Objects Tell Stories: Remembering the Holocaust through Greta... Read More
Every year in Israel at 10 am on Yom HaShoah, an air raid siren announces two minutes of silence. Drivers on busy highways will even stop their vehicles and stand alongside them as a sign of respect. With Yom HaShoah, or International Holocaust Remembrance Day observed on April 11–12 this year, the Jewish Museum invites similar opportunities for solemn reflection. Today at the Museum, a gallery talk and workshop for teachers invites visitors to pause in front of objects like Holocaust survivor Greta Perlman’s charm bracelet. Created during her internment in the camp-ghetto of Theresienstadt from 1941 to 1944, the bracelet is a remarkable artifact. It is the centerpiece of the “Masterpieces and Curiosities” section of the Jewish Museum’s ongoing collection exhibition Scenes from the Collection.
Like an inmate subjected to Nazi camp-ghettoes, the bracelet is near miraculous for its survival. Prisoners were sometimes able to make and keep artworks in camp workshops, often clandestinely and under special circumstances. Perlman was assigned to work in the camp kitchens, where she could have received the charms in exchange for food. Most aesthetic objects from the Holocaust only exist today because they were stored in walls or buried underground for later retrieval. Perlman may have assembled the complete set of charms much later, after her emigration to the United States.
Each piece held meaning for Perlman, like a traditional charm bracelet. The items range from mournful to grimly humorous, from reminders of camp life to memories of home. The horrific conditions in Theresienstadt magnify their significance. When death through starvation, disease, or murder was ever-present, personal trinkets like these charms were all the more precious. They also help us to understand some of what Perlman experienced in the camp. Numerous pieces allude to her work as a cook, including tiny pots and a ladle, and a silhouette of a woman stirring a pot. A bullet, a lice comb, and a latrine indicate the routine indignities and constant peril of the camp.
Others reveal a potential romance between Perlman and a man named Theo, of whom we have no record. A pair of companion charms are made of ceramic shards in brass settings. They are inscribed with “Greta” and “Theo”, a date, and Terezín, or the Czech spelling of Theresienstadt. The pottery pieces must have been discarded by a camp workshop, yet as part of the bracelet they could represent the symbolic part of a Jewish wedding in which the couple breaks a plate.
Several charms bear Perlman’s name, that of the camp, and how she came to be interned there. A monogram piece contains her full initials, and others include the letter M and the number 433. This letter and number combination seem meaningless, though they encode Perlman’s transport designation when she was deported from Prague on December 14, 1941. For the Nazis, Theresienstadt served as a way station to death camps such as Auschwitz. The camp also existed to convince the outside world that Jews from Germany and Austria were being deported to the East for productive labor, propagated through false accounts and staged visits from the Red Cross. The reality was that the camp was designed to annihilate inmates through work, or transfer to extermination camps.
For Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Nazi party, imprisonment in camps meant erasure of their identity and agency. Each of Greta Perlman’s keepsakes tell a story, presenting aspects of her life and her struggle for survival. They track her movements from Prague to Theresienstadt, and detail her role as a cook. They tell us about her personal life and those she encountered in the camp. They represent the hopes and fears of a real person, rather than an anonymous victim. Taken together, the charms constitute a small yet profound means of resistance.
As of 2018, there are an estimated 500,000 Holocaust survivors remaining. With more deaths each year, unrecorded stories are inevitably lost. In the future, we may rely on objects like the Theresienstadt bracelet to not only document historic events, but also lend living color to those who experienced the Holocaust. Greta Perlman’s charm bracelet is just one story among many, yet we can mark Yom HaShoah by considering these objects anew, and remain grateful that we have them at all.
— Elisabeth Rivard, Temporary Digital Marketing Associate
Greta Pearlman’s bracelet is on view now in the first iteration of “Masterpieces and Curiosities” in Scenes from the Collection through August 5, 2018.
Objects Tell Stories: Remembering the Holocaust through Greta Perlman’s Charm Bracelet was originally published in The Jewish Museum on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.