For 80-year-old David Ariel, a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, parting with cherished letters from his mother, killed at Auschwitz death camp, was a painful but necessary duty.
Ariel and thousands of other elderly Israeli survivors answered a call by Yad Vashem, Israel's
national memorial to the six million Jews killed in the genocide, to hand in Holocaust-era keepsakes to preserve their memory for future generations.
Ariel's contribution to Yad Vashem's "Fragments of Memory" campaign
consisted of the few letters his mother Zelma had written to him and other family members before she was killed at Auschwitz during World War II.
"I felt like I was separating from her all over again when I handed them in, even though I knew I didn't have the proper conditions to preserve them and they were starting to yellow and tatter," he said.
Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev said the drive to collect fading memorabilia, including letters, photographs, toys and articles of clothing, before survivors died was "a kind of race against time so that they will be remembered".
The Holocaust narrative remains a focal point for Israel, where some 200,000 survivors live. The Jewish state holds its annual Holocaust remembrance day on Monday.
The Nazis wiped out a third of world Jewry during World War II. Of the six million victims, only about four million names have been gathered by Yad Vashem.
Recent attempts to deny the Holocaust, particularly by Israel's arch-enemy Iran, have refocused Israeli efforts to collect survivors' testimonies and relics.
"Imagine if we had six million testimonies, it would stand forever against all the Holocaust deniers," Shalev said. "Perhaps this is thinking virtually, but practically any new testimony or artefact adds something to this process."
Ariel, born in Czechoslovkia and a retired lieutenant colonel in the Israeli military, wept as he described his wartime ordeals.
Taken at the age of 13 to Auschwitz, in Poland, he spent a week in the death camp before being sent to Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where he survived for months on food scraps as a slave laborer.
"People all around me were dying like flies. I don't know how I survived," said Ariel, whose father, a brother and a sister perished at Auschwitz.
Lydia Avidan, an elegant 79-year-old widow, walked into a Tel Aviv high school with tears streaking from beneath her tinted sunglasses. She was about to hand over to historians the only mementos she had left from relatives who perished in the Holocaust – a yellowed, cracked letter she had never read and a faded black-and-white photo of her grandparents.
"It's a part of me and it's hard to let it go," said the gray-haired Avidan, who escaped Poland as a child and settled in Israel. "I've saved them all these years, but once I go they will be lost."
Avidan donated the materials at a collection point in the spartan classrooms of the school, where the final relics of the Holocaust were being collected.
Lydia Avidan's mementos. 'Once I go they will be lost' (Photo: AP)
The survivors arrived with items that had been stashed away for decades. Researchers questioned them, logged their stories, tagged their materials, then scanned their documents into Yad Vashem's vast digitized archive. With white gloves, they carefully placed larger items into boxes that were later shipped back to the large Yad Vashem compound in Jerusalem.
For many, it was a struggle to part with what had become family treasures, their only physical links to ancestors who perished. In addition to rounding up Jews and shipping them to death camps, the Nazis also confiscated their possessions and stole their valuables, leaving little behind.
Haim Gertner, director of the Yad Vashem archive, said the collection effort could prove vital for both preservation and research purposes, adding depth to the museum's existing exhibits and potentially contributing details to Yad Vashem's huge database of names.
"The Holocaust is a puzzle, and we need to collect the pieces and put them back together," Gertner said. "The Nazis didn't just try to destroy the Jewish people, they tried to destroy its memory ... this is a last minute rescue operation."
Yad Vashem also has the means to maintain historical documents that have been damaged over the passing years. The memorial plans 10 collection dates across the country in the coming year. The first such day, on Apr. 13 in Tel Aviv, produced a variety of letters, pictures, diaries and yellow stars – each telling its own unique story.
One touching donation was a fraying beige sweater with red pockets and green, butterfly-shaped buttons. It belonged to 8-year-old Gitel Londner, who was separated from her parents in Poland in 1943 and perished in Auschwitz shortly after.
The sweater is all her parents had to remember her by and they guarded it religiously throughout their own ordeal through Nazi concentration camps and then for 60 years in Israel.
The parents, Ephraim and Mina, had another child after the war. Zehava Mirenberg said her mother never forgave herself for losing Gitel and would never part with the sweater. Mirenberg, 63, said she struggled for years after her parents died over what to do with the sweater but finally decided to donate it for safekeeping.
"It was the most important object to her: she cared for it, folding it carefully, placing it in a bag and staring at it," she said. "In many ways she stayed there, in the Holocaust, and I preserved the sweater in her honor. But I can't pass it on to my children. It's too much of an emotional burden to bear."
Avidan and her parents had escaped in 1939 on a journey that would take them through Romania and Turkey before they arrived in the British-mandated territory that would later become Israel. She never found out what happened to the rest of her family and only assumed they were exterminated in Auschwitz, as was the rest of their town.
An only child, she kept the letter and the picture hidden for years before deciding to come forward after seeing a newspaper ad about the collection drive.
But first she wanted to know what the letter said. Her Polish aristocratic parents never spoke about the war and she only discovered the letter after their deaths. All she knew was that the letter was written by her grandparents in Yiddish and in Polish – languages she could not read – and sent from their home in 1940. She had been afraid to probe beyond that.
Avidan looked on warily as a Yad Vashem translator began reading. The letter was addressed to her mother, who had just arrived in the Holy Land. In it, her parents wished her luck, telling her to rest up after such a long journey and expressing concern about her new home.
The grandparents' update included that one of them was ill with a fever. Not a word was written about the situation in Nazi-occupied Poland.
"They didn't believe anything would happen, they thought the Germans would just pass through and things would go back to normal," a tearful Avidan said.
She said she felt relief at finally learning what she had saved all these years and was at peace with handing it over.
"I did what I had to do for their memory," she said. "There is nothing more I can do now."
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report