At first glance, the wide-wale corduroy jacket in the box atop the tissue paper might be a gift for Dad or Grandpa — an L.L. Bean special he can wear as fall turns to winter. The cut, the color, the buttons, the pockets — they all look entirely familiar, like the brown corduroy jackets found in countless catalogues and department stores.
Without context, this jacket is a study in banality, as prosaic as they come.
But appearances can be deceiving, especially when it comes to material culture. This particular jacket is, in fact, suffused with meaning, history and a life experience that diverged dramatically from the norm. If it represented banality at all, it was the banality of evil.
Last week, Michael and Peter Feuer, whose late father Otto was one of a small number of Jews to spend 12 years under Nazi rule and survive, presented their father’s brown corduroy jacket at the 2016 Philadelphia “What You Do Matters” Dinner of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The jacket, along with a gray-and-blue striped concentration camp uniform, were worn by Otto at Buchenwald, the last of three concentration camps in which he was imprisoned.
The Feuer family has now donated his clothing (along with other items) to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, whose collection of artifacts is expected to double in size in the next 10 years. Peter Feuer, who lives in Rydal, also donated $1 million to the in-progress David and Fela Shapell Family Collections, Conservation and Research Center, which will have climate-controlled environments, preservation equipment and highly specialized laboratories to house and conserve the collection.
Thirty-three Greater Philadelphia residents have helped that collection grow by donating personal items, and the “What You Do Matters” Dinner was held, in part, to thank them.
About 15 donor-survivors were able to attend, including Eve Przemyski, 93, who seemed a little chagrined about being honored in the evening’s affair.
“I’m not Jewish,” she said, then added, with a laugh, “but it’s not my fault!”
Przemyski gave the museum the diary she kept as a teenager, which she titled Behind the Barbed Wire: A Diary of a Year in a German POW Camp 1944-1945. Though she wrote it in her native Polish, she had it translated in the 1990s.
“It’s a very moving story about a teenage girl who lost it all,” her son-in-law, Jack McFadden, said proudly.
When Przemyski gave her diary to the museum in 2011, she also donated family photographs, identity cards, immigration documents and other ephemera that may be of use to families and researchers, especially given that Przemyski’s mother sheltered two Jewish women during the occupation. “They both survived,” Przemyski said.
Boris Altshtater, 78, who was born in the former Yugoslavia, also gave the museum many documents.
“I donated all kinds of stuff, but the most precious were the letters that my father sent me,” he said in heavily accented English. “They were written from Jasonovec concentration camp [in Croatia]. This was the only country in occupied Europe by Nazis that had their own concentration camps and their own guards and they did their own killing.”
Alshtater said his father was allowed to write 20 words in each letter.
“All he said, ‘I work in economy’ — I didn’t know what it meant — and, ‘send me biscuits and marmalade.’ No ‘how am I doing,’ not normal communication. It had sign of Jasonovec with stamp and date it was sent. And under the letter it was saying, ‘writing is the prize for good behavior.’ They killed him a year later.”
As a toddler, Altshtater was in two concentration camps himself — as well on the run with his family in the forest — but there’s much he doesn’t know about his own history. “My mother didn’t want to tell me anything,” he said, but the family did save photographs of the young Altshtater taken in the camps. Those are now in the museum’s collection.
Przemyski, Altshtater and the other survivor-donors were all praised effusively by the evening’s speakers, including Andres Abril, director of the museum’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Office. As a slideshow of artifacts was displayed on video screens behind him, Abril said the museum’s success depended upon the power of these objects to illuminate personal histories.
“As the museum was being conceived, original artifacts were seen as a critical part of how we would share this history,” he said. “And in mid-construction, in the early ’90s, the very first artifact was lowered into the building. … It was as if we were placing into the museum the beating heart of what Elie Wiesel called ‘living memorial.’”
Artifacts, Abril added, “transformed the experience at the museum for millions of people, from a history lesson to something far more tangible, far more personal. … Every artifact represents a human being, a family, and therefore every artifact is also a memorial.”
A chair is not a chair, he said; it is Louisa’s chair that was given to her by her parents on her second birthday while in hiding. Even the smallest items, like a ring found in a mass grave, tell the stories of individuals. “These have become our treasures,” Abril said, “and while they have no intrinsic value, when they’re combined with the history and the humanity of their owners, they are transformed into timeless personal witnesses of history.”
The evening’s next speaker, Elaine Culbertson, has been using the museum’s treasures for many years as an educator.
The program director of the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers’ Program, Culbertson is the daughter of two survivors who heard many stories of tragedy and triumph from her parents and their survivor friends growing up. She became a teacher in the Philadelphia school system, but at the time she didn’t teach the Holocaust because it wasn’t part of the curriculum. Then one day something happened to change her mind.
“When I heard a boy in my class tell another boy that he was going to buy a leather jacket and he hoped he could ‘Jew the guy down,’ I realized that my African-American students — who assured me they knew no Jews, not recognizing that I was Jewish — had no knowledge of any prejudice other than the prejudice directed against them,” she recalled. “That began my search for materials to teach students about the Holocaust.”
In the process of educating herself beyond her family history, she was struck by the weight of historical objects: “The extraordinary power of a baby’s dress in a glass case at Auschwitz. Or a bit of rouge a woman used to redden her cheeks to pass the selection. Or a Star of David that was fashioned out of a tin plate. These things were palpable,” she said. “Who could not be moved by seeing these things and connecting them to real people?”
When she became a teacher of other teachers, Culbertson took them to the museum and had them choose an object that would illuminate history for their students.
“The one that stops the discussion is the shoes,” Culbertson said of the exhibit of victims’ footwear confiscated at Majdanek, “because that is the one [exhibit] that is about individuals more than any other, and that is the one that invites personal stories to become the focus.”
The next speaker also remarked upon the power of the shoes. Rebecca Dupas, a Washington, D.C., native, first visited the museum as a high school student. Now the museum’s coordinator of community partnerships, youth and community initiatives, Dupas said after she saw the shoes as a teenager, “it hit me — the power of those shoes to remind me that this is not necessarily a story of millions, but a story of one person millions and millions and millions of times. The shoes made the story very individual to me, and it is a feeling and lesson I will never forget.”
Last summer Dupas worked with nine students who also found artifacts that resonated for them.
“For me it was the shoes; for them it was the milk can,” she said. One student said the milk can reminded her that these were regular people with regular families. Another said the milk can was important because it wasn’t a replica, because it was real. “Artifacts are extremely important in our ability to connect to the history.”
Dupas then read a poem, “An Unlikely Voice,” about her experience as an African-American woman who chooses to serve as a Holocaust educator. “In speaking for one, I speak for all,” she said. “I must bear witness, and silence can never be my choice.”
The night’s final speaker was Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations. Rosenbaum, a Penn alum, has spent his career pursuing and prosecuting Nazi war criminals, including several who made their lives in Philadelphia. He spoke of the role artifacts play as forensic evidence, without which he could not do his job.
Though the evening was replete with video testimonies and fascinating speakers, there was a sort of reverential awe that was reserved for Otto Feuer’s garments — including that regular, old corduroy jacket.
At the end of the night, attendees were welcomed to the front of the room to see the both the jacket and uniform up close. As they crowded around and peered into the boxes, it was clear: Words and pictures tell us a great deal, but there is nothing that compares with survivor artifacts to convey the experience real people had during the Holocaust — a world event that, without this material testimony, would be too horrific to believe.