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War and Peace of Mind
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Crista Scaturro, International Services, American Red Cross
May 5, 2009

On May 8, the American Red Cross will join with the other 185 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies from around the globe to celebrate World Red Cross Red Crescent Day. The following story is part of a series, leading up to the observance and demonstrating the connection between your local American Red Cross chapter and the humanitarian work being done overseas by the American Red Cross, other national societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

A researcher combs through World War II records at the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany on behalf of Holocaust survivors and their families. Photo Credit: ITS
A researcher combs through World War II records at the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany on behalf of Holocaust survivors and their families.
Photo Credit: ITS

While most would expect a 19th century book to contain tales from history, Sarah Krakauer never thought the one on her bookshelf would include the story of her own family’s past.

Krakauer’s paternal grandmother had left her a Jewish prayer book written in Polish and Hebrew, but for years after her grandmother’s passing, it laid unread.  Then one day, Krakauer (whose brother is Into the Wild author Jack Krakauer) opened it and found herself engrossed in the hand-written notes contained within, documenting her family’s history.

“Each time I would look at the records, I would see different things,” she explained. “I kept getting drawn in; it was fascinating.” 

This casual literary investigation launched an extensive personal journey that would take her to Poland and drop her on the doorstep of the American Red Cross in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.

“I think it’s human to want to know where you come from.  And I had always felt like there was this huge unknown about my father’s family,” Krakauer recalled.  “(In reading the prayer book) I found all this information in it about births and deaths.”

Historically, families have recorded their family trees and major life events in prayer books that are passed down for generations. Curious to know more and hopeful to meet her extended family believed to be living in Poland, she traveled to the small town listed in the book where more of her Jewish relatives once lived.

“When we were in Czestochowa we were able to see the graves of (family members),” Krakauer explained after learning many died in the Holocaust. “It was important to me that we honor their memory, and make every possible effort to try and locate (other family members).”

Once back in the United States, Krakauer’s friend reminded her of the American Red Cross’ ongoing work to help find information for Holocaust survivors and their families. A resource of hope, the Red Cross has worked to trace and, if possible, reunite family members separated by every major war. With access to World War II records, it is now possible to determine the fate of many more victims of Nazi persecution.

She contacted the American Red Cross Oregon Trail Chapter most eager to learn if her father’s cousin, Mietek Weinberg, was among the survivors. 

“It would amaze me that he survived and was never able to connect (with the family), but maybe he didn’t realize we were (here) to connect with,” she admitted.

The Red Cross caseworker in Portland, Oregon collected all of the information Krakauer had found in the prayer book, during her visit to Poland and via the Internet.  The volunteer then shared this information with the American Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center as well as the Polish Red Cross to help locate information about her family’s fate.

The Tracing Center, located in Baltimore, is a clearinghouse for people seeking information about loved ones missing since the Holocaust and its aftermath. Open since 1990, the center assists U.S. residents searching for proof of internment, forced and slave labor, or evacuation from former Nazi territories, either for themselves or family members.

Today, researchers are combing Nazi records in Poland and in a newly expanded archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany, hoping to bring peace of mind and possible good news to Krakauer. 

Due to the complexity of the search, the fact that many records were destroyed both during and after World War II, and family members who might have known valuable information have since died, Holocaust tracing requests can take many months and years to yield a conclusive result. In about half of all cases some information is found, such as documentary confirmation of death or deportation. Sadly, some never yield definite answers. 

The International Tracing Service serves victims of Nazi persecutions and their families by documenting their fate through the more than 16 miles of records it manages. Photo Credit: ITS
The International Tracing Service serves victims of Nazi persecutions and their families by documenting their fate through the more than 16 miles of records it manages.
Photo Credit: ITS

Like many others, Krakauer is waiting patiently for news.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing, whatever the outcome is,” she explains.  “I think it’s great that the Red Cross (provides this service). There’s closure in knowing how someone died, no matter how it might have been.”

Although Krakauer anticipates receiving confirmation that members of her fathers’ family were in fact victims of the Holocaust, some Red Cross tracing requests have joyous results — more than 1,500 Holocaust survivors have been reunited with family members since the Tracing Center opened. Overall, the center has sought to learn the fate of more than 40,000 individuals missing since the Holocaust and World War II.

Since she initiated her family tracing case, small pieces of information that documents where her family was a specific points during the war have been shared with Krakauer from several sources, including the American and Polish Red Cross societies.

The global investigation has uncovered records placing Weinberg in a hospital after the war, alive but “in need of assistance”. His former neighbor in Poland, however, has since shared with Krakauer that she believes Weinberg may have died in a forced-labor camp.

In more than 12,000 Holocaust-related cases handled by the American Red Cross, clients have received confirmation of death or deportation of family members. While tragic for survivors and their families, this allows closure, an important part of the mourning process.

Every time she receives additional information, Krakauer reconfirms her commitment and interest in learning more.

“I want to know that now; I’m ready to know,” she added.

The American Red Cross will never close her case; every year more records are discovered and volunteer caseworkers around the world are committed to bring resolution to each case and peace of mind to the waiting inquirer.

If  you are a Holocaust survivor or an immediate family member, the American Red Cross may be able to help. We have the resources to find answers to questions you've asked for more than half a century. To initiate your search, please contact your local American Red Cross chapter.

You can help the victims of countless crises around the world each year by making a financial gift to the American Red Cross International Response Fund, which will provide immediate relief and long-term support through supplies, technical assistance and other support to help those in need. The American Red Cross honors donor intent. If you wish to designate your donation to a specific disaster, please do so at the time of your donation by mailing your donation with the designation to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243 , Washington, D.C. 20013 or to your local American Red Cross chapter. Donations to the International Response Fund can be made by phone at 1-800-REDCROSS or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish) or online at www.redcross.org.

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