The request submitted to Yad Vashem’s Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project was out of the ordinary. Usually, such requests came from surviving family members or their descendants asking to memorialize relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust. But this time the details came from an unexpected source, the descendant of a Nazi perpetrator, a link in the chain that led to their murder.
Last year, Mechthild Wagenhoff of Frankfurt wrote to Yad Vashem and asked to fill out a Page of Testimony for three Jewish victims. Her grandfather, she wrote, was one of the perpetrators who was responsible for their fate. “While researching her family history, Wagenhoff discovered the role that her grandfather played during World War II,” says Sara Berkowitz, director of the names recovery project, part of the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names at Yad Vashem.
The request brought to light the story of the Weyda family, Jozefa, Wieslaw Jerzy and their son Zdzislaw Lech. They were Jewish landowners who lived on an estate in Jankow, in Kalisz County, Poland. In October 1939, a month after the German invasion of Poland and the start of the war, the Germans confiscated the estate and sent the Weydas to the Warsaw Ghetto. Jozefa and Wieslaw Jerzy The father and mother, were eventually deported to the Dachau concentration camp, where they were murdered. They were both around 50 years old. Their son’s fate is unknown.
After they were expelled from their home, Wagenhoff’s grandfather — Paul Burberg, a German who joined the Nazi Party in 1936, took over the estate. In circumstances that are not entirely clear, he had moved to Poland after the Nazi invasion to aid the German occupiers in working the land and taking over properties seized from Jews. He lived on the estate until 1945.
Wagenhoff describes her grandfather as a “perpetrator.” The Yad Vashem researchers say that he took over a large house that was confiscated from Jews suggests that he held an important position, perhaps in the German military. “We don’t know exactly what his job was, but his granddaughter feels guilty,” says Berkowitz.
Confirmation from an aunt
For a decade, Wagenhoff conducted extensive archival research in an attempt to trace her family story, and was not deterred even when her when research brought to light stains on the family history. With the aid of the Kalisz County government and its archives, she found the Weydas’ names. Wagenhoff’s aunt, Ruth Burberg, Paul Burberg’s daughter, who took over the estate, verified that as a child she had spent time on the Jewish estate, whose name had been changed to Ochsenberg. Ruth also confirmed that the Weydas had been “relocated” to the Warsaw Ghetto.
Armed with this information and the corroborating documents, Wagenhoff contacted Yad Vashem and asked to fill out Pages of Testimony for each member of the Weyda family. On each page, in the place where the submitter indicates their relationship to the victim, she wrote that she was the granddaughter of the perpetrator. In an email to Haaretz, Wagenhoff wrote, “The discovery, the silence about this house in Poland that was the property of a Jewish family that was deported from it, gave me no respite.”
Alexander Avram, the director of Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names, says, “Mechthild could not correct the past, but she was willing to face and acknowledge painful facts relating to the part her grandfather played with regard to the Weyda family, and try to take some positive act in memory of the victims. Because of her, their names and story will now be commemorated for posterity.”
Indeed, Yad Vashem had not known about the Weydas, and after examining the information their names were added to the database. Now researches are looking for relatives.
“Sometimes we are contacted by someone from the victim’s Jewish community, or by someone who has researcher who has done research on a particular place or event and recovered the identities of the victims,” says Berkowitz. “But it’s most unusual when the request comes from a non-Jew, and even rarer when that person is the descendant of someone who helped murder Jewish people during the Shoah. We keep collecting another name and another name, so at least their names are not taken from them.”
Another extraordinary request received by Yad Vashem came from Ira (Iryna) Korpan, the granddaughter of Katerina Sikorska, a woman recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, who was murdered by the Nazis for hiding Jews during the war. “Recently, I was perusing YouTube and found out that you are collecting the names of people who perished in the Holocaust,” wrote Korpan in an e-mail to the Names Recovery Project team. “I shared this information with my father, who is 90 years old now, and he recalled the names of Jews who once lived and prospered in his town of Podhajce, Poland [now Ukraine]. I prepared the list and would like to share this valuable information with you.”
Korpan’s list contained the names of 34 Holocaust victims, some of whom had never been submitted to Yad Vashem. Korpan’s family was also able to add some important new information about names that were already in the Yad Vashem database. Korpan also sent in a picture of her grandmother and asked for it to be added to Katerina’s profile in the Righteous Among the Nations Database.
“In line with her grandmother Katrina’s honorable deeds, Ira and her father Roman continue to do good in this world, memorializing victims of their town, Podhajce,” says Avram.
“These are victims whose names might otherwise have been left unknown and lost forever,” he continued. We urge anyone, from any background, to contact Yad Vashem if they know of names of victims. Over a million Jewish men, women and children who have yet to be identified will remain anonymous unless people who once knew them come forward to say they once lived.”
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