In 1944, 16-year-old Józef Roksza was deported from Budapest to the Nazi Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg. When he went through its gates, he had to give up all his personal effects and thus he bid farewell to his fountain pen.
Roksza, who survived the Holocaust, died a while ago. His son Yaron, who lives in Kiryat Shmona, got an unexpected phone call recently. He was told that his father’s pen was found at a German archive in a special project to identify personal possessions of prisoners in the camps.
Last week the pen was returned to the family at an emotional meeting in Israel. Floriane Hohenberg, the director of the German International Tracing Service, had made her way from the town of Bad Arolsen about 175 kilometers (110 miles) north of Frankfurt to Tel Aviv in order to meet Roksza’s son and return the pen to him personally.
Over the course of the years, 4,500 items that had belonged to prisoners from about 30 different countries who were held in concentration camps in Nazi Germany wound up at the International Tracing Service, an extraordinary organization that was established by the Allies during World War II and is active to this day.
Its main aim was to assist in finding information about people who went missing in the war. There are about 30 million documents in its archive concerning the fate of about 18 million victims of the Nazi regime. Every year, the service receives thousands of inquiries about the fate of Nazi victims. Last year, for example, there were 17,000.
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In addition to acquiring information about individuals, the organization’s archive has also accumulated belongings of people who were imprisoned in the German camps: watches, eyeglasses, pieces of jewelry including wedding rings, combs, powder compacts, razors, notebooks, pictures, wallets, cash and more.
For decades, no one took any interest in these items and at the archive they did not initiate any measures to identify the owners. About two years ago, though, there was a breakthrough when the archive photographed the items, found the names of the owners in the documentation and uploaded this information to the internet under a new tag: #StolenMemory.
“It was amazing. People started looking and found the families that owned these items,” said Hohenberg last week in a conversation with Haaretz. The International Tracing Service also embarked on an advertising campaign of huge billboards with pictures of selected items from the collection at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. One of the images was that of Józef Roksza’s pen, in the hope that someone who knew Roksza would recognize his name. His family was finally located in Israel by journalist Renee Ghert-Zand of Jerusalem, who volunteered to help the tracing service.
To date, approximately 1,500 personal belongings that were found in Germany have been returned. Another 3,000 objects are still awaiting their heirs, most of whom are from Poland, Germany and the former Soviet Union. The pen that was presented to Roksza’s family in Kiryat Shmona is the first item to have been returned to an Israeli family. This is because most of the items that wound up at the German archive were not owned by Jews but rather by political prisoners, resistance fighters and prisoners of war.
“Things that belonged to Jews were not kept, for the most part, because it was clear that they would be murdered and the items would not be returned to their owners,” says Hohenberg. However, property of “ordinary” prisoners, who were not slated for slaughter, was kept to be returned to the owner after he had served out his punishment. In this sense, Józef Roksza benefitted from the fact that he was imprisoned at a camp where there were also many non-Jews.
The archive could have kept the items to put on display as is done at museums like Yad Vashem. Asked about this, Hohenberg says: “We never related to these objects as archival items. I see them as personal possessions, which must be returned to their owners. And I am aware that it is very late.”
The stolen memory project has already brought together families from around the world and rekindled memories of many victims and survivors alike. Most of those who have received the items are family members and not the original owners, who are no longer alive. The list of items still looking for their owners may be found at this site.
For Yaron Roksza — whose Hungarian name is István — receiving the pen that belonged to his father, who died in 1996, was both a happy and a chilling event. Hohenberg, whom he embraced warmly, not only returned the pen but also showed him various historic documents detailing the route his father followed during the period of the Holocaust — from his arrest to his liberation by the Allies. Roksza, in turn, completed the picture with stories and memories from his father’s home.
Józef Roksza was born in 1928 to his father Anton and his mother Hedwig. At the end of 1944 he was deported by the Nazis to the camp at Neuengamme near Hamburg in northern Germany. The camp had been established in 1938 and operated until the end of the war. The first prisoners there were Germans, political opponents of the Nazi regime. However, it quickly filled up with foreign prisoners of many nationalities. From the Nazis’ perspective, the aim of its establishment was to use the prisoners’ cheap labor to manufacture bricks for public buildings planned for Hamburg. An arms factory also operated within the camp.
Over time, subcamps were added to the main one, so that a total of about 100,000 people were held in the complex. Only about half of them survived the difficult conditions there. In the summer of 1944 large transports of Jews were also sent there, mainly from Hungary and Poland. According to Yad Vashem, about 13,000 Jews passed through the camp and its subcamps. Józef Roksza was one of them. He had the good fortune to survive the harsh conditions at the camp and was later transferred to Bergen Belsen, also in Germany. After the British army liberated the camp in May of 1945, he remained there in the hospital for a while and in July of that year he was released. His next stop was Sweden, where he spent several years until he arrived at the Beth Bialik Displaced Persons Camp in Salzburg, Austria. From there he immigrated to Israel after the establishment of the state. At first he settled at Kibbutz Beit Oren and later moved south to Sde Boker where, according to his family, he was Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s driver.
“He told me many stories,” says his son Yaron. Some of them make for difficult reading, like the story of the fingers of his hand that were amputated, apparently intentionally, in a “work accident” chopping down trees in Germany. “He once related that he was close to assassinating Eichmann but I don’t know where,” his son added. The documents Yaron Roksza was shown last week revealed that his father had an older brother, Gyorgy, of whom there is no trace. Now the tracing service will try to discover his fate.
And what about the pen? On an American internet site called Fountain Pen Hospital that specializes in the history of pens, it is valued at between $100 and $150. As far as the family is concerned, of course the pen is priceless and definitely not for sale.