Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In 2007 Leo Rechter appeared before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee speaking in English, the sixth language he’s picked up since moving from Austria to Belgium to Israel to New York. His testimony told a compact story of his life, which includes surviving the Holocaust.

In the last decade, Rechter, 81, has become an activist for other elderly Jewish survivors scattered throughout the United States. If activism entails advocating tough positions and taking on entrenched interests, it’s an appropriate line of work for Rechter. He wants restitution for Holocaust survivors. And he’s taking on a titan in the world of Holocaust survivorship—the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. Rechter is pushing the museum to provide full online access to a massive set of files—the ones 60 Minutes labeled “Hitler’s Secret Archive”—that are in the process of being scanned and sent from Germany to the museum. The transfer is expected to be complete in late 2010.

In his testimony, Rechter publicly supported the museum in its years-long struggle to wrest control of the Bad Arolsen archive, named for the small town where it is located, from the International Red Cross and the governments of 11 countries that have had oversight of it. At the time of the hearing, six of the countries had yet to ratify the treaty to open the files.

Rechter was joined on the Hill by Paul Shapiro, the museum’s director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. Shapiro asked members of Congress, “[W]ho would believe [that the Red Cross and the 11 countries]…appeared ready to see the last remnant of the Holocaust survivor generation disappear from our midst without providing them with the reassurance that the records of what happened to them and to the loved ones they lost would not be conveniently kept under wraps?”

Rechter does not recall having met Shapiro before that day, but he had lobbied the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors—Rechter serves as its president—to write letters urging officials in the countries considered holdouts, France and Greece, to sign the treaty. “We were campaigning hard for it among our members,” Rechter says.

Success followed that hearing. Though the treaty wasn’t fully ratified by all 11 nations until November 2007, the International Tracing Service (ITS), which handled the archive under the auspices of the Red Cross, began clearing the way for the museum to receive tens of millions of scanned documents—Gestapo records, birth certificates, transfer papers. The archive is unimaginably huge; it fills 16 miles of shelves. The museum announced plans to make the scanned documents from Bad Arolsen available on computer terminals housed at its location at 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW, just off 14th Street and Independence Avenue.

But Rechter, instead of patting Shapiro and the museum on the back for a job well done, started circulating a petition that said, in part, “We emphatically reject and oppose such a concept.”

His problem was not that museum would bring the archive to the U.S., but that accessing it meant Holocaust survivors, the youngest of them in their 70s, would have to physically go to downtown D.C. to try and find information about their dead families.

“We live in an era of advanced technological feasibilities that provide multiple direct remote access-systems for home computers,” his petition said in part.

“We demand that the data…be made as easily accessible on the Internet—for us and our descendants—as modern science makes possible.

“We’ve waited long enough; any delays caused by imposed restrictions are UNACCEPTABLE!”

In the newsletter he sent out to his organization, Rechter wrote, “Once again, we seem to have been used as poster-boys; to whip up emotional support for purposes that wind up being far more beneficial to the organizations who claim to toil on our behalf than for us, the proclaimed victims.”

The petition and newsletter began a protracted battle, setting an old man from Queens against the national institution charged with memorializing the most traumatic time of his life.

The Archive

The Bad Arolsen archive was originally intended as an entry point for people to find one another in the chaos of post-war Europe. It’s located a few hours outside of Frankfurt, in a quiet, unbombed section of what was American-occupied Germany. Throughout the archive’s existence, more and more documents arrived and were filed. A good percentage of them, though by no means the majority, deal with Jewish victims of Nazism. There are watches confiscated at the camps and photographs of prisoners taken by Hitler’s soldiers. You can find Oskar Schindler’s list there and documents about Anne Frank.

In 2006, 60 Minutes brought three survivors to the archive and aired the results of their search in December of that year. The program re-aired the story since then and updated it in June 2007. In the piece, one of the survivors, a man from San Diego, discovers a page with a list of 50 names of people to be sent from Buchenwald to Dora, an underground munitions factory where few got out alive. Miki Schwartz discovered in the archive that his name, by some stroke of luck, had been crossed out. At age 14, he was liberated from Buchenwald by the U.S. Army. The discovery made for great TV—Schwartz visibly shook upon realizing for the first time he’d been saved by a line on a piece of paper he never knew existed. For others who’ve searched the archive, results are often less dramatic. Mostly, people are looking for the place and date of death so they can finally let go of any doubts, light a candle, and recite the Kaddish.

