Survivors in Baltimore give family mementos that bear witness to Holocaust

April 18, 1993|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

In yesterday's editions of The Sun, an article on Baltimoreans' contributions to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum incorrectly identified the outgoing chairman of the museum council. He is Harvey M. Meyerhoff.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Baltimore developer Joseph M. Meyerhoff recalls the harsNovember day in 1969 when he stood with his late wife, Lyn, on the barren grounds of Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Vienna, Austria. Known for its policy of deliberate extermination -- about 200,000 persons perished there, one-third of whom were Jews -- the camp became legendary for guards who pushed inmates to their deaths as they carried rocks from a nearby quarry.

"It was devastating," Mr. Meyerhoff recalls. "No matter what you hear about the Holocaust, it doesn't begin to strike you full force until you see something like that. And that's what you feel when you see the permanent exhibition at the Holocaust museum. Part of the power of this museum is its ability to sensitively display brutality without sanitizing it."


A witness to millions of shattered lives, the Holocaust museum also represents the conviction that wisdom can rise from such devastation.

This mission is served by many sectors of Baltimore, a community rich with the knowledge of approximately 2,000 Holocaust survivors. Baltimoreans have provided scholarship, artifacts and money: Of the more than $160 million in private funds raised for the museum, an estimated $12 million has come from the Baltimore metropolitan area alone.

For his part, Mr. Meyerhoff has devoted much of the past six years to the creation of the Holocaust museum, which will be dedicated in Washington this week. One of the museum's biggest financial contributors -- he gave $6 million toward its construction -- he has served since 1987 as the chairman of the museum council, which was founded to oversee construction of the building. Appointed to the post by former President Ronald Reagan, Mr. Meyerhoff will step down at the end of this month to be replaced by a yet-to-be-announced Clinton appointee.

As fund-raising chairman for the state of Maryland, his late wife also committed herself to the museum's cause. At a strategic breakfast meeting at the Center Club in 1985, Lyn Meyerhoff raised $970,000 from local businesses and corporations, collecting an additional $30,000 the next day.

Another donation of $1 million, intended to fund an educational outreach program at the museum, came from the Hoffberger Family Foundation Inc., a supporting foundation of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Many of the gifts from Baltimore, however, are of incalculable worth.

Susan Morgenstein, director of museum exhibitions, speaks with force of the time she visited a local retirement community to talk about the museum. After her lecture, an old woman, her eyes filled with tears, pressed a postcard into the curator's hand. It was the woman's last contact with the family who vanished when she was a child, the final physical evidence of her lost world.

She wanted the museum to have it.

"How does one begin to put a value on that?" asks Ms. Morgenstein, who lives in Chevy Chase. "A tiny piece of paper can be as unbelievably moving as a boxcar or a rescue boat. In the beginning, I don't think anyone ever believed we would have thousands of artifacts from this period in our permanent collection. It seemed such a time of total destruction that one wondered, 'What could be left?' "

Baltimore survivor Amaichai Heppner gave the museum three notebooks of aging documents that tell the story of his terrifying trip through the Holocaust as an 8-year-old boy. Forced to flee Berlin and then Amsterdam, Mr. Heppner and his parents hid in a chicken coop for two years under the protection of Harry and Dina Jansson, a Roman Catholic farm family living in the southern part of the Netherlands.

A founding member of the Washington-Baltimore Child Survivors Group, he did not speak of his trauma for many years.

"One of the things that kept child survivors silent was that many people's attitude was, 'You were just children. How fearful could you have been? How much could you have known?'

"But it was far more fearful letting your imagination run wild, not knowing precisely what to fear and not being able to talk about it because the adults did not want to. All that fear was stuffed down inside."

Another child survivor, Trudy Turkel of Pikesville, donated her collection of artifacts, including a 1938 passport branded with a red "J"; this official permission to leave Heilbronn, Germany, became her official permission to live.

Her parents sent Trudy to the United States -- she arrived the day before Kristallnacht, the government-orchestrated destruction of the Jewish community -- her older sister to Israel and her younger brother to England. All immediate family members survived the Holocaust and were reunited afterward.

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