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Discovery of Holocaust-era photos helps a Jewish family connect with its past

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.S. Holocaust Museum recently acquired a collection of never-before-seen photos of a French internment camp. It's a camp where Jews were imprisoned before being sent to Auschwitz. More than a million were killed in Auschwitz. In this encore story, NPR's Greg Allen tells us how these rare photos resurfaced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GREG ALLEN: Silvia Espinosa-Schrock was an art student at Cooper Union in 1989, when she stopped to browse through knickknacks someone was selling on the street.

SILVIA ESPINOSA-SCHROCK: I saw that box. And instinctively, I was drawn to it being a kind of a visual artist. And I said, wow, these are really old photos. I knew I have to save these pictures because I knew this was precious, and I knew this should belong to a family.

ALLEN: Espinosa-Schrock paid $5 for the box. Looking through the collection of some 200 photos, she realized they came from a Jewish family and included pictures of a concentration camp. She always wanted to find the family they belonged to but couldn't figure out how, so she put them away. She moved back to Miami, where she's now an artist, an art history teacher. Espinosa-Schrock forgot about them until last year, when she came across them in a burst of pandemic cleaning.

ESPINOSA-SCHROCK: There it was - that old cardboard box full of these incredible photographs. I totally forgot about them. And that's how it happens. It was March 2020. Immediately that night, I start to Google. And I was like, I got to find this family.

ALLEN: On one of the photos, she found a name - Joachim Getter. A search for that name took her to a website and a blog run by David Semmel that commemorates the Jewish community in a Polish town, Przemysl. Many of Semmel's relatives who lived there were killed in the Holocaust. Espinosa-Schrock contacted Semmel. And soon, he says, he received from her scans of photos and other keepsakes that were in the cardboard box.

DAVID SEMMEL: And the first thing I pull out and look at is a box of matches from my parents' wedding in 1953. There's pictures of my mother. There's pictures of my grandmother.

ALLEN: Most surprising were several pictures of his grandfather's sister, his great-aunt Chaya. She was killed in Auschwitz, and until then, Semmel had only ever seen one photo of her as a teenager.

SEMMEL: Chaya was always this unknown quantity. She was just a name and a picture of a little - an adolescent girl. It just pained my grandfather to talk about her. Chaya was just the victim we had in the family. And all of a sudden, she's a real person.

ALLEN: Most significant historically are three photos taken at a French internment camp south of Paris, Beaune-la-Rolande. The photographs, it turns out, belonged to one of Semmel's distant relatives, Paulette Getter. Her first husband, Salomon Abend, was held at Beaune-la-Rolande, where he sent her the photos and a hand-drawn card.

SEMMEL: To me, this is the prize. I mean, this is the most important thing. It looks like colored pencil drawing of the detention camp. And he's written, pour ma chere Paulette, from Salomon.

SUZY SNYDER: You can see in the background they're living in a very rough situation. They're living in barracks.

ALLEN: Suzy Snyder is a curator with the U.S. Holocaust Museum. The photos and hand-drawn cards sent or smuggled out of the camp are rare pictures of a place where 18,000 Jews were held.

SNYDER: It was a way station for what the Nazis would then do and further deport these Jews on to Auschwitz.

ALLEN: Most of those held at Beaune-la-Rolande were killed at Auschwitz, including Salomon Abend. Abend's wife, Paulette, survived the war. David Semmel plans a visit to archives in France, where he hopes to find out how. She made it to New York after the war, where she remarried and lived until 1989. Weeks after her death was her box of photographs yjsy art student Silvia Espinosa-Schrock found. They're now in the archives of the Holocaust Museum. The museum has more than 100,000 photos and images in its collection and is working together more before pictures, documents and other evidence of the Holocaust are lost forever. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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