Kenneth Waltzer, a professor of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University, traveled to Bad Arolsen with Shapiro and other scholars in 2007. “We judged that the archive is a treasure trove, especially if the materials are approached knowingly in conversation with outside information,” he writes in “Opening the Red Cross International Tracing Service Archive,” an article to be published in the January issue of the John Marshall Journal of Computer and Information Law.

But the archive’s administration was, by all accounts, terrible. Museum officials report there was a backlog of 450,000 unanswered inquiries when they went to open it a few years ago.

Waltzer summarizes the experience of dealing with the Bad Arolsen Archive in an e-mail: “Failures to respond, long timelines in response, inadequate and parsed responses, responses which told less than could have been told, responses crafted by record keepers not historians (Bad Arolsen hired its first historian ever this year) — all this rightly angered the survivors. Their interest in democratized access was right on.”

Since the Holocaust museum began getting scanned information, those years-long silences have not only been severely reduced but often result in more informative, complete results.

Nesse Godin, 80, a museum volunteer who lives in Silver Spring, was born in Lithuania. She discovered the date of her uncle Naftali Berenstein’s death after a search that took only a few minutes. She told the archive workers, “For something for his soul, if I could light a candle, it would mean so much to me.” When we spoke on Nov. 25, she said she was planning to commemorate her uncle’s death within the week, on the actual date he died, for the first time.

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David Mermelstein, co-chair of Miami Holocaust Survivors of Dade County, recalls the three or four times he attempted to access the archive through the ITS and the Red Cross to learn the fate of his brother. “I tried to get it years ago…but they did a lousy job.”

Mermelstein, 80, visited the museum when the documents started coming. He knew the name of the town in Hungarian-occupied Czechoslovakia where he believed his brother had been deported from.

Two months after his visit, the museum called. Someone had found a record with his brother’s name and a similar birth date, but the name of the town was different. “I said, ‘That’s the same town in Hungarian.’” The Red Cross, he says, had not made any effort to follow up with him on possible misspellings or other confusions.

It is true, Leo Rechter acknowledges, that the general response time of mail requests to the museum—eight to 12 weeks, according museum officials—is an improvement compared to years of silence from the ITS. But for him, it is not improvement enough.

Many Holocaust survivors live on the West Coast, he says, and cannot afford or lack the physical ability to travel across the country and sit down with a researcher, recalling different spellings of a loved one’s name, or the possible years when he or she was born. The museum’s other service—sending requests by letter or through an online form—is also problematic, says Rechter.

“Survivors are sick and tired. For years they had to fill out forms for properties and nothing ever came about from it. So they are very skeptical about writing letters,” he says.

He suggests the documents should be made available regionally, in museums and libraries closer to where many survivors live, such as New York and Florida. “If you can train people in Washington, we’re sure you can find people all over. We have bright, intelligent people all over the country. What they are doing is creating a bottleneck.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Museum officials contend that what they are doing is providing expertise. Staff members have spent time at the actual archive in Germany and have extensive familiarity with European languages, which helps them research the documents. The museum also has access to several other archives that may assist survivors who find only a “jumping-off” point in Bad Arolsen. It would be difficult to replicate such an atmosphere at another institution without spending, in Shapiro’s words, “hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Placing the material on the Internet sets up inexpert searches when the experts want to take time to get the answers survivors seek.

“We don’t have the time to wait,” says Rechter. It’s unknown precisely how many survivors are living in the United States and at what rate they are dying. “The youngest ones of us are in our 70s and the oldest of us are in our 90s,” he says, later adding: “To deny us, to make it difficult to access it at this point of time when we are all elderly is really immoral.”

The Survivor

Leo Rechter was born in Vienna on Sept. 6, 1927. He lived on the second floor of a nice apartment building—it had a marble staircase—away from the heavily Jewish Leopoldstadt.

His father worked at a kosher butcher shop his older half-brother owned. His father, he remembers, was the more jovial, outgoing member of the pair, the one who was more likely to deal with Gentiles. The adults in the house kept kosher and knew Yiddish, but they did not speak it in front of the children. His parents wanted Leo to do well in school and not “pollute the German language with Yiddish,” he says, though he did learn Hebrew on Sundays.

At school, Rechter remembers at least one teacher who doled out special punishments for Jewish children. The teacher would make them stick their hands in a bucket filled with water, then hand-crank a machine to produce electric jolts.

After Anschluss, when Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, Rechter’s family tried to move to Argentina, the home of his mother’s brother. “I remember standing in line for hours and hours and coming back the next day with my father or my mother to get all kinds of certificates that all taxes had been paid.…All kinds of certificates that my father had never committed any criminal acts. The very famous paperwork,” he says, “German.”

Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” came eight months later. His parents had lived through pogroms before and when it became clear they would not get the papers they needed for Argentina, they decided to find another way out. After taking a train to Cologne, the family was smuggled across the border into Belgium, and through a social service organization, settled in Antwerp’s Jewish quarter. There, his parents started speaking Yiddish. He learned it, too.

“For the first time in my life I was a street urchin,” Rechter says. “[I was] associating with other Jewish children, learning how to fight, how to defend myself, how to use a knife.”

The Germans invaded in 1941 and deported all refugees, Jewish and non-Jewish. His family was sent to Limburg, a coal-mining town southeast of Antwerp. “It was not like a Jewish ghetto where you could always find some way of getting some food. Out there amongst Polish coal-miners, living strictly on rations with German supervision, there were two slices of bread for each one of us,” says Rechter.

Six months later, the Germans offered his father and the other men in the area a deal. If they agreed to go to France and work on the Atlantic Wall—the fortification system to deter Allied troops from the western coast of Europe—his family would not be deported. His father signed the paperwork and was allowed to see his wife and children one more time.

Rechter moved with his mother and sister to Brussels. Nine months later, his brother was born. After working in France for more than a year, his father was sent to Auschwitz.

At 14, Rechter became the family’s primary supporter. He found an excellent business partner in his father’s cousin, who had jumped off a train headed to Auschwitz and managed to find his relatives in Brussels. Rechter would collect small bags of cigarette butts from the streets. He and his cousin would then mix tobacco and cover it with old cigarette papers, putting them in boxes labeled Lucky Strikes and Camels (the labels were printed by a friend), and sell them to “wholesalers.” They ran their operation in a one-room apartment a block away from Gestapo headquarters—-a place where, his cousin assured him, no one would suspect that “Jews were living and working.”

On a day when a fight with his mother prevented Rechter from going to work, the Gestapo came and arrested his cousin. Belgian citizens stood and watched the spectacle. His cousin was deported and never returned.

“Everybody who survived, survived by luck,” Rechter says.

After the war, in 1949, Rechter emigrated to Israel and planned to find work and pay for his mother, sister, and brother to join him there. While working as a waiter in Herzliya he met his wife, a Baghdad-raised Jew, who had a small child from her first marriage to a man 25 years her senior.

Rechter never made enough money to bring his family over. His sister, in the meantime, had become a stenographer, met and married an American GI. She was 25 in 1955, the age she could get married in Belgium without her mother’s approval. Her mother did not approve and, eventually, she convinced her son to move to the States to keep an eye on his sister.

That’s how he ended up in Queens, where he found his new brother-in-law, a decent enough fellow who let Rechter sleep on the couch. He found work at fine hotels, including the Essex House off Central Park. He enrolled at Queens College, supporting himself as a waiter at Sardi’s, and went on to earn an MBA in finance and international business at Pace University. He took a job at Manufacturer’s Hanover Trust, where he eventually became head of a department in charge of issuing quarterly financial statements.

On a trip to Israel in the late ’70s, Rechter learned the fate of his father, who died in 1943, one of the 1.1 million who died at Auschwitz, according to the Holocaust museum.

When we first met in November, Rechter gave me a list of eight names—relatives, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents for whose records he is still searching.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Among them are his father’s half-brother, who ran the shop with his father, and that uncle’s two daughters, who were about 15 years older than Leo.

Rechter has also given this list to the museum. Here is part of it:

<9.000000>
<9.000000>Uncle : Jakob Waldhuter, born around 1880 in Poland; deported from Vienna, Austria where he owned a butcher shop.

The Museum

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum worked through reams of red tape to get as far as it has in regard to the files at Bad Arolsen. As such, Kenneth Waltzer, the Jewish Studies professor, considers the survivors’ protests against the museum “[a]t a minimum…ironic, because no institution had done more to loosen ITS’ grip on the archive than the Holocaust Museum.”

Waltzer writes in his article, “More than anyone, [Paul] Shapiro had sensed the archive’s value and had also anticipated the challenges that would accompany responsible stewardship. The records will ultimately double the museum’s holdings. This means new demands to enhance the museum’s technology infrastructure, expand survivor services, and upgrade understaffed research and translation services.”

Under the final agreement, says Shapiro, each country is allowed to handle the archive according to its own privacy laws. That victory, he says, was difficult to achieve.

When asked if there are laws preventing the museum from making the archive Internet searchable or from transferring parts of it to another museum, Shapiro was not sure. “I’m not a lawyer,” he says. “I can’t answer that. The process of transfer is first.”

