How can we hope to open ourselves to the cosmic vastness of the number of murdered Jews, of whom 1.5 million were children? Or the endless list of cities, towns, and villages emptied of families and traditional ways of life? Or the ghoulish post-liberation photographs and films of the camps? How do we grapple with the sadistic barbarism, wrapped in a perverse ideology, requiring the complicity of “ordinary men” and women to be sure, but as well the elites of an enlightened German society, that was the black heart of the Holocaust? While the facts beggar description, they must ultimately serve as markers in a quest to comprehend the abysmal depths of this tragedy and its aftermath. To this end we must study the primary documents and texts housed in museums and libraries which set the wheels of the Holocaust turning. Documentaries, diaries, and survivor testimonies as well provide important context to this tragic period of history. But the concrete immediacy of individual artifacts and ephemera-the flotsam of the Third Reich and its victims-truly brings the monstrous magnitude of the Holocaust near to us. The heartbreaking postcards and letters to loved ones, the posters, stamps, the press and family photographs, the ghetto mail and censorship markings, and visas: all bear silent witness to the depredations and destruction visited upon the European Jews. For example, we can hold a postcard written by a Jewish woman finding it impossible to get to safety in England from occupied France; or read the last postcard written by a woman prior to her deportation to the death camps; or see an envelope where the sender’s middle name is “Sarah”, her “official” Jewish name in Nazi Germany; or a dress with a yellow star worn in Germany; or a Letter of Protection signed for a desperate Jewish man that placed the author of that letter-a Gentile- at great risk of losing his own life; or a press photograph of the cancer-stricken Sigmund Freud, himself a refugee arriving in London, forced, like many assimilated Jewish intellectuals, to flee Vienna; or another press photograph of a puzzled and frightened German Jewish child, a member of the first Kindertransport, clutching her doll, all of her worldly possessions in a cloth bag, forced to leave her anguished parents behind, completely dependent on the kindness of strangers she could not yet know any more than she could know the fate of her own parents; or a “progress note” dictated by the monstrous Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyons”, who was responsible for unceremoniously conveying 44 French Jewish children-- sitting down for their morning hot chocolate--from an orphanage in Izieu to Auschwitz where they were murdered, casually noting several Jews he had sent to the infamous internment camp at Drancy. It so often seems—paraphrasing William Blake-- that we can see a world only in a grain of sand.
This collection is as well a memorial to the Bulmash family members who perished in the Holocaust. My grandfather Mottel Bulmash came to America from the Jewish shtetl of Trochenbrod or, as it was known by its Polish name, Sofiyevka. Trochenbrod was in Volhynia, currently a province in the western Ukraine, but when my grandfather left to seek opportunity in America, it was part of Russia. Every member of the Bulmash family had lived either in Trochenbrod or in the neighboring towns of Rovno, Lutsk, or Zhitomir. However, in another variation of the Holocaust, the so-called “Holocaust by bullets” that is an important part of the larger Holocaust narrative, “Einsatzgruppen” squads-- members of SS paramilitary units responsible for the mass murder of Jews-- cut a swath through Russia behind the advancing Wehrmacht after the commencement of Operation Barbarossa in June, 1941. “Einsatzgruppen C”, with the collaboration of their Ukrainian auxiliaries, went from town to town, city to city, shtetl to shtetl, rounding up Jews, quartering them in makeshift ghettos for a short period of time, whereupon they would be marched into the forest and, over pre-prepared pits the uncomprehending Jews were made to dig themselves, shot in the back of the head: men, women, and children. In Trochenbrod, there were two such “Aktions” in July and August, 1942. Save for a few who managed to escape to the forest, every Jew was murdered, including 58 members of the Bulmash family. The shtetl was burned to the ground, but not before the homes were pilfered, and Trochenbrod ceased to exist. Today it is a barren field with a ghostly path that had once been the main street of a thriving shtetl. The Bulmash family members in the nearby towns of Lutsk, Rovno, and Zhitomir were also murdered in separate “Aktions”: in all a total of 15 from these towns. The “Einsatzgruppen” squads and their minions were ultimately to kill more Jews than perished in Auschwitz, leaving in their wake mass graves throughout the Ukraine and Belarus. My grandfather and another relative living in the Chicago area were the last remnants of this family to survive because they had already been in America, although my grandfather did not become a United States citizen until 1944. By then, he could never go home again.
An Israeli postage stamp issued in 2014 commemorates the Holocaust with an image of a yellow heart inscribed with the word “Jude” that seems to emerge tentatively from the grip of barbed wire, an image that simultaneously alludes to and supplants the “Judenstern”, the revolting yellow star of David with the word “Jude” in faux Jewish script that the Nazis required Jews to wear as a badge of shame. In both Hebrew and English, the message on the stamp reads: “As long as you remember us we are alive.” And yet, as the Holocaust recedes implacably into the past, and the remaining survivors die off, what will we remember, what will be transmitted to future generations regarding this period of history? Very little had been written or discussed about the Holocaust until the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961. A topic hitherto shrouded in mystery, silence and shame, the Holocaust was suddenly taken up in both the scholarly and popular press, and a veritable torrent of books, manuscripts, documentaries and articles has appeared since. It is as though the Eichmann trial had somehow given permission to finally confront the Holocaust. The Holocaust also became a fashionable topic to mine in cinema and theatre, where, refracted through the exigencies of the marketplace, it was embraced by the media merchants of popular culture who discovered its commercial and entertainment value. The serious encounter with truth and authenticity, the sensitive handling of complex moral issues and ambiguities, the particular dilemmas faced by victims, often became reduced to cheap, formulaic melodrama with feel-good bromides providing easy consolatory reassurance. At other times the Holocaust had proven useful as a mere backdrop, or trope, for some other dubious authorial agenda; for example, employing gratuitous sexual or aggressive content that merely served to sensationalize rather than inform.
Authentic memory in these instances is trivialized, the victims themselves betrayed and exploited. As Elie Wiesel himself has stated, ”This particular subject demands a special sensibility, a different approach, a rigor strengthened by respect and reverence and…a faithfulness to memory.” Remembrance, in other words, keeps faith with the victims by not reducing the Holocaust--this darkest chapter of twentieth century history --to the facile mythologizing tendencies of the marketplace. “Re-membering” requires a sensitive, uncompromising engagement with the Holocaust’s complex history: its perpetrators, victims, bystanders, and rescuers, its geography. Memory must be an insistent candle penetrating the fog of cultural and historical amnesia, ignorance and denial if we are to truly honor the victims, both living and dead. In this spirit the Bulmash Family Collection hopes to provide a modest means to stimulate further inquiry and discussion into what continues to remain a most challenging and enigmatic period of world history.
-- written in 2014 by Michael D. Bulmash, K1966