NEW YORK – Had Simon Butler known what lay nestled inside the box he would have unpacked it much sooner.
About two months after Butler, 42, and his wife Trudi Cohen moved from Forest Hills, Queens to their new apartment in Manhattan, he discovered a handwritten transcript of an interview he had conducted for a seventh grade history class decades ago with two Holocaust survivors, Jack and Bella Bajnon.
In finding the transcript, and ultimately the original recording, Butler was able to add to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s vast archive of eyewitness testimony. As the number of Holocaust survivors declines, the importance of preserving such accounts increases tenfold, turning Butler’s discovery into more than just a story of history lost and found.
“I never would have expected this,” Butler said. “I always thought when people submitted things to museums it was very valuable art, or things like that. I didn’t realize I had something that could be considered worthy.”
Of the more than 15,000 interviews in its collection, about 70 percent come from outside organizations and individuals, according to the USHMM. It accepts a broad range of testimony – from professional interviews to those conducted by obvious amateurs, including middle school students.
“The Museum’s oral testimonies have been invaluable resources in teaching about the Holocaust and fighting denial, and they will become even more precious once the eye witnesses generation is no longer here to tell its own story,” said James Gilmore, Archives Specialist, Oral History for the USHMM.
“By recording the Bajnon’s testimony 30 years ago, Simon contributed to the preservation of history and to a family’s memory of their loved ones. It is a good example for students today; that 7th graders can do something quite profound,” said Gilmore.
Butler’s tale of the tape begins in the early 1980s. For a school history class, Butler had to interview someone who had lived through Word War II. Initially he considered interviewing his maternal grandmother about life in the United States during the war. He’d ask her about listening to the news on the radio and whether they used ration books. Then one of his parents suggested he interview the Bajnons who ran a tailor shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The couple had survived the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz death camp, met in a Displaced Persons camp after the war and immigrated to the US. Jack had four siblings; none survived. Bella had seven siblings; three survived the war. However, Bella was the only one who had children.
“I realized it was a more significant story,” Butler said.
Every oral testimony is an invaluable piece of history because they add texture to history, said Tova Rosenberg, a member of the faculty of Yeshiva University High Schools and the director and founder of Names, Not Numbers, an oral history project that teaches students about the lessons of the Holocaust.
‘Each person has their own story of what they saw, what they felt, and what they smelled’
“When you do an oral history of say Auschwitz there are certain things that don’t change: they got on a train, they got off the train, they saw Mengele,” Rosenberg said. “But each person has their own story of that train ride, of what it was like the second they got off onto that platform. Each person has their own story of what they saw, what they felt, and what they smelled. As we get to these minute details it’s like we are there with the survivor.”
On the 1980s tape, listeners can hear the Bajnons, speaking in heavily accented English, describe the conditions of the Lodz ghetto in Poland, its liquidation and being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. They speak of being separated from their family upon arriving, of trucks driving to the chimneys loaded with people and coming back empty. They speak of working in a munitions factory and seeing a baby ripped from the arms of its father.
At the time Butler remembered thinking the story horrifying, particularly when Jack speaks about the latrines. For Butler, then just 13, it symbolized the endless physical and psychological torment.
“For some reason it stuck in my mind as a 13-year-old and even later. I think because it was such an invasion of privacy. You couldn’t even go to the bathroom – even then you were always subject to the violent whims of the guards,” Butler said.
In time he tucked the assignment away and largely forgot about it, until June, when he finally unpacked that box.
That Butler had the transcript at all was serendipitous. He’s moved three times in the past 30 years. Yet, without realizing it, he always packed the transcript, handwritten on lined notebook paper.
But this time he didn’t file away the old assignment and decided to donate the material.
He tried the Jewish Heritage Museum, which declined because they didn’t have the capacity to properly store the tape and transcript. He tried the Shoah Foundation, which in turn gave him a list of possible repositories. He persisted.
“It was too important. If I kept it nobody would know what they said,” Butler said.
Then Butler reached out to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, which expressed an interest, but wanted the original recording.
Again, the unexpected happened: Butler’s father found the original cassette tape in the family apartment.
Butler listened again; this time with the perspective of a 42-year-old. He felt distressed and sad listening to the couple recount their ordeal. But he also thought about how brave the Bajnons were to “not only face the horrific ordeals of internment in Auschwitz, but also to tell their story to me. I’m very grateful to them for taking the time to be interviewed. They didn’t have to talk to me, a child in seventh grade working on a school project, but they did… and they deserve to be remembered forever.”
‘They didn’t have to talk to me, a child in seventh grade working on a school project, but they did… and they deserve to be remembered forever’
After Butler’s wife converted the tape to a digital file he sent it to the USHMM, which accepted the material as part of its permanent collection. The Bajnon interview will soon be available on the museum’s online archive.
Butler’s story didn’t end with his donation to USHMM. He wanted to find Jack and Bella’s family and tell them the news but he had lost contact with them. Butler looked up the name “Bajnon” on the Internet he found a phone number for a certain “Moshe Bajnon.” A few hours later, he received a phone call from Moshe’s father, Jack and Bella’s son, Rabbi Zvi Bajnon, who now lives in Brooklyn.
It turns out that when attending Jack’s shiva about 28 years ago, Butler and his family had presented the rabbi with a copy of the interview tape, which he called a “treasure.” In a conversation with Butler a few weeks ago, Zvi said he had recently taken it out and listened to it to hear his parents’ voices.
Butler had also given the Bajnons’ daughter Toby Friedman a copy at Jack’s shiva. However, because her copy became damaged, she hadn’t listened to the interview in about 25 years. Bella recently died and hearing her parents’ voices again recently was overwhelming, Friedman said.
“The interview took place in their store and I just pictured him there, tape measure around his neck, working hard. My mother just passed away two months ago, but she had not been herself for many years,” Friedman said.
“When I heard her voice on the tape, it was my mother as she was during most of my life. The mother who was wise, loving, and strong. Simon sent us a treasure when he contacted us and gave us that recording,” said Friedman.
Butler, who describes himself as a Reform Jew firmly grounded in science and logic, said he couldn’t help but feel an invisible hand was at work.
“My father said it was bashert [destiny]. There was somehow this bizarre connection,” Butler said. “It was like she was talking to me. It was like Bella wanted their story to get out.”