To Rechter, privacy should be a nonissue: “I don’t know a single case of a survivor who is ashamed of having been a Holocaust victim.”

The museum asserts, accurately, that assisting Holocaust survivors or anyone else interested in the fate of those who died during it requires a high level of knowledge. The digitized copy of the archive, as it currently exists on the museum’s computers, is particularly tough to navigate. Nesse Godin had an easy time discovering the fate of her uncle, but most searches are not the equivalent of plugging a name into Google. Often the archive serves only as a steppingstone to other files the museum has the ability to access.

For insight, Shapiro says he visited the Family History Library, the mammoth genealogical database run by the Church of Latter Day Saints in Utah. For the past 10 years, according to Paul Nauta, public affairs manager for the Family History Library’s Web site, its staff has been working to put some of its materials online—about 5 percent of it’s available at familysearch.org. The library could, if it wished, place all of its materials on the Web, but they would not be so easily searchable. Different documents are different sizes and need to be photographed in different ways, he says. It’s a long process.

“I, too, had a fairly innocent technological view of this material,” says Shapiro. Over time he wants the material to “be out there and searchable, and directly accessible…but that will only follow a huge effort of cataloguing and data extraction.”

His take is the museum had two routes to consider: “Put everything out there and wish people good luck, in which case there was a very high probability people would not find information that was there. The other is to dedicate a resource—and I have to tell you it’s a substantial resource…so that there are people who are able to navigate through this material and find people answers there if there’s an answer there.”

Andrew Hollinger, a press officer with the museum, says in an e-mail that the work of transferring the material is budgeted at $5.7 million. That budget, he writes, includes “the total cost of acquiring the material, making it accessible and delivering it to survivors. It includes time and salaries of staff from multiple departments across the institution.”

The cost also includes the considerable amount of training the museum has had to conduct, he says, including travel to Germany and reaching out to survivors in different parts of the U.S. to tell them about the archive. The museum upgraded its computer systems to handle the transfer and spent another $250,000 to speed up the process, he writes.

But Rechter and others argue that’s a limited view. Rechter’s written about the issue several times on the Web site, the Cutting Edge News. The site is co-edited by Edwin Black, a journalist best known as the author of the controversial 2001 book IBM and the Holocaust. Black has also written several articles supporting Rechter and questioning the museum’s logic.

Rechter wrote in March 2008, quoting his own December 2007 column on the site, that “to depend on a single access-gate at the USHMM in Washington, D.C. is bound to create intolerable bottlenecks and sufferings. For those outside of Washington, D.C. it will create unjustifiable hardships.”

Others back him up, including the local publication the Washington Jewish Week, which published an unsigned editorial in January 2008 criticizing the museum:

<9.000000>
<9.000000>Locally, most of those seeking information will be able to go to the museum and sit down with a researcher. Outside the Washington-area, that’s not possible. Twenty computers in Washington is not good enough when the vast majority of survivors and their families do not live in the Washington area. The Holocaust museum needs, as soon as possible, to set up satellite research locations in areas with high concentrations of survivors, such as New York and Miami.

Regarding all of it, Black asks in an interview: “You know who owns the Holocaust?” and then answers the question himself: “The victims first. History second. Memory third. Historians fourth. Museum people last.”

Rechter says he’s surprised the museum has not been more supportive of the survivors’ cause. “Frankly, we were hoping, as far as the archive is concerned, that as soon as the museum would see that there is genuine interest by the survivors of having the archive made accessible to everybody that they would oblige us or do the best they could,” he says. “We never expected that they would dig in their heels and refuse to make it available.”

Rechter had a plan to confront museum officials at a conference in Alexandria on Nov. 8 and 9, 2008. The conference for survivors and their descendents included a presentation by Michael Haley Goldman, then the director of the museum’s registry for survivor requests.

Haley Goldman’s views on Rechter’s position were known: He had published a letter in the Jewish newspaper The Forward on Oct. 31 defending the museum’s position. At the end of his presentation, Rechter spoke up.

“Aren’t you going to allow questions and answers?,” Rechter says he asked both Haley Goldman and Daisy Miller, a prominent Holocaust survivor who had worked on Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. She told him they were not taking questions.

Rechter continued anyway: “I think it is highly unfair that you are trying to monopolize all that knowledge, that you are waiting to get everything in tip-top shape,” Rechter said. “Everything that you know you should put out.” After that, they cut him off.

Later at the conference, he spoke with Haley Goldman privately. Rechter says Haley Goldman simply repeated what he had written in the Forward. Haley Goldman says the conference organizers had set up presentations without question-and-answer periods; he was to be available in the hall for any questions.

