Sunday, February 2, 2014

Camilla's Purse

Where: American History Museum

When: through May 4, 2014

This week, I had an experience at a museum exhibit that I have never had before.  I went to see this show, thinking it would be very interesting (which it is), but never suspecting that I would know personally one of the people featured in it.

Camilla Gottlieb was a Jewish woman living with her husband and daughter in Vienna when the Nazis invaded, and her life was completely upended.  Although her daughter (who was a young adult at the time) was able to escape to the United States, Camilla and her husband were shut out by American immigration quotas.  Forced to remain in Austria, they were sent to Theresienstadt, a camp in Czechoslovakia used as a sort of way station before prisoners were sent on to camps where they would most likely be killed.  Camilla's husband died of a lung infection in the camp, but she survived, and remained at Theresienstadt, due in part to the help of a relative and her own skills as a seamstress.

After the war, Camilla faced years of work in order to move to the United States to join her daughter, son-in-law and their sons, but she managed to do it.  After her death, her family found a purse and satchel she had used to store important documents from her life before the war and from her struggle to escape Europe during and after the conflict.  Viewed together, they constitute a history of this part of the American experience.  She was one woman, not a famous person, but an ordinary woman, who persevered in the face of horrible conditions to reunite with her family.  This display is a testament to her strength and resilience in the face of obstacles that, happily, most of us will never have to endure.

In addition to the purse and the documents, there is also a video display, featuring the person who translated the documents from German to English, and one of Camilla's grandsons, who discovered the purse when cleaning out the family home.  Imagine my surprise to discover that the grandson is someone who works in my office!  Never before have I been to an exhibit and had a personal connection to it.

Verdict: This is a wonderful exhibit; it's in the Small Documents Gallery, so it works very well for a lunchtime visit.  The story is one of perseverance - a reminder that we all have reserves of strength to get us through the darkest moments.

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