Message in a Bottle
How Google helped connect a forgotten Holocaust letter to its author’s descendants
Lost letter sent in 1942 between Moshe Stiel in the Hague and Chaim Bukiet in Shanghai. Netherlands Red Cross World War II Archives.
In July 1942, the Red Cross office in Shanghai delivered a letter to a young Polish refugee named Chaim Meir Bukiet, who was in China en route to America, and safety. The scrawled missive was curt: “Your parents in Chmielnik send warm wishes and want you to know they are healthy. Please report what news of your health can be shared with your parents.”
Bukiet wasted no time responding to the intermediary, a Dutch Jew named Moses Stiel, who may have written dozens of similar notes on behalf of other Polish Jews. “Very glad for the news. Many thanks. Am healthy, brothers also. From Grandfather good news. Would be happy to have more news very soon from my parents,” he typed on the reverse side of the original Red Cross form, using code to indicate that his fellow yeshiva students were safe, and that the Lubavitcher rebbe had secured his passage to New York.
But by the time the response arrived back in the Netherlands, Stiel had been snapped up by the Nazi machine that ultimately shipped him to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, along with Bukiet’s parents; the letter was marked “undeliverable” and lay forgotten in a box at the Red Cross vaults in the Hague until this spring, when an enterprising archivist named Raymund Schütz came across it and decided to Google the correspondents.
“It started from nothing more than curiosity and 30 minutes of spare time,” said Schütz, who quickly tracked down Bukiet’s grandson, a Chabad archivist in New York named Dovid Zaklikowski and, with a single email, closed a gap in the Bukiet family history that had been left open for 67 years. (A second letter, written by a Dutch woman to her daughter in Mandate Palestine during the war, has since been returned to the family in Israel with help from the Magen David Adom tracing service, Schütz said.)
While the largest of the Holocaust archives have been indexed and catalogued in the decades since the war’s end, Bukiet’s letter is one among thousands, if not millions, of documents and other scraps of evidence that today lie scattered in repositories—national or institutional archives, libraries, not a few attics or basements—around the world, in many cases unindexed and forgotten, leaving survivors or relatives to rely on chance to tie together the loose ends of history.
The recent transfer of Holocaust archival databases from Bad Arolsen, the headquarters of the International Tracing Service in Germany, to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has opened up vast possibilities for those who know what needles they may be hunting for in haystacks that run to thousands of feet of filing cabinets.
But many families simply don’t know they have anything to look for, either because their relatives simply did not want to talk about their experiences during the war, or because they themselves never knew that documents or other items might have survived somewhere other than where they were supposed to be—like Chaim Bukiet, who lived his life believing his parents had received his response before they were deported, his grandson said.
“We never knew of any Red Cross things,” said Zaklikowski, who was inspired by the discovery of the Dutch letter—which is written in German, not Yiddish or Polish—to launch a hunt through the Chabad archives for other missing family correspondence that turned up another letter from his great-grandfather to the Lubavitcher rebbe in New York concerning Chaim Bukiet.
“It remains a big challenge to identify where all this material has come to rest,” said Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has undertaken a large-scale indexing project that would at least allow researchers to see what categories of materials exist in the archive, if not hunt for individual names or places. “It is not at all unusual, and in fact it’s extremely common, for documents you would never expect to find in a certain place to suddenly appear.”
The most famous example, Shapiro said, is the chance discovery of 800 cartons of photographs, identification papers, visa applications, and petitions in a deserted Vienna apartment building in the summer of 2000, but Shapiro recalled the discovery of hundreds of affidavits taken from Auschwitz survivors in the spring of 1945 by the Romanian office of the Joint Distribution Committee that had been mismarked in an Israeli archive for decades.
But even carefully recorded material can lie hidden in plain sight. The responsibility of the Dutch Red Cross, Schütz said, was to document the fate of Dutch people who were caught up in the war—not just Jews but members of the Resistance, prisoners of war in the Dutch West Indies, and even Dutch volunteers fought for the Germans. The fate of Poles, even those who corresponded via the Hague, would have been the bailiwick of the Polish archives, though the absence of integration between archives, or a universal index, means efforts to piece together orphaned ephemera, like the undeliverable letters, have been sporadic.
“I was quite intrigued by the way this message was traveling around the world, and it was just curiosity about what happened here—I thought maybe there is someone out there who doesn’t know what happened to their grandfather,” said Schütz. “It just happened to end in this nice story about finding the grandson.”
Stories like that, however, are rare—not least because few archivists or researchers have the time and resources to look for the owners of orphaned material, rather than the other way around. And at the time the undeliverable letters were first archived, decades ago, officials would likely have assumed their missing recipients were dead or untraceable, not just a click away.
“To proactively take action, that’s distinctive,” said Ken Waltzer, director of the Jewish Studies Department at Michigan State University, who has helped survivors conduct their own research in newly opened archives. “The internet is radically changing how we’re doing things,” Waltzer said. “We were helped by it—you can find people, you can follow up with people, you can get access to resources.”
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