Letting go so others may learn: Museum seeks personal artifacts for Holocaust Museum

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The end of World War II was more than 70 years ago. Many of the survivors of the Holocaust are well into their Golden Years no and for that reason, there is a rush in Washington D.C to gather what's left from the Holocaust.

From books to papers to pictures, families have been clinging to the few items they had from those horrible years.

Now there’s a chance to let go of them so others can learn. And to do it before the stories grow cold and the memories of the Holocaust from the generation who lived through it fade.

In Chicago, one woman doing her part.

At 74, Elayne Topolski of Northbrook has waited decades to tell the story of Zygmond Bernstein, affectionately known to her as “Uncle Zyga.”

It's her ex-husband's uncle and today, she is turning over her beloved relative's keepsakes.  They are treasures from a life filled with loss and tragedy.  She is turning over the items to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to enlighten and maybe even piece together the lives of others touched and tortured by the Holocaust.

The items include dog tags he earned in the Polish army, black and white headshots of him stuffed in a family file, his Hebrew prayer book and his diary, dated 1943.  They are letters essentially written to his wife and young son back in Krakow while he fought. He didn’t learn of their deaths at the hands of Nazi Germany until years later.

Uncle Zyga died in 1983.

Suzy Snyder from the Holocaust Museum travels coast to coast to meet with people like Elayne before her generation is gone too.

"Survivors are essentially passing away at a great rate right now,” Snyder said.

First and second hand story tellers are critical to the mission.

Artifcats are gathered, collected and hopefully displayed from World War II at the Shapell Center in Maryland, a research and conservation facility where the often untold stories can be shared among students, scholars and everyday people starting in 2018.

It's an extension of the Washington museum which is now 23 years old.

Snyder is seeking letters, pictures and documents from that time that piece the tortured puzzle together for families one at a time.

Letting go of the artifacts is often a process of grieving.

"It's a burden,” Snyder said. “It’s heart wrenching.  It's a relief for them."

The museum in Washington together with the archival center in Maryland are honoring survivors and those that did not.

"It helps us all. It helps the survivors, helps the family, it helps everyone,” Snyder said.

If you have artifacts you'd like to turn over log on to ushmm.org