Rechter told him, “I’m sorry I interrupted. But you had your job to do and I had my job to do.”

Haley Goldman says of the interaction that “honestly, at survivor events there are survivors who want to make statements for all kinds of things.” He also said he wanted to talk to Rechter further and invited him to see the archive computer terminals for himself.

The Search

At the conference, Rechter did take the opportunity to give representatives of the museum his list of eight relatives. I had it, too, and made an appointment to sit down with Haley Goldman to see what happened when we plugged Rechter’s relatives into the museum’s computers.

“Grandfather: Jakub Schus or Schuss, born around 1865, deported from Ostrowy-Baranowski, Poland.”

Earlier archivists had long been aware of the many phonetic renderings in the Babel of languages in concentration camps and had thus developed a Soundex system based on the German language. When we entered “Jakub Schus,” we got a list of card names. Haley Goldman told me to think of the list in front of me as a drawer of library calling cards.

Eventually we actually found “Jakub Schus,” but only as a request card that included Leo Rechter’s name and his Queens address, a holdover from the time he contacted the archive in Germany in the mid-’90s.

On the card’s back, someone had written a birth date “2 22 1858” and “Gh: Theresiendstadt,” a concentration camp also known as Terezin, about an hour outside of Prague.

The reference referred to another card referring to a “Jakub Suss.” It’s unlikely, according to Haley Goldman, that someone would have been deported directly from Poland to Czechoslovakia, but he says it’s possible Jakub Schus may have ended up there after visiting a few camps. The year 1858 was also close enough to “around 1865” to be worth exploring. Still the name “Jakub Suss” was very common, sort of like “John Smith,” and after a look into a Czech-language book containing names of the inmates at Terezin, Haley Goldman says that he’s pretty sure this was not Rechter’s grandfather.

“And often we’ve had long conversations about this,” Haley Goldman says. “If the conclusion is, ‘I don’t think this is the right person but I feel like I’m obligated to let this person know about this connection just in case’…[we tell them,] ‘I wanted you to know about this document and if you have other information that might prove one way or the other…’”

Haley Goldman says there are “pros and cons” with both dealing with survivors sitting in a chair next to them and getting requests in the mail—which often involve forms requesting details about different name and place spellings. “One of the things that happens when you’re in this space [at the museum], you are only here for a day. You are talking about people who come and plan to spend all day. Often people come and plan to spend two hours.”

It may take a day to locate the right book, or even another archive, other than Bad Arolsen, to which the museum has access that may be of better help.

“It does help if you are able to ask questions to a live person,” he says. But you can always compensate by asking more questions by mail.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

The Answers

On Dec. 12, the museum contacted Rechter by e-mail to let him know they had actually found information on three relatives on his list: his father’s half-brother and his two cousins. They also had information on his aunt, who had not been included on the list.

Rechter had spelled his Uncle Jakob’s surname “Waldhuter” but the documents the museum located named him “Jakob Waldhitter.” Rechter learned his uncle’s birth date for the first time, not just “around 1880,” but “December 30, 1876.” He was deported on June 6, 1942, from Vienna. All four of them died in Sobibor, a concentration camp in Poland.

Rechter is happy for the discovery. He’s already contacted Jakob Waldhuter’s grandson, who lives in a New York suburb, and his great-grandson. But his experience—the museum sent him the information a little more than a month after his request—hasn’t changed his position one bit.

Rechter asserts his crusade is not being fought for his individual concerns but for those of the entire survivor community; they should all get any information that’s out there before they die. If the material was more widely disseminated, he believes the process of discovery would be that much quicker.

“We feel very strongly that this property is really our property. It’s the data of our dear-departed, my father, my uncle, my aunts, my cousins, my younger cousins, my older cousins….They all perished. I feel that data belongs to me more than those strangers in the museum, whether they are of the same religion or not. And [the museum officials] are usurping their power because they have the financial means and the backing from the government.”

During his congressional testimony, Rechter spoke about the pain he felt in seeking restitution for victims. Democratizing the archive may seem like a much smaller issue, but it’s impossible to ignore how his experience of one struggle informs another. “In the survivor community there is a lot of disappointment,” he testified. “There is a lot of bitterness. There is a lot of cynicism. And the general feeling is that we will never see justice for ourselves because they are all waiting for us to die, and we are just a cog in the history, and we are just being used.

“And there will never ever be any real justice for us,” he said. “We will never get to know that released feeling. I believe—I hope otherwise, or otherwise I wouldn’t have wasted my time to come here.”