This Week in Restoring Family Links 1/25/16 - 1/29/16

This Week in Restoring Family Links 1/25/16 - 1/29/16

On Wednesday, the world came together to remember and reflect upon the Holocaust and all of its victims. The United Nations General Assembly declared on November 1, 2005 that this annual day of remembrance would occur ever January 27, the day that Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1945. The United Nations urges member states to observe this day every year, to honor the victims of the Nazi era and to develop educational programs to help prevent future such genocides from ever occurring again. President Obama marked the day by stating "we are all Jews", a quote told by Sergeant Roddie Edmonds to his German captors during the war; the president also encouraged the world to fight remaining antisemitism across the world, and affirmed the United States' support for the Jewish state of Israel. 

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This Week in Restoring Family Links News 04/11/2015 - 04/17/2015

Do you follow @intlfamilylinks (Restoring Family Links’ account) on Twitter? See an interesting article but just don’t have the time to read it? “This Week in RFL News” is a weekly blog segment that highlights and summarizes some of the news items posted by RFL’s twitter.

Holocaust Remembrance Day: Yom HaShoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, was this week from the evening of Wednesday, April 15th to the evening of Thursday, April 16th. This day is set aside to honor and remember the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust. Around the world, millions recognize the importance of this day as an opportunity to stand against anti-Semitism and the hate that divides humanity. It is also an important opportunity to discuss the legacy of those who survived the atrocities committed during World War II, and how future generations should and can combat genocide and prejudice.

In recognition of this day of remembrance, the American Red Cross’ Restoring Family Links program held an event in honor of victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Rabbi Levi Shemtov, a well-respected and world renowned leader in the Jewish community led a candle lighting ceremony remembering the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust. The event highlighted a campaign encouraging interaction between youth and Holocaust survivors to help ensure that their legacy and hopes for the future live on in future generations. Three youth who participated in the campaign participated in a discussion about their experience.

To watch the full event, please click here.

Refugees in Kenya: Kenya’s second in-command recently released an ultimatum to the United Nations – resettle our refugees, or the Kenyan government will relocate them. While Kenya has been negotiating the resettlement of its Somali refugees for years, this push comes largely as a response to the Garissa University attack, where al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization, killed 147 students. The Dadaab refugee where more than 600,000 refugees reside, is believed by the Kenyan government to support al-Shabaab. The threat has alarmed both refugee communities and the UN Refugee Agency, both of which believe Somalia to be unprepared, and in many places still unsafe, for resettlement.

Conflict in Nigeria: One year ago, the insurgent group, Boko Haram kidnapped 219 schoolgirls. While hope is dwindling for their return, the “Bring Back our Girls” campaign continues to fight to ensure they will not be forgotten. Since the beginning of the insurgency in northeastern Nigeria, over 800,000 children have been displaced by fighting. Many have fled to neighboring Niger, Chad, or Cameroon, while other remain displaced within Nigeria itself. Regardless of where families and children have fled, the displacement has created a humanitarian crisis. While aid organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, continue their work to protect and aid the displaced, the needs far outreach the available resources.

Uncovering What One's Family History Can Mean

Story by Connecticut and Rhode Island Region

April 16, 2015 is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. In honor of this day, take a moment to reflect on its meaning and the work of the American Red Cross to help victims of the Holocaust and their families.

On June 6, 1944, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, and attacked Adolf Hitler’s forces. Thousands of American, British, and Canadian troops lost their lives in the intense fighting, but eventually the Allied forces won the battle. This marked a turning point in World War II, putting a crack in Hitler’s control of France. One year later, the Germans would surrender, ending the war in Europe and putting an end to the Holocaust.

When remembering the Holocaust this month and the millions who lost their lives, let’s take a moment to also remember how the Red Cross has helped the world heal from this tragedy. The American Red Cross has been providing tracing services for victims of WWII and the Nazi regime since 1939. Following the release of WWII documents to the Red Cross in 1989, the American Red Cross opened its Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center in Baltimore, Maryland in 1990 to facilitate Holocaust Tracing requests. Since then, the American Red Cross has helped more than 45,000 families locate or find information about people separated by the Holocaust.

