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Tragic bond

For over 60 years, Meyer Hack, who survived the notorious Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, hid a grim secret - artifacts he found while processing clothes confiscated from new arrivals. Now, Hack has donated the items to the Israeli national Holocaust memorial. But first, they will appear in Watertown, in an unusual collaboration between the local Armenian and Jewish communities, which have been at odds over interpretations of history.

Email|Print| Text size + By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / January 13, 2008

WATERTOWN - Auschwitz survivor Meyer Hack kept his secret for more than 60 years - a small cache of pocket watches, an exquisite diamond ring, an ornate Old World bracelet of gold and emerald, and other jewelry that Jewish Holocaust victims took to their deaths.

Hack spent four years as an inmate at the notorious Nazi concentration camp, where he worked on the camp's laundry crew - processing clothing the Nazis had confiscated from new arrivals to Auschwitz, and handing out uniforms to other prisoners. He would occasionally find jewels and other valuables in the pockets, or sewn into garment linings, and kept them hidden in a sock in his barracks.

As Hack and his wife, Sylvia, also an Auschwitz survivor, raised their two sons, and moved to Brighton in the 1960s, the 16 pieces of jewelry remained with him, hidden in his attic, a morbid collection he could not bring himself to reveal.

Now a frail 92-year-old, Hack has chosen to unveil the precious artifacts on Jan. 20 in an unusual joint exhibit at the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, home of the nation's only permanent display on the Armenian genocide. As the first public unveiling of the objects he kept secret for so long, the exhibit offers some closure to Hack, but it also offers the hope of resolution for members of two communities split over interpretations of history.

Representatives of the local Armenian and Jewish communities have been bitterly divided in recent months over the national Anti-Defamation League's refusal to fully recognize the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915, which claimed more than 1.5 million lives, as a genocide.

The Armenians understand Jewish suffering, said Hack, who will be joined at the exhibit opening by Armenian genocide survivor Kevork Norian of Arlington.

"We have to tell the world what happened. My diary is written on my heart, and I have to tell the world about what I saw," said Hack, a Polish-born Jew who was deported to Auschwitz in 1941 at age 27. His mother, brother, and two sisters were put to death.

Norian, who is also 92, will sit side-by-side with Hack during the two-hour long event, and tell the assembled crowd about his own connection to tragedy. "We can't let these memories die," said Norian. "I do not expect to be around too much longer."

The local showing was organized by Susie Davidson, a writer from Brookline who profiled Hack in her 2005 book about Boston-area Holocaust survivors, "I Refused to Die."

Watertown, home to 8,000 Armenian-Americans, is an ideal place for the joint exhibit to reaffirm relations between the Jewish and Armenian communities, she said, adding her hope that it will also heighten awareness of modern-day genocide.

"You realize how similar suffering is between people who have gone through something like this," said Davidson, who has studied contemporary genocides in Africa, as well as mass murders in Bosnia, Cambodia, and Europe.

Watertown was where a community rift first formed in August, after Armenian activists criticized the ADL for refusing to recognize the massacre of Armenians as the first genocide of the 20th century.

National ADL leader Abraham H. Foxman responded by calling the deaths "tantamount to genocide," but refused to support a proposed congressional resolution recognizing the event as a genocide. In protest of Foxman's stance, at least seven Massachusetts communities withdrew from ADL's "No Place For Hate" antibigotry school programs. Andrew Tarsy, the New England director of the ADL, was fired, then reinstated, then quit his post over his disagreement with Foxman's stance.

Following the controversy, Armenians here were at first a bit surprised but receptive to the idea of hosting Hack's Holocaust artifacts, Davidson said.

The Watertown museum - which houses Bibles, art, photographs, and other artifacts from the Armenian genocide - offered a display case for the Auschwitz jewelry, near an exhibit of clothes belonging to an Armenian child killed in the Syrian desert in 1915.

The joint exhibit will be deeply meaningful to both Jews and Armenians, said Mariam Stepanyan, director of the museum. "We felt it was such a rare and important pairing of experiences of two people who have seen to much and have so much to teach us."

Davidson did not ask the ADL to be involved, and reached out to such groups as Facing History and Ourselves, an educational program based in Brookline, and the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester.

The Strassler Center was "honored to be included," said Tatyana Macaulay, a program manager at the center. "The vision of bringing together people from both cultures who have suffered greatly resonated with us," she said.

Todd Gunick, a New York-based spokesman for the ADL, said that the group would probably accept Davidson's invitation to attend the Watertown exhibit.

Several Armenian groups have accepted invitations to cosponsor the exhibit. "We thought it was a great idea to bring people together at this point in time," said Sharistan Melkonian, chairwoman of the eastern Massachusetts chapter of the Armenian National Committee, who is the granddaughter of genocide survivors.

She said the dispute last year over the ADL stance was not about the Armenian and Jewish people, but "one organization's policy."

"We are hoping [the exhibit] helps people understand that this experience has been shared by way too many people. We'll hear about it in a way you can only hear about from survivors," said Melkonian. "When my grandmother said, 'This can never happen again,' she didn't mean just to Armenians. She meant we have to make sure we are apart of making sure it never happens to anyone again."

Hack said he decided last year to confide about the hidden artifacts to Rabbi Abraham I. Halbfinger and Dean Solomon, longtime friends from his Brighton synagogue, Kadimah-Toras Moshe. The men decided the jewelry should go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, after the local display in Watertown.

Solomon said he understood why Hack had not been able to break his silence for six decades.

"He didn't feel people could understand," he said. "But then he realized he could use the pieces to tell everyone what had happened. The idea became that these pieces would speak volumes. They would speak for him and speak for the dead people."

Hack said he would like to travel to Jerusalem in the spring with Solomon, Davidson, and Halbfinger, to deliver the Auschwitz jewelry. He holds out hope that the pieces can be reunited with the families of their owners, although without markings or monograms, chances are slim.

"These don't belong to me," said Hack. "They have never belonged to me. These belong to people who I say a Kaddish [mourning prayer] for every day."

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com

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