BALTIMORE (JTA) — Stare at the boy’s picture and be utterly charmed by that winning smirk. What a handsome child he is, so nattily dressed in a pinstriped suit, striking a perfect Bar Mitzvah portrait pose. Such dark eyes, such perfectly combed straight-back locks. His thumb tilts against his chest as he holds a rectangle with hand-painted white letters proclaiming his name: Natan Rolnik.
Here’s Chaim Swinik. What an endearing, pursed smile. And that pointy, triangular hat askew atop his head — he must have just left a birthday party, lucky kid. Or maybe Chaim, who seems about 5 years old, has been playing Robin Hood with his chums. This boy is a photographer’s dream, exhibiting pride in self down to the fingertips, pressing life into the large paper that identifies him.
Consider little Anita Baur, moccasin-like booties on her feet, propped on a white bedsheet like an angelic porcelain doll staring left. So tiny is the toddler that unlike Natan and Chaim, someone must perform Anita’s task for her: the task of attesting to her identity, the task for which she, too, is being photographed. That explains a man’s hand extending into the frame, grasping a cardboard plank bearing Anita’s name.
The images’ backdrop, if not the subjects themselves, begs for mercy. Mug shots are what they are — perverse mug shots, given that in the Shoah’s upside-down reality, these children were punished first, photographed second.
With Natan, Chaim and Anita presumably having aged into senior citizens, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum now seeks to fill in the blanks of their lives — and the lives of the other 1,183 youthful visages appearing on the website of its Remember Me initiative.
Many Remember Me subjects were photographed at displaced persons’ camps and orphanages between 1945 and 1948 by such organizations as the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration that sought to reunite them with surviving parents. Others were photographed for programs twinning children with Jews living in the United States and South America who provided financial assistance and other support.
Beyond the children’s names, so little is known about the vast majority of them that the website solicits visitors’ input. About 230 people from 11 countries have been identified since the program’s launch in March. For some families, a photograph represents a treasure, the only image of their loved one’s youth.
Museum officials hope that after identifying a relative, friend or neighbor, visitors to the website will share the narrative of the child’s pre-Shoah life, survival of the horrors (many were hidden by Christian families) and what the intervening decades have wrought. Already, 55 of the 230 people have had the meat of biography restored to the bones of their bare identities through follow-up interviews conducted by museum staff.
The interviews have yielded such gems as the fact that all 10 siblings in Rome’s Di Cori family survived the Holocaust. A cousin in Canada recognized photographs of five of the children — Alberto, Franco, Isacco, Luciano and Maria — when poking around the Remember Me site.
Before visiting the website and seeing the photograph of Luciano at age 10, his daughter Ester had never seen what her late father looked like as a child. She shared rich material with the museum interviewer, like about the legendary apartment superintendent making the on-the-spot, impossible decision to point a policeman inquiring about the family toward a Di Cori clan of three, thus saving the skins of the 11-member household sharing the identical surname.
Nearly all the Remember Me photographs emerged from the Cincinnati-based American Jewish Archives, with some pictures coming from New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage and from the collection of Greta Fischer, a Czech Jew who worked in the Kloster Indersdorf displaced children’s camp in Bavaria, Germany.
In May, Rachelle Salamon of Belgium called her sister, Zvia Nizard of Bat Yam, Israel, to say that a friend had just seen Nizard on the Remember Me site. Then named Celine Jelen, Nizard was photographed at age 7 in 1946.
Nizard told JTA that her mother took her to a photography studio in Brussels shortly after the war. Six passport-sized pictures were made, probably for a twinning program run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Nizard recalls wearing a brown, sweatsuit-like outfit in the picture. She also remembers that an American family mailed packages containing cheese and sugar to the Jelens.
“When I saw the photo, I was in shock. I didn’t understand. It took a few days to figure it out,” Nizard, 72, said by telephone from Israel, where she has lived since 1959. “I remember the situation, where the photo was taken, yet I had no idea how it got to the museum. Then, I sent the museum an e-mail, and they called to ask for details.”
Nizard returned the favor. She searched the site time and again: a half-hour daily for several days. She peered closely even at baby pictures. Nizard recognized the photographs of a cousin, Leon Sad, who also lives in Israel; a French friend she knew many years ago on Kibbutz Hasolelim; and a boy she met when visiting her uncle in Valenncienes, France, at age 10, shortly after the war.
Seeing their childhood images was “fantastic,” Nizard said.
The searches and relating of personal narratives are music to the ears of Jude Richter, the museum historian who oversees Remember Me.
“Children’s voices usually are not heard when Holocaust and genocide are discussed,” he said. “I’m finding that this is really important for the children and their families. The survivors and the children of survivors are really grateful to us for this project.”
“Some of them had never seen a photo of their parent as a child,” Richter added. “Someone is acknowledging that their parents’ history is important and should be remembered.”
Please send a message to [email protected] if you have information on a child whose photograph you recognize on the museum’s Remember Me website, or if would like our help in searching for your own long-lost friends or family. Please include the principal facts in a brief e-mail (up to one paragraph) and your contact information.