Saturday, July 9, 2011

Elsie's Box

My mom has a sweet friend that she plays mahjong with every week. Elsie just turned 95, still lives in her own home and takes care of the flowers in her yard.

Last week while I was in St. Louis visiting my mom, we went to visit Elsie. My mom wanted to take her some flowers for her birthday, so off we went.

Elsie was delighted to have visitors. She and my mother are good friends. We put the flowers in a vase, admired Elsie's garden, and chatted for a bit.

Then my mom said to me, "did I tell you about Elsie's box?" I said no, I didn't think so. "Elsie, tell Lynn about your box!" my mom exclaimed. "it's just the most incredible story."

This is the story that Elsie told us.

Elsie came to the United States in 1938, the same year as my mother. Her story is similar to my mother's in that she had relatives that had emigrated to the US in the 20's, thereby making it possible for Elsie to escape from Nazi Germany. She joined her brothers in St. Louis, fully expecting her parents to join them shortly. But Elsie's father was ill, and was denied a visa by the Germans. Elsie's mother would not leave without her husband. Eventually, they were deported, and died in the Theresenstad concentration camp.

This would be the end of the story of Elsie's parents, I suppose, except for one thing. Before they were deported, Elsie's mother filled a large box with cherished family photos and a set of gilt-edged prayer books. Then she took the box to one of her non-Jewish neighbors and asked them to keep it for her.

Of course, Elsie's parents never returned to claim this box. But the woman that they gave it to kept it. She wasn't sure what to do with it. She didn't know that Elsie's parents had living relatives in the US, or if she did, she had no idea how to find them. So she continued to keep the box safe, until she passed away in 1987.

Her children found the box among her things. They had no idea who the box belonged to either, but the Jewish prayer books were a clue. They decided to try to find their rightful owners if they could.

They enlisted the help of Joachim Hahn, an expert on the history of the Jews of southern Germany, hoping that he might be able to point them in the right direction. He helped them figure out that the box must belong to a Jewish family from the small town of Buettelborn. They went to Buettelborn, intent on finding someone that was alive before the war, who might know who the people in the photos were.

Now, the series of events connecting Elsie with the long lost box gets increasingly amazing. Joachim Hahn finds Marie Beisswenger, who just happens to be a dear childhood friend of Elsie's, still living in Buettelborn. Marie Beisswenger takes one look at the photos and exclaims, "but of course! That's the Hirsches! I've just returned from visiting their daughter in the United States!" It wasn't too long afterwards that Elsie received a letter informing her of the existence of the box.

One day in May Elsie opened her front door to find a package from Germany on her doorstep. It was the box, over 70 years after her mother had given it to her neighbor for safe keeping.

My mother and I sat there silently, as Elsie finished her story. There were tears in all of our eyes. Finally, my mother asked, "could we see your box, Elsie?"

Elsie smiled through her tears, "why, of course! Come with me."

Elsie led us into the family room, where a large yellow box sat on the floor next to the fireplace. Tenderly she took out the old photos and the prayer books, and passed them around for us to view. There were pictures of Elsie and her brothers with their parents, cousins, aunts, uncles and friends. The prayer books were beautiful and in very good shape.

I don't know what Elsie's mother was thinking when she packed up this box, but I can guess. It was no secret that Hitler would have been happy to see the Jews erased from the face of the earth, although even in the late 30's no one really suspected that plans for the Final Solution were already being put in place. But what better way to try to insure that even if all the Jews disappeared, their memory would endure. Here we are, those photos say. This is our religion, this is who we are. Recognize us. Remember us. We refuse to be forgotten.

Elsie's story, and the contents of the box are being preserved the the St. Louis Holocaust Museum. The story of Elsie's box was featured in the May 25th issue of the St. Louis Jewish Light, and I used the story in the Jewish Light to make sure I got the names and details right in this story.

Many, many thanks to Elsie for sharing her story and her box with us, and permitting me to write about it here. By writing about Elsie's box and sharing it with my readers, I am honoring the memory of not only Elsie's parents but all of those that were murdered 70 years ago. Yes we are still here, and no you will NOT be forgotten. I promise.

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