My son and I have been collecting keychains for years. Whenever I travel abroad, I make sure to bring a keychain back for him. It is a reminder of all the places I’ve visited, and it is a pastime that brings us together. Did I also mention it’s affordable?
There are as many reasons to collect as there are collections. Some do it as a hobby, others for profit, and still others for educational purposes. Although growing demand from all types of collectors has resulted in counterfeit pieces infiltrating the market, there are still large numbers of genuine artifacts that are continuously being discovered. Survivors who were never able to share their stories with their children are now bequeathing their meaningful possessions so that they will not be lost to history. Children of World War II veterans often inherit war relics such as flags, knives and Luger pistols that were brought home by the victorious GIs.
It was not just individuals who brought home reminders of the war. In Aberdeen Proving Ground, a United States Army facility in Aberdeen, Maryland, hundreds of captured German artillery pieces, Panzer tanks and even V-I and V-II rockets are displayed in neat rows. The largest train gun ever built, the German Leopold, sits on a track nearby. I don’t think someone took that home in his duffel bag.
We have found that collectors—even amateurs—amass a great deal of knowledge, and that information is extremely helpful in verifying the authenticity of what were once family memorabilia or keepsakes from difficult times.
There are times, however, when donors are unable to identify or authenticate the items they are giving. For example, we recently received a metal badge with some German and Polish inscriptions. It did not take long to determine that it was a badge of the Jewish ghetto police, or Ordnungsdienst, but we were unsure if it was authentic.
Our collections curator, Shoshana Greenwald, explains, “Sometimes there are obvious signs of fraud, but often the object requires closer examination.” Turning the badge over, Shoshana points out certain key details. “Look at the quality of metal imprinting done by the Nazis; they were meticulous record-keepers, and their weapons were imprinted by Germany’s best companies. Metal pieces such as knives, helmets or badges that have unclear or inconsistent markings are suspicious. In this case, it’s the blue surface that might have been added to make it look more ‘Jewish.’”
Another potential donor to the KFHEC offered rolls of fabric that her parents might have used as part of a vocational program in a DP (displaced persons) camp after the war. While it was clear that the material had not been purchased at Kmart, we must still confirm its origins. Shoshana consulted several scholars and experts who dated the fabric to the 1950s. Since that DP camp was still in operation several years after the war, her next job was to determine when the donor’s parents had left the camp. Shoshana also surveyed periodicals from the era containing fabric illustrations and swatches to verify the types of materials that were in circulation.
Megan MacCall, our director of collections, elaborates. “A vast amount of effort and resources is invested in preserving and protecting each artifact donated. As a professional institution, we must determine the authenticity of an item for historical integrity.”
Because KFHEC is an education center, replicas also serve a genuine purpose. As our education director, Julie Golding, explains, “Even reproductions are valuable educational tools. While most artifacts in our collection can only be handled by professional staff, hands-on activities with reproductions encourage students to interact with history on a much deeper level.”
As the KFHEC collection grows, I am reminded that the true value of these items lies in their ability to convey the enduring strength of klal Yisrael. Since its establishment, the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center has received numerous items of interest from people who wish to participate in our mission. If you have something that may have some historical significance, our team is ready to help discover its story and make sure it gets the attention it deserves. To those who have already shared with us, we thank you for your contribution and hope that it will be an inspiration to future generations.