A discovery of Holocaust-era photos helps a Jewish family connect with its past
The U.S. Holocaust Museum has acquired photos of a French internment camp where 18,000 Jews were imprisoned before being sent to Auschwitz. The story of how rare photographs were rediscovered begins three decades ago on the streets of New York's Greenwich Village.
In 1989, Silvia Espinosa-Schrock was an undergraduate art student at Cooper Union when she stopped to browse through knickknacks someone was selling on the street. "I saw that box," she recalls. "Instinctively, I was drawn to it, being kind of a visual artist. And I knew I had to save these pictures because I knew this was precious and I knew this should belong to a family."
Espinosa-Schrock paid $5 for the box. Looking through the collection of some 200 photos, she realized they came from a Jewish family, and included pictures of a concentration camp. She always wanted to find the family they belonged to, but couldn't figure out how, so she put them away.
She moved back home to Miami where she's now an artist and art history teacher. The photos remained in storage at her mother's house for the next 30 years. Espinosa-Schrock forgot about them until last year when she came across them in a burst of pandemic cleaning. "There it was, that old box, old cardboard box full of these incredible photographs," she says. "Immediately that night, I started to Google. I've got to find this family."
On one of the photos, she found a name, Joachim Getter. A search for that name took her to a website and a blog run by David Semmel that commemorates the Jewish community in a Polish town, Przemysl (pronounced puh-SHEH-muh-shl.) Many of Semmel's relatives who lived there were killed in the Holocaust.
Espinosa-Schrock contacted Semmel and soon he received scans of photos and other keepsakes that were in the cardboard box.
He says, "The first thing I pull out and look at is a box of matches from my parents' wedding in 1953." There were also pictures of his mother and grandmother.
There were also older pictures, from Przemysl and Paris, where some of his relatives moved before the war. Most surprising were several pictures of his grandfather's sister, his great-aunt Chaya. She was killed in Auschwitz, and until then, Semmel had only ever seen one photo of her, as a teenager.
"Chaya was always this unknown quantity," he says. "She was just a name and a picture of an adolescent girl. It just pained my grandfather to talk about her. Chaya was just the victim we had in the family. And all of a sudden, she's [a] real person."
Most significant historically are three photos taken at a French internment camp south of Paris, Beaune-la-Rolande. The photographs, it turns out, belonged to one of Semmel's distant relatives, Paulette Getter. Her first husband, Salomon Abend, was held at Beaune-la-Rolande, and he had sent her the photos and a hand-drawn card.
Semmel, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., brought up on his laptop a picture of the card, now yellowed, but meticulously drawn. It shows a row of barracks, each numbered and surrounded by a fence.
Semmel says, "To me, this is the prize. This is the most important thing. It's colored, looks like a colored pencil drawing of the detention camp and he's written 'Pour ma chere Paulette' from Salomon.' "
The three photos show men who were being held at the camp. A few are smiling.
Suzy Snyder, a curator with the U.S. Holocaust Museum, says, "You have to look beyond the photographs. You can see in the background, they're living in a very rough situation."
The photos and hand-drawn card sent or smuggled out of the camp are rare pictures of a place where thousands of Jews were held. Disease was rampant in the internment camps and many died. Snyder says, "It was a way station for what the Nazis would then do, and further deport these Jews on to Auschwitz." More than a million people were killed at Auschwitz, including Salomon Abend.
Abend's wife, Paulette, survived the war. David Semmel plans a visit to archives in France, where he hopes to learn how she was able to avoid her husband's fate. Afterward, she made it to New York, where she remarried and lived until 1989. Weeks after her death, it was her box of photographs that art student Silvia Espinosa-Schrock found.
They're now in the archives of the Holocaust Museum. The museum has more than 100,000 photos and images in its collection, and it is working to gather more, before pictures, documents and other evidence of the Holocaust are lost forever.
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