The American Red Cross is well known for its rapid response to crisis. But in February, four Oregonians came to the organization for help with a humanitarian catastrophe older than most Red Cross employees: the fate of relatives who disappeared more than 60 years ago in Europe during the Holocaust.
"The reality is, we don't get a lot of requests like this," says Lise Harwin, spokeswoman for the Oregon Trail chapter of the Red Cross. "To get four in one month—it's really unexpected."
Tuesday, April 21, is Holocaust Remembrance Day. As prayers are recited for the millions known to have been killed, Portlander Sarah Krakauer will be awaiting details from the Red Cross regarding the fate of her grandfather's cousin, a Polish Jew named Mietek Weinberg. (Sarah's brother is Into the Wild author Jon Krakauer.)
Krakauer, 53, filed a request because her own Internet research had reached a dead end: She found records placing Weinberg in a hospital after the war, alive but "in need of assistance"; a former neighbor, however, told Krakauer she recalls that Weinberg died in a forced-labor camp.
"In my wildest dreams he lived and had children," Krakauer says. "I hate to think this entire family was wiped out."
Krakauer's request has been forwarded with the three others from Oregon to the Red Cross' Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center in Baltimore. There, researchers will scour databases and correspond with the Red Cross' 186 international chapters to find any trace of the missing—a fatal mark in a Nazi record book, a death certificate or, maybe, a telephone number. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a half dozen years to receive the first results.
Since 1990, the little-known center has worked quietly, and for free, to determine the fate of more than 12,000 relatives lost during World War II. Its mission fits within that of the Red Cross' larger International Services division, which helps reunite families broken up by current conflicts and disasters. But the tracing center's four employees and 80 volunteers focus exclusively on separations that occurred because of the Nazis.
"It really provides closure to a community both Jewish and non-Jewish that was so severed during World War II," says Fran Schlesinger, a Portlander who chaired the center's board from 2005 to 2007. "Their lives were so ripped apart that very few received real answers to what happened to their relatives."
A trace by the center begins with a double-sided form—basic details about the disappeared:
(1) Sought people are my: "cousins"
(2) Names: "Eva and Vera Tauber"
(3) Date of birth: "May 4th, 1934"
(4) Last place of residence: "Brno, Czechoslovakia"
(5) Last contact with sought people: "May, 1940"
Those are the answers Ruth Lindemann wrote when she filled out the form and submitted it to the Oregon Red Cross in the '90s. She was 8 when she last saw her twin cousins at her grandmother's house in the Austrian countryside. It was May 1940, and Lindemann and her mother were about to leave their home in Vienna to escape Nazi persecution. Eva and Vera had come to say goodbye.
"They said, 'Well, we feel fairly safe because Czech people aren't mean like the Austrians. They're not going to do that to us,'" says Lindemann, now 76. "A lot of people stayed around to wait for this nightmare to pass."
Of course, the nightmare only grew worse: By the war's end in 1945 an estimated 6 million Jews had been killed by the Nazis—more than 200,000 in Czechoslovakia. Eva and Vera were among the millions who disappeared without a trace, and Lindemann spent the following decades wondering where they went.
"My cousins would be in their 70s now," Lindemann says. "When someone disappears, until there's some kind of closure, you keep hoping they will turn up."
More than six decades after the war's end, the center's workload has tapered off as Holocaust survivors age and die: 961 cases were opened last year, down from 1,198 in 2007. But "last year, we suddenly got all of these cases from very old people," says Jessica Wodarczyk, the center's program manager. "These are people who never spoke of the Holocaust because they had a new life and kids. Now they're at the other end of the spectrum and they go back to 'I need to know.'"
In the years after World War II, Lindemann remembers her mother sitting in their home in Bellevue, Wash., poring over copies of the Jewish refugee newspaper Aufbau for any trace of the twins or their parents.
"There were pages of lists. She kept looking and looking at these lists for years," Lindemann says. From 1944 to 1946, Aufbau published more than 30,000 names of Jewish survivors in Europe searching for family in America. Eva and Vera were not among them.
Today, the Aufbau lists are just a few of the thousands used by researchers at the center. They usually start with the website of the Israeli Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, whose online database contains the names of more than 3.3 million Holocaust victims and survivors.
But the best resource is often the meticulous records the Nazis themselves kept as they shipped Jews and other "undesirables" across Europe. The International Committee of the Red Cross oversees the International Tracing Service archives in Bad Arolsen, Germany, which contain millions of Nazi documents filling over 16 miles of shelves and drawers.
And in 1999, those records yielded results for Lindemann: a page from a Nazi ledger showing that Eva and Vera were deported to a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia on April 28, 1942—six days before their eighth birthday. They did not survive. Researchers also found identification cards the girls wore during transit. A Red Cross worker delivered the documents to Lindemann's house in Portland.
"It was a shock," Lindemann says. "It was such a manifold thing because you're holding something that these people were actually holding also, and you think about what happened to them and how close it came to happening to me."
Most completed cases end like Lindemann's, with final proof that the disappeared fell victim to the Nazi killing apparatus. But the holy grail of the trace is the reunion: To date, the center has located more than 1,200 family members alive.
Krakauer might dream about meeting Weinberg's children, but she's not optimistic. "I don't really expect that great of news," she says. "I just want to know what he died of. Anything. Maybe a picture." (Shortly before this story went to press, the Red Cross informed Krakauer they had found Weinberg's name in a list of survivors from Lodz, Poland.)
Like all tracing cases, Krakauer's will remain open indefinitely, says Leslie Cartier, a volunteer researcher at the center. But even the most thorough search can turn up nothing: "A lot of times it seems like they just disappear into the clear blue sky."
For information on the Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center, or to start your own trace, contact the Oregon Red Cross at 284-1234.