TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Every time Rose Rosen goes home to her native St. Louis, she visits the cemetery where her parents and brother are buried.
“It comforts me,” says the Carrollwood woman. “When I go there, I feel close to them.”
But it’s a different story for her extended family. Nearly all died in the Holocaust during World War II. They don’t have tombstones or even simple markers. She doesn’t even know all of their names.
Recently, the United Nations observed Holocaust Remembrance Day, held every Jan. 27 to commemorate the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by the Soviet Union in 1945. But for Rosen, a casting director, the Holocaust is something she lives with on a daily basis.
Both her parents were survivors. Her father, Abe, escaped his native Poland to go to Siberia to serve in the Russian army; her mother, Bronia, lived in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, spent time in five concentration camps and worked “slave labor” for Adolph Hitler in the factories. After the couple married in France in 1951 and moved to America a few years later, they rarely spoke of their experience.
“Dad died in 1985, before it was acceptable to really talk about it,” she says. Bronia, who died in 2002, opened up more by writing poems and short stories relating to the genocide. Still, “she looked at life through rose-colored glasses,” Rosen says, and didn’t reveal all of the details of the past.
Rosen wanted to know more. In 2006, she became the volunteer coordinator in the Tampa Bay area for the Shoah Names Recovery Project, an international Web-based effort led by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust research and memorial center in Jerusalem that oversees an expansive database documenting Jewish people killed under Hitler’s regime.
The names are gathered through volunteers like Rosen, who meet with survivors, family members or friends to record testimonies about the lives of the deceased victims. In most cases, no official documentation, such as birth certificates or marriage licenses, is available.
“When you consider the age of the survivors, we’re at a critical point,” Rosen says. “Once they die, so goes the memory of those lost in the Holocaust. It will be as if they never existed at all.”
The Shoah (Hebrew for Holocaust) project’s main objective: Create a virtual online “cemetery” for those who never were recognized in death. More than 4 million names and biographies have been collected so far; the goal is to document at least 6 million Jewish victims. Though the effort has been under way for decades, the Internet has ramped up the group’s ability to capture information and give the public access to it.
“Think about it. This is a way to preserve memories for generations of descendants to see,” Rosen says.
Sonia Wasserberger of Tampa got to tell her family’s story of survival and loss to Rosen. The 80-year-old widow, who grew up in Poland, recounted a harrowing tale once the war broke out. She, her sister and their parents were among the lucky ones; though they endured years of hardship in ghettos and Siberia, all living in one bedroom, at least they got to stay together. In 1948, she met and married her husband, Alfred, a former dentist, at a German displacement camp.
They made their way to New York a few years later, eventually settling in Tampa and raising four children. Alfred never returned to dentistry. The couple operated Biscayne Lighting, still in business on Kennedy Avenue in Tampa.
Wasserberger remembers a happy, prosperous life as a child – but once Hitler’s army came sweeping into her city, “our hopes and dreams vanished.” So did many of her relatives, whose names are now preserved in the Shoah project’s database. She’s also written an extensive journal that details the trauma her family endured and the triumph of survival.
“My mother constantly told us that we would make it. I didn’t think too much of it, as we moved from place to place. But I never doubted that we would survive,” she says. “Children really don’t know better, I guess.”
She doesn’t like to dwell on the past. What good is that? Wasserberger asks.
“I appreciate life,” she says in her still-thick Polish accent. “I appreciate the beautiful life we’ve had in this county, where everybody has a chance, if they work hard, to become somebody.”
Rosen and her daughter, Bianca, now a senior at Virginia Tech, took a trip to Europe in 2007 to retrace her family’s lives. They visited Auschwitz and took pictures of the iconic images of the genocide: piles of shoes, hairbrushes and prosthetic legs. That experience convinced Rosen she was putting her efforts into something worthwhile.
“Every pair of those shoes, every hairbrush, every prosthetic leg, belonged to a person. A person who had a history and a life before they were murdered,” she says. “This project is making sure they are remembered.”
She thought it would be difficult to get the survivors to open up and tell their stories. That hasn’t been her experience. She and her local team have compiled at least 300 names and biographies since they began – all given by people eager to get them documented before it’s too late.
“When it comes to volunteer work, it doesn’t get any better than this,” Rosen says. “We’re doing something meaningful for the person sitting there. And for the people who are not there.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.