WASHINGTON - A.C. Strip has long understood the significance of the diary his older brother kept as they fled the Holocaust with their parents. He turned it into a self-published book that he gave to his brother as a 90th birthday gift.
But Strip never considered the diary to be an important historical document. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is making him rethink that.
Strip's brother's journal is one of more than 200 diaries written by Holocaust victims and survivors the museum hopes to digitize and make available to the public with the help of its first crowd-funding campaign. The museum is seeking $250,000 for the project and will begin soliciting donations through Kickstarter on Monday, the birthday of the most famous Holocaust diarist, Anne Frank.
The diary has forced Strip to confront painful memories. On a recent visit to Washington to be interviewed for the project, he found it too difficult to tour the museum. But he visited the nearby National Museum of African American History and Culture and gained some perspective on what the Holocaust Museum is trying to accomplish.
“I had forgotten some of these things in my own lifetime, all these stories about people like me and my family,” Strip said. “The African-American museum is bringing these things to life that will not permit people to forget, and the Holocaust Museum, their job is not to permit people to forget.”
Strip, a native of Antwerp, Belgium, was 5 and Joseph 17 when their family fled the Nazis. Then known as the Stripounskys, they escaped across the border to France and spent a year holed up with a farming family in a small village before going to Spain, Portugal and, finally, the United States.
Joseph - who later became an engineer, settled in New Jersey and lived to 91 - chronicled the journey in meticulous detail, using four notebooks. He accented his writing with sketches, maps and newspaper clippings. One sketch shows “Master Teddy Bear,” a stuffed animal the family bought for young A.C.
Strip, 81, a lawyer who lives in Dublin, Ohio, broke down in tears several times while discussing his family's journey in a telephone interview. While his immediate family got across the Belgian border, two aunts and two uncles didn't make it. Their papers were Czech, not Belgian, and they were later killed by the Nazis. Two of Strip's orphaned cousins later joined his family in the U.S. and were raised by his parents. He considers them his brothers.
“Our family, like so many others, got beat up pretty bad,” he said.
The diary project is important because Holocaust survivors are rapidly dying off, museum officials said. If the Kickstarter campaign succeeds, the money would mostly pay for the work needed to translate, catalog and digitize them. The museum has diaries written in 18 languages.
“We're living in scary times. Holocaust denial has been on the rise. Anti-Semitism and hatred is extremely worrisome. It's on the front of a lot of minds, certainly this institution. These diaries, these first-person accounts, testimonies, this is the evidence,” said Dana Weinstein, the museum's director of membership and new audience engagement. “This evidence will stand as proof that the Holocaust happened.”
Many of the diaries were much shorter than Joseph's, kept on scraps of paper or scrawled onto family photographs. The museum received one diary from Warsaw, Poland, that had been hidden behind a radiator in a bombed-out building. It looked like a deck of cards, but it turned out to be four sheets of paper that were folded many times. The author was a woman known as Deborah - it could have been an alias - and that's all the museum curators know.
Strip's brother was careful to write down everything. His maps were so accurate that, during a trip to France two years ago, Strip was able to use them to find the village and the farmhouse where his family hid.
The last name of the family they stayed with was Mech. Strip visited the mayor's office and asked the secretary if anyone with that name still lived in town.
“She went to the computer, picked up the telephone, came back and said, `One of Mr. Mech's children will be here in 5 minutes,”' Strip said. “Five minutes later, a very nice gentleman, 62 years old, who wasn't born at the time I was there but who knew the whole story, came in, took one look at me and he started crying.”