46 death camps that have nearly 70,000 death certificates from Auschwitz, 130,000 names of prisoners used for forced labor in German companies and 200,000 names of victims in other camps, including Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Gross Rosen.

Ms. Stingle said the Red Cross, which has always provided tracing for war victims, did not realize how great a need there was for a Holocaust-tracing service.

"We've received 1,300 calls nationally," she said. "Children trying to locate parents. Grandchildren carrying on the effort. We are working with the Magen David Adom, an Israeli counterpart to the Red Cross, who are dealing with a population very similar to ours and have been very cooperative."

One woman, who said she feared anti-Semitic retaliation and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said her 30-year-old son had begun tracing relatives for his grandmother, who had left Rzeszow, Poland, at the age of 13 and now lived in a retirement home in California.

"My mother is 85 years old and left her mother and father, two sisters and three brothers in Poland when she came here to stay with relatives," the woman said.

"She came to America right after World War I. Her family was supposed to join her eventually. But by 1938-'39, when things first began going bad in Poland, it was too late.

"My son read about the tracing service in the paper, and said: 'Nanny never got official notification that her family died. Maybe she wants to find out what happened to them.' "

On a visit to California, the woman's mother filled out the necessary forms, including maiden names and birthplaces of her parents.

"She was excited," her daughter said. "The only person she had had contact with since the war was her younger brother, who had been in the French Underground during the Resistance. He had been captured by the Nazis, sent to a concentration camp, lined up against a wall and shot. But he was shot in the hip and lay on top of a pile of bodies, pretending to be dead. Somehow other prisoners pulled him inside after dark and saved him."

When the Americans liberated the camp, the brother was suffering from malnutrition and gangrene. He spent one and a half years recuperating in England and then went back to Brussels, where he had been living before the war.

"It was there that he began corresponding with my mother," the woman said. "But he died during his 40s of stomach cancer."

The woman said that at the end of the war, when the news about the deaths of 6 million Jews reached the United States, her mother was "absolutely devastated."

"She contacted several of the Jewish agencies that sprang up after the war to help people find out about their European relatives, but no one could help her," the daughter said.

"Now she feels that while she may not have long to live herself, before she goes she would like to know: 'Yes, this person is dead. This person was in the camp.'

"When she left Poland at 13, she had no inkling that she would never see any of them again."

Although the woman was told that it would take nine months to RTC receive word of survivors, those trying to trace family members and friends may have to wait one or two years to receive word on the whereabouts of death certificates, grave sites and those who may be alive.

"We need to know that those calling in were descendants of the victims," another spokeswoman for the Red Cross, Nancy Lynch, said.

"Then we send them inquiry forms, which, once completed, are sent to the international tracing service in Arolsen, Germany."

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