Every few weeks Kyra Schuster flies down to Palm Beach County in Florida to meet with Holocaust survivors. Yeah, so what, you may ask. Well, here’s what:
Ms. Schuster is a curator for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and makes these trips as often as she can to retrieve the precious artifacts and remnants that many survivors have carried with them all these years: diaries and suitcases and photos and postcards. All tangible reminders and in some instances testimony to their experiences.
Reminds me a bit of “The They Carried,” Tim O’Brien‘s book about what soldiers carried with them in Vietnam. [I’m aware it’s a bit anachronistic to refer to an earlier war using a literary catchphrase from a later war, but please give me some slack, or at least some poetic license.]
“Kyra Schuster is a treasure hunter who measures her victories in tattered scraps of paper and suitcases that outlived their owners,” is how Lona O’Connor described her in last Sunday’s Palm Beach Post.
Ms. Schuster says she loves her job and from my vantage point, what’s not to love? Sure, the subject of the Holocaust is inherently a downer but I kind of have a bit of job envy here. What an endlessly fascinating project to be working on. Well, not endlessly, obviously, and that’s kind of the point.
Per stats mentioned in the article, the median age of survivors in Palm Beach County (which has the second largest community of survivors in the country, estimated to be between 12,000 and 18,000) is 85. That means Ms. Schuster has to cull these artifacts as fast as she can, before they are lost to history by death and default.
A lot of people work best under pressure; deadlines impose a ticking clock and death is the ultimate deadline. Schuster seems to handle it with grace.
Her retrieval and acquisition of these items is not really about the objects themselves, but about the people who donate them. She hears their stories and weaves them into the exhibition for historical context.
The USHMM receives more than 800 calls a year from people with artifacts from Jews living during the Nazi era and the post-war displaced persons camps. My mother-in-law Hana Berger Moran, who was born in German concentration camp, was one of those callers. A baby born in a camp seems unfathomable, but it happened and Hana is living proof. A few years ago she donated her newborn clothes to the museum. They were made by women in her mother’s camp who managed to scrounge up scraps of cloth to make her a shirt and hat. They even found a bit of colored thread to stitch both a pink and a blue flower, not sure if the baby would be a girl or a boy.