Picturing a Family’s History: Hanover Woman Uncovers Relatives’ Plight in Holocaust
At her home in Hanover, N.H., on Nov. 7, 2013 Dena Rueb Romero looks over family photographs. Romero has worked with a German woman to piece together the history behind family photos that were brought over from Germany when some of Romero's relatives fled to the U.S. to escape the Holocaust. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
Hanover, N.H. resident Dena Rueb Romero, has worked with a German woman to piece together the history behind family photos that were brought over from Germany when some of Romero's relatives fled to the U.S. to escape the Holocaust. Romero's aunt and uncle Gretel and Walter Kleeblatt are in the top photograph. Gretel and her best friend Erika — who died after she was deported to a concentration camp — are shown at the bottom. Other family members are on the right. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
Bernhild Vögel, of Germany, left, stands with Dena Rueb Romero, of Hanover, in Salzgitter Germany on Oct. 31, 2013. Romero is holding a clothing hanger that was used in a distant relative's shop in Germany before the shop was forced to close during the Holocaust, when Jewish businesses were boycotted. Vögel and Romero had just made a presentation about a collection of Romero's family photographs that were taken in the area around the time of the Holocaust, and an audience member presented her with the hanger, which had been in his father's possession. (Elke Zacharias photograph)
Hanover — Sitting in her home Thursday afternoon, Dena Rueb Romero surveyed the two photo albums on the table in front of her. On the pages were dozens of black-and-white photographs, some professional portraits, others capturing moments more relaxed — a child sitting on an adult’s lap in the front seat of an automobile, a woman standing with a small dog on a leash, people smiling.
Most of the pictures were accompanied by a caption inscribed in cursive handwriting, the light-color ink sometimes fading against the dark paper. Written in German, the dates range from the mid 1920s and end abruptly in 1938.
“A merry foursome,” one reads, under a photo of two young couples, sitting outside together on a summer day.
Many of the people in the photos, Jewish relatives of Romero’s who were living in a rural German village when Hitler came to power, escaped the Holocaust, fleeing throughout Europe or to America.
But many of them did not. And the ones who did escape first suffered years of horror — attacks, injustices and loss.
“They give an insight on how people lived at that time, and it’s so important I think to show that, yes, these people were victimized,” Romero, 64, said as she looked over the albums, and many other loose photographs scattered around them.
“But before they were victimized they were normal people like you, like me,” she added. “They had normal lives, they worked, they married, they had hopes and dreams. They weren’t just victims.”
The photographs, which were sent to her after her aunt’s death in 2004, would become a document known as Gretel’s Albums , published earlier this year and named for Romero’s aunt, Gretel Kleeblatt, who fled Germany for the United States with her husband, Walter, in 1938, months before the Nazi pogrom known as Kristallnacht.
Working with Bernhild Vögel, a historical researcher in Germany whom Romero met during her quest to find the photos’ stories, the pair researched the lives of the people in the photos and their history. The 50-page document includes many photos and a detailed narrative, in both English and German.
The women presented the work last week to an audience of more than 100 people in the German village Salder, where Romero’s relatives lived, and which is now part of the area called Salzgitter. They have also chosen to make the document available for free online, where it can be downloaded as a PDF.
The hope, Romero said, is that making the PDF available will play a part in ensuring the history of the Holocaust is told — and that using personal stories ensures its significance can be understood and relatable.
“I think telling it through the stories of individuals and individual families makes it much more real than a number, you know, 6 million,” Romero said. “I have trouble with a number. ... I think when you hear that these were people like you and me, and then what happened to them, it just makes the history more real. It’s much harder in my opinion to deny that this happened if you can see these people.”
Romero noted that this weekend is the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass,” in which synagogues and Jewish-owned homes and businesses were smashed and burned throughout Germany and parts of Austria, while authorities stood by passively.
Romero said the significance of that event — which she called a turning point in Hitler’s reign, when the momentum was sent hurtling in the direction of terror — makes the anniversary a poignant time to connect faces and stories with the numbers of people lost.
A photo near the end of the document shows a group of Kleeblatt relatives sitting together in 1935; green numbers are marked on eight of the people, showing those who survived the Holocaust. Red numbers are laid on top of the others, representing those who died.
Romero, who is retired, w as a social worker for the town of Hanover, including overseeing its alcohol diversion program, and briefly ran her late husband’s store, the Camera Shop in downtown Hanover, after his death in 2006. She came in to possession of the photos shortly after her aunt’s death seven years ago, but it was not until after she decided to close the shop in 2007 that she dedicated time to delving into them.
Most of the photos depict the lives of the Kleeblatts a generation before Gretel Kleeblatt married into the family. Internet searches around Gretel and Walter Kleeblatt proved fruitless — but around 2010, when she typed in “Helene Kleeblatt,” the name of Walter’s mother, she found extensive research conducted by Vögel in the 1980s.
Vögel, a historical researcher, had prepared the material for a lecture coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1988. Her work centered around the Kleeblatts, who ran a notions and textile store in Salder until boycotts of Jewish businesses and pressure from local Nazis forced them to close.
The two women bonded quickly, each sharing their own desires to further share the Kleeblatts’ stories, and worked on the project via email and several transatlantic trips.
Together, using the Internet and Vögel’s visits to German archives and libraries, they pieced together the lives of the families — the happy times, including marriages, births and the success of their business — as well as attacks made against them, their attempts to escape, and the new lives many built far away from their homes.
The original photos will soon be donated to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. Romero said representatives at the museum were particularly interested in the photos because they portrayed rural German life around the era of the Holocaust, and the current collection is dominated by artifacts from urban areas.
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3220.