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Chicago family donates prized papers to U.S. Holocaust Museum

They have been Jeremy von Halle's most prized possessions, but they have also become a burden.

Toting his grandfather's trove of World War II-era family documents from apartment to apartment in Chicago, the 27-year-old operations director for a technology company worried about fire. He worried about theft. He worried about flooding if he kept the materials in a basement, and he worried about a pipe bursting overhead if he kept them on a closet shelf.

"I've been feeling like at any moment, anything could happen," he said. "It's terrible."

And so, on a weekday afternoon this summer, he met at his parents' apartment north of Lincoln Park with curators from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His mother served brownies. She and Jeremy's father spoke with pride of their son's undergraduate thesis, which told how his grandfather and great-grandmother, German Jews who had moved to the Netherlands after Hitler took power, had lived through that time while other family members did not.

With von Halle were clear plastic bins containing the documents. He had a map his architect great-grandfather had drawn while in hiding at a Dutch farmhouse during the war. He had that same man's service documents from the German army during World War I, proof of him fighting for a country that a quarter-century later would kill him, at Auschwitz. There were postcards, photographs, letters, passports and certificates of marriage and birth, some of it dating to the 19th century.

There was a copy of a letter Eleanor Roosevelt had written on behalf of his family asking U.S. officials to plead with German authorities to let the von Halles exit Europe. Toward the end of 1941, a top State Department officer seemed to take up the case, but his letter indicating interest was dated Dec. 6, the day before Pearl Harbor.

Von Halle has kept these materials close at hand since his grandfather Gerd died in northern New Jersey four years ago, and even before that he knew much of the tale intimately. His senior history thesis at Duke University told his family's story, and its online publication has put him in touch with von Halles and people who knew them all over the world.

"There's all the different things along the way that made the chances of me being here so minuscule," he said. "Yet I am here."

Some of the materials von Halle had seen before his grandfather's death, and his grandfather had already donated some key documents to the museum in Washington, D.C. (The younger von Halle has maintained the relationship with the U.S. museum, rather than the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, in part because his grandfather never lived in Illinois.) But much more had been discovered in cardboard boxes afterward, and von Halle found something new virtually every time he looked, including when he showed the materials to the museum officials on his parents' tabletop.

Yet it was time, he had decided.

"It's a little bit emotional to give it up," he said, "but I think it's important that it survives. As much as I really want it at arm's length, I would rather be reassured that it's going to be safe and sound. There's just too much risk involved in carrying it around, and it's time. It's just too much."

Across the country, such decisions have been taking place with regularity, especially in recent years with the opening of two major national museums. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture will open its doors on the National Mall in Washington on Sept. 24, and the past decade of development has included a nationwide search for telling and surprising artifacts, many of them gathered from private donors. In May 2014, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum opened at ground zero in New York City with its own collection of donated possessions.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has been taking in materials that help tell the story of the Holocaust for decades and with enough diligence that it is about to open a big new archives facility in suburban Washington built to handle its burgeoning collection and make it more accessible to the public. The museum's annual benefit luncheon in Chicago takes place Wednesday at the Sheraton Grand (more information at www.ushmm.org or call the museum's Midwest office at 847-433-8099).

"We get a private collection a day, some 400 a year from private individuals," said Suzy Snyder, the museum curator who had traveled from Washington to meet with the von Halles and others in Chicago and was headed next to California for the same reason. A colleague who just returned from two weeks in Israel typically comes back with more than two dozen such collections, she said, and people now know to seek out the museum.

Yet even though what they seek are historical documents, she is in a race against time, she said: "It's urgent. That generation is withering. … You really want to deal with survivors because they have the answers to everything. If you receive a collection from survivors, they can tell you the significance of everything.

"Jeremy's sort of a unique case. He really wants to know about his family history. He's done a lot of digging himself. He's a great third-generation person to go back to. But every generation after the original generation knows less, and can't answer questions. And we do go back to people."

The museum wants documents relating to all survivors, which it defines as those who lived under Nazi occupation, she said, whether or not they are Jewish; recently there's been a "big push for Polish non-Jews, Polish Roman Catholics, to come forward," said Snyder.

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And if people know their relatives have materials they aren't ready to donate, she urged them to talk to the relatives about their experiences, to record the conversations following guidelines posted on the museum's website and at www.worldmemoryproject.org.

"It's all important," said Snyder. "It can be one collection. It can be one box. It can be one postcard. It's all important because every collection illustrates a different story."

The donation the von Halle family is preparing to make will travel east via a professional art handling service, the stuff of everyday life elevated to the status of fine art. The documents will be stored according to the best modern conservation methods, and they will be digitized for easy access at a remove.

"For a lot of historians, this is primary source material," Snyder explained.

Jeremy's father Robert von Halle, an options trader, had a question: "Somehow we're going to get all this stuff to Washington, donate it, and then you guys are going to go through and figure out what all this is?"

"Yes," Snyder responded. "With (Jeremy), we'll go through it. Part of the relationship we create is to make sure you're involved." (Earlier, Snyder had said, "Wow, this is really impressive. This is my second donor today where somebody actually sat down and tried to organize things.")

Jeremy von Halle spoke of his anxiety at having the documents in his possession, including having them with him on the train that morning. Snyder offered a way to proceed.

"OK," she said, "it has to live in your parents' house for a few weeks. Don't reorganize it at all. When it gets to me I will keep it in your sort of organized fashion. Once we digitize the photographs, even though you've written on many of them, I'm going to send you Xerox copies, and I want you to circle everyone you know and write down who it is. Which sounds like a lot of work, but if you don't do it, we can't have a catalog record. And they're beautiful photographs, but it's even more beautiful to know who they are. Does that sound like a plan?"

"That sounds like a good plan," said von Halle, whose blog containing family photos and some of the story is at https://snapshotsofourpast.com. (The thesis is at http://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/handle/10161/3753.)

In the weeks since he visited with Snyder, von Halle has gotten in touch with a Northwestern professor who works with the museum. He wants to sit down with the scholar and go through the documents before he sends them off in hopes of gaining further understanding.

"I would love to get an academic's eyes on what I have," he said last week. "I think it's a pretty special collection."

And after that meeting, he'll call the art handlers and send the materials off. But for now, he frets.

"In the back of my mind, I'm still worried," he said. "It's at my parents' house. I went and checked on it this weekend to make sure it was fine."

sajohnson@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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