An old Yiddish saying meaning “Died, Buried, Forgotten”.
It is the summer of 1942. War continues to rage across Europe. But for a thriving industrial town in the German province of Upper Silesia the guns and bombs and artillery shells of battle are merely headlines in local newspapers.
The Nazi declaration of war barely three years before is still keenly felt, but the initial shock of that experience is being replaced by the fear of a different form of conflict – people, entire neighborhoods are disappearing. Businesses and residences are becoming empty overnight leaving tables cluttered with half-finished meals, paperwork on desks still requiring signatures, and homework still in need of completion. Friends and neighbors speak in hushed tones:
The buildings along one curved cobblestone street in the center of town are typical of the many row house residences: three-floor walk-ups with dirt-floor basements, one front door indistinguishable from the next, address numbers the only evidence of individuality. But the home behind Number 17 in the middle of the block has become the guardian of a secret, a secret it retains to this very day more than seventy years later.
The plight of the Jewish family who once lived at Number 17 might have been identical to many others in Europe at the time. However, the determination and skillful resiliency of one woman, her two sons and husband, Siegmund, an injured veteran of World War I, affected their entire extended family for years to come, and in ways none of them could have imagined.
Although he had suffered a terrible head wound during battle in the First World War, Siegmund still wore his military cap and he took pride in the row of colorful, hard-fought ribbons and medals that he wore on his chest at all times. When the Gestapo came and pounded on his door, it was only because of Siegmund’s former service to his country as an admired soldier that they allowed the occupants a ‘pass’.
This frequent scenario didn’t go unnoticed by the neighbors who grew fewer and fewer as the days and weeks went on. The Nazi persecution of the Jewish population kept everyone on edge – no one knew if they’d be next. Increasingly worried about their situation they came up with a plan, a way in which they could conceal their valuables and keep family treasures hidden and safe from the Gestapo should the feared knock come to their door one day. Overnight, Siegmund became the ‘guardian’ of family artifacts for the remaining Jews in their small neighborhood.
His imagination and sense of duty made him a conscientious curator. He wrote down who gave him what, and when. He placed the keepsakes in an old army footlocker he kept at the foot of his bed. Those who chose to safeguard their valuables in this manner were certain that no one was going to touch Siegmund because of his severe head injury. It was thought, that surely he would be spared the pain of being uprooted from his home.
Then, the unthinkable happened – Siegmund’s wife and his two sons were taken by the Gestapo. Before leaving, he, too, was told to prepare for transport. Without much time, he took the entrusted belongings to the shallow-ceilinged root cellar of his building, and buried the box in the designated area, beneath the potatoes, turnips and the remaining winter coal.
When the Gestapo came for him, Siegmund was taken to Auschwitz where he, along with others, were murdered upon arrival.
At the same time as these events were unfolding in the south, less than four hundred miles away in central Germany, Siegmund’s niece, Christa, her mother and two sisters had a secret of their own, and heightened reasons for concern because of it. They, too, were Jewish, but Christa’s father was also an officer of the German Wehrmacht.
The Nazi’s Final Solution contained many aspects. Among them was quantifying how a Jew ‘looked’; suspected Jews were profiled based on their physical attributes. Men, women and even children exhibiting dark hair, brown eyes, and/or prominent noses were all questionable traits, and reason enough, in many cases, for deportation to labor camps, or worse.
As an officer in the Wehrmacht, Christa’s father may have known more about the fate of Jews than was generally realized. He attempted to alert and even relocate his wife’s Jewish family members, but his warnings fell on deaf ears.
In a drastic attempt to keep his blond, blue eyed wife and children safe from deportation, he signed official papers, and swore that his family was Aryan. That oath and stroke of the pen saved their lives.
In early April 1945 three-quarters of their town of Nordhausen was destroyed by repeated bombings from allied aircraft. It was targeted because of its proximity to Camp Dora where V-2 rockets were manufactured by, ironically, Jewish slave labor. Close to 9,000 people died as a result.
Miraculously, Christa and her family escaped death and survived the war. Siegmund’s wife and sons had been assigned as laborers at Auschwitz and also survived. All other members of their family were murdered at the concentration camps. However, the story of Siegmund’s secretive assignment and of the box of keepsakes that he so dutifully cataloged and buried lived on. But it remained just that, a story; a story handed down over three generations from mother to daughter, and from father to son. But no one in the family who had survived had been willing to revisit the past, nor enter eastern Europe, an area almost entirely under Communist rule since the war ended.
But Christa, now a grandmother, never forgot the ‘story’ and slowly she began to believe that perhaps it was more than just a tale of bravery and covert resistance. What if it was all true, she wondered? Now that Communism was no longer a direct threat, she thought, why not find out and return to her roots to see what could be resolved, once and for all.
She began to look for clues, to search for pieces to the family puzzle, to sift through distant memories and fragments scattered throughout Europe during the Holocaust.
What she discovered was astonishing.
The feature documentary, Dead, Buried, Forgotten, is a multilayered story of one extended family’s survival in the face of insurmountable odds. It is a story with shocking twists, sudden turns, and historical discoveries. Its legacy of coincidences, escapes, chance encounters, and mysterious, often heroic characters make it a story unique to the time in which it began, and with revelations resonating to the present day.
The memories, keepsakes, and valuables Siegmund’s box contains bear witness to the many families who never returned, and is a testament to those few who did.
The time has come to complete his work: To recover the box, and to find the owners or surviving relatives and return what was left behind.
In the depths of one of the most horrific periods in human history a box was buried in a town in eastern Europe… and all but forgotten.