Time of the essence for Holocaust center Imperativeness: The Red Cross agency marked its eighth anniversary last week, but as World War II survivors age, its mission becomes more urgent.

October 12, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

World War II ended more than a half-century ago, but the misery created by the Nazis still arrives daily at the Red Cross of Central Maryland.

Relatives of Holocaust and European war victims, such as Flora Mendelowitz Singer of Montgomery County, want to know the fate of missing loved ones. But time is running short, as Holocaust survivors age.

That lends more urgency to the work of the Baltimore-based Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing and Information Center. Last week, the center marked its eighth anniversary of taking advantage of a huge cache of Nazi records available just this past decade.

The center's free service often finds answers, and sometimes, as for Singer, the news is good. This year, it has helped find 96 living relatives and friends. Since its beginning, the center has helped locate 741 people.

If the news is bad, the center might clear up a mystery, help in mourning and bring closure. The agency has confirmed 1,931 deaths, 3,915 deportations (often to death camps) and 603 sent to internment camps.

The worst news, for many, is no news -- and that has happened many times.

Three cases illustrate the different results:

Singer had looked since the war for a childhood cousin she last saw in 1946, after they had been hidden from the Nazis. A Red Cross search found her cousin Henry in Los Angeles (he prefers that his last name not be used). Last New Year's Day he called her, and after 52 years of separation, they had a reunion on the West Coast.

Another woman requested a search for her father and brother. She learned from one Red Cross agency that her father was reported missing in October 1941, and from another agency that he died that month. Neither agency learned anything of her brother.

A man looking for his missing four great-aunts and one great-uncle learned four of them were last seen being transported to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland in 1942 and 1943. There was no information about one aunt.

"People need to have some closure and the Holocaust survivors are aging," said Linda Cauthen Klein, the center's director. "Many people still don't know about us. It's urgent that people understand the Red Cross can help them discover the fates of loved ones."

Klein said the agency gets about 1,000 requests a year to search for relatives. Each request is different, she said, and the agency responds with specific information about 35 percent to 50 percent of the time.

The chaos of World War II in Europe resulted in millions of murdered and missing people. Adolf Hitler exterminated about 6 million Jews. Nazis also systematically killed more than 2 million others, including the mentally ill, physically disabled, Gypsies, political opponents, intellectuals, Communists, homosexuals, Poles and Russians.

In their offices in the Seton Business Park in Northwest Baltimore, Klein and her staff of four full-time workers, one part-time staffer and 60 volunteers have files on 30,000 missing or found persons.

They operate a national clearinghouse for requests by U.S. citizens and foreigners to local Red Cross chapters to find relatives.

The center searches only for those missing in Europe as a result of World War II. It came into being in 1990, after the Soviet Union released records in 1989 on hundreds of thousands of Nazi concentration camp victims.

The center taps into the network of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which includes the world's largest repository of Nazi documentation, the International Tracing Service in Arolsen, Germany.

The tracing service resulted from the 1955 Bonn Agreement between the Western Allies and West Germany. It gets 100,000 inquiries a year.

"In lots of cases, we don't find anyone," said Suzanne E. Kantt, the senior tracing caseworker who helped Singer find Henry. "It's terribly sad and frustrating."

A successful search is cause for rejoicing. "What a great bunch they are," Singer said of the tracers. "They work so hard I tell them, 'Don't ever give up.' "

Singer tells of her joy at re-establishing contact with her cousin: "On New Year's Day this year, I got a phone call from a man whose name I didn't know. He said, 'Is this Flora Singer?' I said, 'Yes, who is this?' There was silence. His voice broke. He gave a name I didn't know.

"Then he gave the name I knew in Belgium. I let out a scream. 'Harry, Harry, Harry ' We talked for two hours. We met. We've been talking ever since."

To request a search, call your local Red Cross office. In Baltimore: 410-764-4627. To volunteer at the tracing center of the Central Maryland chapter, 4700 Mount Hope Drive: 410-764-4602.

Pub Date: 10/12/98

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