Knowing Where to Look for Answers (or Artifacts)
Periodically, I take out the massive binder that I received my first day at Developing History Leaders @SHA in October of 2012. As my desk groans under its weight, I flip through its pages and look for answers to questions that although may be appearing for the first time for me, have been raised since the first year of SHA – and probably for as long as museums have existed. On this particular day, I turned to the section entitled “Visioning for Impact.” I looked over the article written by (the now sadly retired) John Durel and I reflected on a few of the questions he posed when trying to identify an institution’s core purpose:
“Why does your museum exist? Why is it important? Why bother?”
When I had first arrived at SHA I couldn’t have answered any of those questions. I was in a unique position in that I hadn’t worked a single day at my institution yet. Some time between getting accepted into SHA and arriving on that first day, I had quit my job as Executive Director of the Queens Historical Society in Flushing, NY, and accepted a position at the Kupferberg Holocaust Center (KHC) at Queensborough Community College in Bayside, NY. The three weeks in Indianapolis was the transition period between what would be two varied parts of my employment history. While a historical society based in a landmarked house is very different from a Holocaust resource center on a college campus, I feel that no matter where you are and what aspect of history you are preserving, it all comes down to telling a good story. When you are passionate about history, it’s contagious. And if you are somehow able to show your visitor how this history impacted you – then they can be impacted as well.
My “a-ha” moment took place in July of 2015. A friend from high school, who I hadn’t spoken to in years, contacted me through Facebook about a unique object she had found. Jillian, who deals vintage clothing and jewelry as a hobby, went to an estate sale in the suburbs of NYC. In the back of a walk in closet, buried among a lifetime’s worth of clothing, was a striped jacket. She quickly purchased it amid a few other pieces for $10, and when she looked at the jacket once outside in her car, her suspicions were confirmed. The blue and gray stripes, the years of dirt, the distinctive numbers written on the left breast – it appeared to be the jacket of a concentration camp uniform. When she sent me the photos I was stunned that she could have potentially found something this rare at a yard sale. Immediately I thought of the Dachau Concentration Camp, where I had seen photos that showed similar uniform patterns. With that tiny bit of information, Jillian cross-referenced the number on the jacket with an online Dachau prisoner database and she got a name – Benzion Peresecki. She looked up the name of the homeowner from the estate sale – Ben Peres, a name too similar to the prisoner not to be connected.
Jillian donated the jacket to the KHC and that’s when our research truly began. The first step however, was contacting the family running the estate sale to confirm its authenticity and to find out how something this precious might have been overlooked. When we got the owner on the phone she was in disbelief. Lorrie, the daughter of Ben Peres, born Benzion Peresecki in Lithuania in 1926 and died in 1978 of a stroke, was in fact a Holocaust survivor who had been imprisoned at Dachau. But Lorrie was unaware of the jacket’s existence or any other material connected to the Holocaust because her father never spoke of his experience. When we invited her to the Center to see the jacket for herself, she was stunned. Lorrie was surprised that the jacket existed, and overwhelmingly grateful that Jillian happened to discover it and donate it to the Center before it was discarded with other old clothing.
Lorrie was so moved that she returned a few weeks later with over 1,500 documents, photographs, passports, home movies, and other materials that had belonged to her father that she found in the house they were in the process of selling. A story came together. Benzion Peresecki/Prisoner 84679/Ben Peres became one person who lived three very different lives. With the jacket and all these archival materials from Lorrie, we were able to launch an exhibition here at the Center in October 2016 that tells the story of the Holocaust through one man’s unique journey. Every time I give a tour of the exhibit I feel personally connected to Ben Peres, and I know that this is conveyed to the visitor. I feel privileged to have played even a small role in this project’s coming to fruition.
Now, just over four years after attending SHA, I can now easily answer those seemingly “basic” questions about my institution. There’s the more technical answer – To show the community the significance of past genocides, the dangers of prejudice that remain today, and inspire them to become advocates for social change. But then there’s the more personal answer – to remind ourselves that every story of the Holocaust or any human rights violations is our story as well. No matter our race, religion, nationality, when one human suffers, we all do. The more time I spend at the KHC, the more I realize how important it is for this Center to exist and how as an educator, I can impact the lives of visitors through connections made from primary sources.
Throughout your careers in museums, archives, historic houses, and any other type of institution that works to preserve history, you will have many questions. The beauty of having participated in SHA is that you will always be able to find someone who has dealt with that same question at some point or who can point you in the right direction. And you can always take out that huge binder.
Marisa (Berman) Hollywood (SHA ‘12) is the Assistant Director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College – CUNY in Queens, NY. A doctoral student of English at St. John’s University, she is a museum professional and historian specializing in Cultural Studies, Costume and Textile History, Museology, and Historic Preservation. Always seeking new and innovative ways to get people interested in their local history, she has written two recent books about Long Island history.
The Jacket from Dachau: One Survivor’s Search for Justice, Identity, and Home is on view at the Kupferberg Holocaust Center through June 2015. For more information about the exhibit, click here or check out this video about the story of the jacket’s discovery.