Some items should never find their way onto an auction block
There are many archives and museums that are interested in obtaining items that once belonged to Holocaust survivors. Claiming that selling such items seeks to “save them” is false and deceiving.
This week, my family and I found ourselves in the heart of controversy for trying to prevent the sale of a letter written by my late aunt, Rachel Mintz, two years before World War II erupted and just before she was murdered in the Holocaust. The effort to prevent the outrageous trade in items belonging to a Holocaust victim resulted in an astonishing discovery: the seller is himself a member of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum council.
Many lies have been published about this story in recent days and I want to take this opportunity to set the record straight.
First, we have no desire to keep the letter ourselves. It belongs in a relevant archive or museum that will honor my aunt’s memory. Second, we have no interest in hurting anyone. We approached the seller and had hoped to resolve the issue quietly, but he refused, leaving us no choice but to go to court.
Many in Israel are first exposed to their family history in middle school, as part of a project that focuses on tracing one’s roots. I grew up as a second-generation Holocaust survivor, and, in our home, the (fascinating!) research of our family history was an integral part of our reality.
When the generation of Holocaust survivors in our family passed away, the rest of us continued with our research. This included several trips by relatives to towns in Poland from which the family originated, not only to learn about the Holocaust, but even primarily to learn about the life they lived before it all ended.
We have little information and even fewer memories from my Aunt Rachel. A single photograph, her birth certificate, and a death certificate (of questionable credibility), which we were able to find in a Polish archive.
My father would tell me stories about her — tales filled with longing for Lala (“doll,” in Polish), the little sister left behind. When the Nazis invaded Poland, my grandmother encouraged my father and the other siblings to flee east. She stayed home with Rachel, who was too young to weather the hardships of the escape.
And so they stayed behind and hid in town. When the war was over and my father went back to find them, he discovered, to his horror, that someone in town, most likely a Jew, disclosed his family’s hiding place and they were taken to Auschwitz or to the ghetto. Both my grandmother and my aunt were murdered.
It was my cousin who learned that Rachel’s letter was to be auctioned this week. He discovered that detail completely by chance, via an article that was published with the express aim of sparking interest to raise the letter’s price at the auction.
For me, reading the letter was like hearing a distant echo from the past, a glimpse into the world of the 11-year-old girl who wrote it – the aunt I never got to know. To say I was moved would be an understatement.
We immediately — quietly — contacted the auction house. We explained who we were and asked to stop the sale, to allow the letter to be transferred to a relevant museum or archive, where it could be preserved and my aunt’s memory would be honored.
We were met with a polite refusal. The auction house’s director said they had been “doing everything they could to prevent the seller from auctioning off the letter,” but the seller had refused.
We then appealed to the anonymous seller through mainstream and social media, but to no avail. It wasn’t until we went to court to prevent the sale that events took a bizarre turn and we were shocked to learn that the seller is a member of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum council.
It is easy to speak of the private interest of the family and ask whether we have the right to demand the letter be entrusted to a museum. But our case has wider public significance. The thought of trading in Holocaust victims’ items is outrageous. There are quite a few research institutions, archives, and museums that would be interested in having such items in their possession. The argument claiming that only by auctioning off such items they can “be saved” is both false and deceptive.
Much has been said about “compensation.” To me, discussing compensation for the investment made in buying the letter from whomever held it and presented it for auction is legitimate. But discussing compensation for the potential profit that the sale of the letter might have yielded essentially states that nothing is too precious to have a price.
For years, Yad Vashem has been striving to salvage items that belonged to Holocaust victims, something a member of the museum’s council knows well. Yad Vashem is famous for its policy of not buying such items at all — and for good reason: participating in such trade is not only immoral, but it also inflates the prices of such items, and only one side profits from that.
My family will continue this struggle, both privately and publicly. I sincerely hope that the seller understands the value of preserving these personal letters in a suitable museum or archive. This morning, I was informed by the National Library of Israel that the letters meet the criteria for their archives, as well as for the one at the Central Archives of the History of the Jewish People.
At this point, I just hope that the media attention we received will help convey our message about such artifacts, and create the appropriate public norm. Some items just shouldn’t be traded.
This post was originally published in The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, Zman Israel.