The letters sat in a bedraggled basket on a dusty balcony for more than 20 years, having previously been buried deep inside a ceiling crawl space. A total of more than 200 missives had been sent weekly to two brothers — Yitzhak and Noah Tunik, who had each emigrated to pre-state Palestine from Stolpce, Poland in 1934 and in 1938 — from their parents and eight siblings until 1941, when the letters stopped.
“My brother remembered being five years old when a letter finally came that made our parents cry,” recalled Riki Olmert, 66, daughter of Yitzhak Tunik, referring to the August 1944 letter from a surviving brother that related the deaths of her father’s parents and six of the eight siblings left behind in Poland. “He said they went into their bedroom and cried for the rest of the day.”
Olmert, born in 1946, remembers once playing in the crawl space with her older brother, removing stamps off the same letters for their joint stamp collection. It was the first, and last, time that she and her brother were slapped by their parents.
But it took many more years, and the death of her mother, for Olmert and her brother to stumble upon the letters again, as they were cleaning out their parents’ apartment. In fact, says Olmert, the letters nearly got thrown away by an overeager mover, and even afterward, they sat in a box set on a high shelf in her closet for another 10 years before her first cousin, Rachel Meisler, Noah Tunik’s daughter, encouraged her to take them out and have them translated in order to fully understand their family’s story.
“My parents always talked about their families. We knew their names and everything about them, but we didn’t talk about the letters,” said Olmert, whose father, a prominent attorney, was Israel’s state comptroller in the 1980s. “My father covered every detail you can think of in his will, but he said absolutely nothing about the letters.”
After being translated into Hebrew from Polish and Yiddish — some were originally written in Hebrew and some in code during the war years — the letters were recently given to Yad Vashem, as part of the museum’s Gathering the Fragments campaign begun last year.
While the Holocaust memorial museum has been gathering items for the last 60 years that formed the basis of its archive and exhibits, there was a sense that with survivors growing fewer in number, it was time to gather the remaining items before they were forgotten or thrown away.
“We felt the time had come,” said Dr. Haim Gertner, director of the Yad Vashem Archives. “An item can be important from so many angles. Sometimes the item itself is innocent, a doll or a piece of cloth. But the story behind it is a big part of it, whether it’s that of the survivors or their children.”
For Olmert and Meisler, the Tunik cousins, the fragments were their family’s letters that held significant emotional resonance for them, as well as historical information.
“They carried a lot of guilt,” said Olmert of her parents. “My father’s parents wanted him to visit them in Poland, and he had gone to Israel with the task of bringing the rest of the family to Israel and he didn’t get to do it. My parents weren’t in the camps, they had no numbers on their arms, but they lived with this sadness and passed it to their kids.”
Giving the letters to Yad Vashem, said Olmert, feels “very holy. I look at the photo of my parents and think it’s the best thing we could have done for them.”
For other families, the remaining fragments of family history can consist of photographs, journals, documents, even clothing. Dvora Winokur Rozencwaig, now 71, regrets that she didn’t keep the cloth pocket her mother had sewn on the inside of her long underwear in order to protect several family photographs. But the photos survived, despite the weeks she and her mother spent escaping through forests after the evacuation of the Vilna Ghetto, as well as the months her mother spent hidden after leaving Dvora, then a toddler, to be reluctantly taken in by a Polish woman in a nearby village.
“My mother was one of those survivors who didn’t keep quiet, she told me all the time and I remembered part of it myself,” said Rozencwaig. “She started to tell me from a young age and then at some point I didn’t want to hear it all.”
When Yad Vashem began publicizing the Fragments project, Rozencwaig brought in her photos and letters, as well as information about the two women who saved her and her mother. Through Yad Vashem, Rozencwaig made contact with the descendents of her mother’s savior in Poland and plans on attending a ceremony being held in their honor in Poland this summer.
“It seems to me that it offers closure, it feels right,” she said.
Not everyone feels ready to hand over all their memories and fragments just yet. Nina Denty Abayov, the sole survivor of a Greek family, is holding on to the four silver cups found in her family’s ransacked home after the war. She keeps them perfectly polished and dusted on her dining room shelves, along with embroidered tablecloths.
“I want to see these things around me; my children will decide what to do with them when I’m gone,” said Abayov.
But she was able to part with her baby brother’s shirt, worn when he was just six months old. Her father, mother and younger sister and brother were taken by the Nazis in a pre-Passover sweep from their Athens synagogue in 1944, but she was saved by her Christian Greek godfather, who hid 10-year-old Nina until her maternal aunt came for her. After surviving the war by hiding with her aunt’s family, Abayov made her way alone to pre-state Palestine via the Cyprus detention camps, reuniting with her aunt’s family in Ness Ziona several years later, all before she turned sixteen years old.
In the year since the project began, Yad Vashem has been receiving much more “than we ever anticipated,” said Gertner. To date, more than 51,000 items have been given to the museum, including 168 diaries, 10,500 letters and 21,567 photos. The museum has been holding collection days — and will be holding one tomorrow, between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“We’re always amazed how many people come,” said Gerner, “it clearly answers a need.”