While the American Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center closed in 2012, all WWII related casework continues through the Restoring Family Links Program at American Red Cross national headquarters in Washington, DC. The program helps search for missing family members as well as obtain documentation on the wartime and post-wartime experiences of family members. This service is not for genealogical traces, but may be done on behalf of family members with direct ties to victims of World War II and the Holocaust.

Georgia Hunter's Story

For Georgia Hunter, finding out about her unusual family history began when she was given a homework assignment by a high school English teacher. The assignment was to do an “I-Search” to look back at her ancestry.  Her mother suggested she begin her search by speaking with her grandmother. Little did Georgia know what that conversation would reveal.

Georgia’s grandfather had recently died and the story her grandmother began to share was not something she had ever imagined. She learned that her grandfather was both Polish and Jewish, not something she remembered having heard before. She was struck by how difficult his life had been. Georgia’s grandmother encouraged her to speak to her grandfather’s siblings to find more pieces of the story.

Her interest was sparked well beyond that high school project and in 2000, when Georgia was a new college graduate, she found herself at a family reunion attended by all of her grandfather’s siblings, her grandmother and various cousins and relatives she had not met before. She recalls sitting at the table listening to snippets of stories about her grandfather and the other siblings and how they survived the war with determination, courage, cleverness and amazing good fortune. It is a story that spans five continents and has many twists and turns.

Georgia continued to collect family stories, traveling many miles to put them all together. She found the memories had holes here and there; understandably after all the time that had passed, many details are fuzzy and pieces forgotten. On behalf of her grandfather's siblings, she decided to also reach out to the Red Cross to see what information they may be able to provide.

Georgia contacted the Red Cross by mail in 2011, in hopes of tracking down family records. Though several years passed, in 2014, an envelope filled with documents arrived at the local Red Cross office in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Georgia received a call from a Restoring Family Links caseworker in Connecticut and soon received the records sent by the Polish Red Cross.

Left to right: Jan Radke, Senior Director of Military and International Services at the American Red Cross Connecticut and Rhode Island Region with Georgia Hunter holding family documentation provided by the Restoring Family Links program.

Left to right: Jan Radke, Senior Director of Military and International Services at the American Red Cross Connecticut and Rhode Island Region with Georgia Hunter holding family documentation provided by the Restoring Family Links program.

The documents included birth certificates from a Registry Office in Radom (the family’s hometown in Poland); applications for identification cards during Radom’s Nazi occupation, marked with the seal of the Supreme Council of Elders of the Jewish Population; and a record of a sibling registered as a survivor in 1946 with the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. These records, from all over Poland, not just the family’s hometown of Radom, provide a few more pieces of history, forgotten no longer,  now documented, tangible.

There are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors left to tell their stories so now is the time to preserve the memories and encourage anyone who does not know the fate of their loved ones because of the Holocaust to initiate a case through the American Red Cross. The American Red Cross Restoring Family Links program provides tracing services for Holocaust survivors and their families, working to provide hope, information and answers. Family tracing services are free of charge. For more information contact your local Red Cross at 1-800-REDCROSS or start your trace online.

Red Cross has Life Saving Impact on One Holocaust Survivor

Story by Amy Laurel Hegy, San Diego Chapter, Red Cross Volunteer

It was dancing for the infamous Angel of Death, Dr. Mengele, which bought her survival in the concentration camps. It was the Red Cross that gave life-saving food and paid her passage onto the shores of America. Both moments were pivotal points of survival in the extraordinary life of Dr. Edith “Edie” Eger.

The American Red Cross, through its Restoring Family Links program, provided Holocaust tracing and documentation services to Dr. Edith “Edie” Eger from 2010 to 2011. "I have the papers, and will always keep the papers the Red Cross was kind enough to research about my history," offers Edie. "My husband went to the organization, years ago. They were able to piece together the outline of my story, as well as what happened to my family in the camps." As horrendous as it is, the papers remain the only history left of this Hungarian-Jewish family torn apart.

