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Holocaust-era Jewish community brought to life

A clear out job before a house sale led to the discovery of a window into the Holocaust.

In 2000, members of the Jewish Community Vienna were getting an apartment ready to cede to new owners when they stumbled upon some 800 dusty boxes and dozens of wooden cabinets filled with about half a million documents detailing the life of Viennese Jews during Nazi times.

"We knew there were documents in there, but we had no idea they were Nazi-era documents," said Ingo Zechner, who heads the community's Holocaust Victims' Information and Support Center.

Part of the cache, which includes deportation lists, emigration documents, poignant letters and photos, will be officially presented Thursday at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. A related exhibition opens in Vienna next month.

Since 2002, the Jewish Community Vienna and the Holocaust Memorial have been working together to preserve the material on microfilm for a wider collection that will include about 1.5 million documents from Vienna currently stored at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem.

Zechner said the completed project will represent "the biggest archival holding of the German-speaking Jewish community ever found."

It's part of a growing trove of wartime and Holocaust documents being made public for the first time in recent years.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch Red Cross began opening its archive a few years ago on the 140,000 Dutch Jews who lived in Holland when the war broke out - including a complete card catalog compiled under Nazi direction by the Jewish Council. More than 75 percent of the people listed on those cards died in the Holocaust.

In Bad Arolsen, Germany, tens of millions of pages of Nazi concentration camp records and documents referring to 17.5 million victims were being copied and sent to the Holocaust Memorial under an agreement finalized this year to open the long-secret archive.

The Vienna discovery includes reports, financial documents, card files, books, maps and charts that together form a history of the final years of Vienna's Jewish community in the leadup to the Holocaust.

"The goal is to make this material available to survivors and their families, researchers and scholars and to the general public," Anatol Steck, in charge of international archival programs at the museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, said in a telephone interview from Washington.

"It's equally important to preserve it for future generations," Steck added. He noted that archival records were in a danger of being lost because the originals are often on bad quality paper.

Steck described the archive of the Jewish Community Vienna as "extraordinary" because it provides vivid insights into what Jews went through under the Nazis.

"It contains materials through which you hear the victim's own voice," Steck said. Emigration questionnaires, for example, were handwritten and provided details about an individual's family and economic situation.

"These materials are the last testament," Steck said.

The deportation lists contain names, ages and addresses of all of the more than 49,000 Jews who were deported from Vienna to concentration camps starting in February 1941, Zechner said. In total, some 65,000 Austrian Jews died in the Holocaust.

One of the thousands of names on the deportation lists is that of Salomon K., who was deported to Minsk on May 27, 1942 and killed upon arrival on June 1, 1942.

The emigration questionnaire gives the outlines of a life: Salomon K. was a Jewish native of Poland, married a woman called Valerie, and had a son, Berthold, who was born in 1928. Other documents showed that Berthold and Valerie survived by fleeing to Mauritius via Palestine.

The documents found in 2000 are currently being housed at the Holocaust Victims' Information and Support Center. Other material from the cartons dates as far back as the 19th and early 20th century.

The plan is to make the archive available to the public in the planned Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies that would also house the archives of late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. The project is currently being stymied by funding problems.

"The idea would be also to combine the material with the archival holdings of Simon Wiesenthal because the material Wiesenthal kept is related to the perpetrators, and the material kept by the Jewish community is related to the victims," Zechner said.