Aimee Rubensteen didn’t have the luxury to take her time and get acclimated to her new job.
Immediately after starting last spring as South Florida’s acquisitions curator for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Rubensteen began meeting weekly with Holocaust survivors and their family members.
“Time is running out,” Rubensteen said. “Truly, the clock is ticking. We need to meet eyewitnesses as soon as possible, before they are no longer with us.”
Even the youngest people who survived the Holocaust are getting older — they are 75. And South Florida is home to one of the largest groups of survivors in the country.
This new job — a full-time acquisitions curator dedicated to talking to Holocaust survivors — is the second in the nation. The other is in New York.
Most days Rubensteen, who used to work at the Guggenheim Museum and Sotheby’s in New York, spends her office time on the road, somewhere between Palm Beach County and South Miami.
She’s looking for people who want to donate any object that they’ve held on to, from the pre-World War II era, during the Holocaust, or just after. That could include original family photographs, handwritten letters, immigration documents, luggage tags, passports, receipts from crossing borders — the list goes on.
Asking people to give up physical links to lost family members is not easy. That’s when Rubensteen uses her own family’s story to connect with the people she meets. Three of her grandparents survived the Holocaust.
“I think having such a close connection with her really enables me to do this work as quickly and as sensitively as possible,” Rubensteen said.
One of the first survivors she met with was Peter Tarjan, 82, at his house in South Miami.
Tarjan was about 8-years-old when his parents were taken away from their home in Budapest, Hungary. As an adult, he found out they died during death camp marches to Auschwitz.
He’d been debating for 30 years whether to give up a batch of 45 postcards and letters that his family sent to each other during the war.
The letters were written on what he calls, “second-hand stationery.”
“Letters which my grandmother wrote to her daughters on stationery that she inherited from her uncle,” he explained.
One letter, from his grandparents to his aunt, was written inside of a ghetto in Hungary in May 1944:
“My dear Agatha, at last finally we got some news from you, I was very afraid that you had some troubles and that’s why you didn’t write. You are right my dear Agi, it would be wonderful to see each other. But I don’t have the energy to hope.”
Tarjan’s grandparents died in Auschwitz. He was sent to an orphanage, and then his mother’s best friend took him in. By the time the war ended, two surviving aunts were his only family.
“Anti-Semitism doesn’t disappear when the war ends,” he said. “It continued in more subtle ways, but it never stopped.”
That’s one reason why he wanted the letters to have another life — permanently preserved and stored at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Giving the postcards up was emotional, but Tarjan said he wanted to make sure his family’s last correspondences to each other, weren’t forgotten.
“The older I get, the more I feel that way,” he said. “They are fragile, they are old, they are fading. If they stay here, they will continue to fade, deteriorate. And if I hand it over to a competent museum, then they will preserve it.”
Many survivors have kept these glimpses of daily life hidden, Rubensteen said. Pulling those stories out of people that have kept them closed off for so many years is a challenge.
“Sometimes I can tell that they are not ready to donate and they are not ready to talk about whatever it is that they had scheduled to talk about that day … and I say ‘I’m happy to come back,’ ” she said.
When it comes to talking about historical family heirlooms, her strategy has been to remind people about the museum’s goal: saving history.
“I tell them that I’m here to advocate for the object,” she said. “I’m here, because if you think this object is important we need to preserve it.”
Preserving histories that might otherwise be lost.