One of three daughters growing up in Kassa, Hungary, Edie was known for her great talent as a ballet dancer and gymnast. Accepted onto the Hungarian Olympic gymnastic team, the 16 year-old's future was brightly stretching out before her. She reminisces, "I was preparing for the Olympics. I was living my dream." That future took a detour on the notorious train tracks to Auschwitz, Monday, May 22, 1944. It was this day that the teenage Edie, her younger sister Magda, her mother and father, grandparents and aunts and uncles were herded into a cattle car and sent towards the Nazi death camp in German occupied Poland. Edie’s third sister, Klara, had recently been smuggled out of Kassa by a professor at the musical conservatory she attended as a promising violinist.

As the family arrived into the heart of the savagery, it was Dr. Josef Mengele himself that stood in front of the long chaotic succession of Jewish prisoners. As he casually pointed to the left and right, friends and families, including Edie's, were ruptured for eternity. "As my family approached the head of the line, they first separated my father towards the left and away from us. My sister, mother and I were embracing tightly in the middle. Dr. Mengele pointed my mother to the left and I followed holding onto her skirt. He came after me and told me to go to the other side, to the right. It’s absurd really; the very man responsible for annihilating my entire family saved my life at that moment. Next thing Magda and I knew, we were stripped and our head was shaved."

Later that afternoon, Mengele appeared at the doorway of the overflowing barracks to assess the day’s arrivals. He asked if anyone had any special talents. Edie’s friends pushed her to the front of the room saying that she was a gymnast and dancer. Mengele was well known for having the prisoners entertain him, and ordered her to dance. "I remember doing my very best splits as I was watching the black crematorium smoke rise; probably containing the ashes of my mother," recalls Edie. "I didn’t want to be dancing for this monster. My friends had volunteered me. All I could do was close my eyes and pretend I was dancing in the beautiful gilded state opera house in Budapest. I remember the orchestra playing outside. In my mind, I chose to be dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. In reality, I was providing joy to the man that executed my family only hours earlier." Old bread crusts that were toss towards her as payment for the performance were shared with Magda and the girls that had pushed her forward.

Over the next year, Edie and her sister were shuttled to several more of the over 42,000 concentration camps established throughout Europe. Strapped to cattle cars filled with ammunition, they were used as camouflage during the transport, in hopes that the Allies would not bomb the trains using human shields. Bombs dropped anyway and she watched as hundreds around her were murdered.

Red Cross’ tracing records confirm Edie’s last movement as a Nazi prisoner was during the April 1945 death marches. These bloody journeys were made as a last ditch effort to amass prisoners inside the German borders. Still holding onto each other, Edie and Magda were forced to walk over 30 miles from Mauthausen Concentration Camp to Gunskirchen Larger. Many prisoners became casualties being shot as they collapsed from malnutrition and exhaustion. With her body withering away, the 17-year-old was carried in a chair made by the interwoven arms of three of the girls with whom she had shared her extra crusts of bread.

In the final five days before its May 4, 1945 liberation, Gunskirchen Lager Camp guards fled, leaving the prisoners without so much as the meager rations they had been receiving. Edie teetered on the precipice of life. With a broken back and only weighing 60 lbs, she was too weak to protest as she was tossed into a pit with hundreds of dead bodies behind the camp in the woods. It was only by seeing the slight twitch of her hand from underneath the pile of stench-racked corpses that brought an American soldier to pull her from the mass grave and carry her to freedom.

"I will never forget my first meeting with the Americans and the Red Cross," reminisced Edie. "An American G.I. handed me a package of M&Ms. It was the first time I had seen a man of color. Then, the Red Cross gave me my very own can of sardines. So you see, the Red Cross, very literally, saved my life. I did not know, that within a short time, the same organization would make my life in America possible.”

Red Cross tracing services determined that, with the exception of musician Klara, Edie's entire family had been murdered in the concentration camps. So instead of Hungary, she went to Czechoslovakia. It was while recuperating in a hospital fighting Tuberculosis (TB) that she met and married another TB patient Albert Eger, a Czech Freedom-Fighter. Shortly after, they were graced with the birth of the first of three children, Marianne. In the autumn of 1949, it became necessary to flee the Communists. Edie and Albert took their infant daughter and headed to Vienna. As luck would have it, her husband's family had been preregistered as potential American immigrants before the war. This refugee status allowed them passage on a ship; the General R L Howze, bound for New York.

The voyage would provide another crucial moment when the Red Cross would provide Edie with the exact help she needed to complete her journey to a new life. As fortunate as Edie, Albert and her daughter Marianne were to gain spaces on a ship, there was an unavoidable $6 fee to step off the ship into the United States. Without a penny to her name, Edie was on the verge of being turned away only steps from a new, free life. Enter the Red Cross.

Provided only by the donations of the American public, the organization granted Eger a $6 gift, enabling her to enter the United States on October 29, 1949.

“Today, because of this gift, I have a wonderful story to tell,” Eger says. “I went to school at night. In 1969, I graduated with honors, receiving a Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Texas, El Paso, and today my name is Dr. Edith Eva Eger.” At 86, she is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at San Diego’s UCSD Medical School. In private practice, she is a world-renowned psychologist, specializing in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Her La Jolla, California practice treats soldiers returning from the war, as well as victims of sexual and domestic abuse. A proud US citizen, Edie has three children, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Although she knew that the $6 US entry fee was a gift to her from the Red Cross and did not requiring repayment, Edie logged over 2,000 clinical intern hours volunteering at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center at Fort Bliss, Texas. This was her way of repaying the organization that had saved and boosted her life. "I know I didn't (have to), but I never wanted to ever take advantage or get something for nothing. I love the Red Cross," says Edie. "They show up everywhere and do so much. They certainly have saved my life. I wish for the Red Cross to grow, and show up whenever people are in need. I have nothing but gratitude for every one showing up for me."

Holocaust Remembrance Day: How a Volunteer Finds Inspiration in her Jewish Heritage

Story by Cassie Schoon, Colorado and Wyoming Region, Communications Volunteer

American Red Cross International Services volunteer Robbe Sokolove believes in “Tikkun Olam,” a Hebrew phrase meaning, “To repair the world.” It’s an expression that holds special significance for Sokolove, who has worked on Restoring Family Links (RFL) cases that tell individual stories of global conflict, from families separated by the Holocaust to messages intended for recipients in Iraq and Afghanistan. In observance of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), we asked Sokolove to share her experience with RFL, her own face-to-face confrontation with anti-Semitism, and how her heritage influences her volunteer work with the Red Cross.

In the past year, Sokolove helped to reconnect an elderly Jewish couple to an ancestor in Poland, with the help of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC). The couple’s cousin was a young girl during the Holocaust and was taken into guardianship by her family’s servants. The cousin was found by the Red Cross after WWII, who located her parents in the US and successfully reunited her with her family. The couple Sokolove was working with hoped to learn more about where their cousin had lived during the Holocaust, as well as any other available details about her life in Poland. Through research and a lot of legwork, Sokolove and the ICRC were able to supply the couple with documents of their cousin’s transatlantic trip to the US, as well as an address for her home in Poland.

“It wasn’t a reunion at the airport, or anything like that,” Sokolove said. “But to this couple, it was extremely important to have this information about their history.”

Sokolove, whose own ancestors came to the US from Russia in 1899, is an active member in the Denver-area Jewish community. She experienced firsthand the lingering legacy of anti-Semitism in 2013, when the Morrison Synagogue where Sokolove was a member and community leader was vandalized with swastikas. Sokolove describes the event as a moment where her small synagogue, which had always felt safe and isolated from the greater world, felt vulnerable to hate. “It was the first time it really hit home for me personally,” she said. “I feel safe in my community, but we have to remember we are all vulnerable, whether we are big or little.”

For Sokolove, her work with International Humanitarian Law and Restoring Family Links programs is a way to help make the world a better place, despite genocides and conflicts that still divide families and create refugees. The Fourth Geneva Convention, the most recent Geneva Convention forming the foundations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), was a response to the horrors of the Holocaust, and Sokolove sees her ongoing work with IHL as having a connection with her own heritage. She calls her volunteerism her own “Tikkun Olam,” the way she herself can help repair the wrongs of the world.

“I see it as a mitzvah,” she said, “My history and my community make this work a perfect match for me.”