Trice: Discovering a grandfather's life at Auschwitz during Holocaust

Sara Feinstein was 2 years old when her grandfather passed away in 1986. For years, what she mainly knew about Martin Maiman was that he was an electrical engineer who had built a good life for his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee.

There also had been rumors that his vocation somehow had saved his life and the lives of others during his time in Nazi Germany. But those stories lacked details and were difficult to prove.

Feinstein said her grandfather, a German Jew, never talked about having survived the Holocaust. Her mother told her the only way they discovered he'd been in Auschwitz was that he had a blue tattoo on his arm with a number. It was a fading, yet stark reminder of a horrific experience.

"I remember my mom said that he always told them to have an education because it's the one thing they couldn't take from you," said Feinstein, 31, a Chicago attorney. "Only when we learned about his experience did we understand how meaningful that comment was."

In January 2012, a friend of Feinstein's invited her to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., for a weekend aimed at teaching the younger generation about the Holocaust.

Feinstein said she wanted to learn more about her family's history, so she signed up for the trip, which was a couple of months away. In the meantime, she received a phone call from a museum staffer asking if she wouldn't mind a researcher looking into her family's background using its massive International Tracing Service collection.

The Nazis were meticulous and rigorous about record keeping, and the museum has been receiving a steady stream of new information from an archive opened in Bad Arolsen, Germany, in 2007.

"But they told me that they typically only found in the system one or two documents that the Nazis kept on a prisoner," Feinstein said. "They wanted to moderate my expectations."

Instead, the researcher found more than 100 documents on Martin Maiman.

Feinstein and her family learned that Maiman had been in Auschwitz and five other concentration camps.

"There was a document that showed the results from a death march, and the Nazis had thousands of people leave Auschwitz in January 1945 and wind up in a camp called Flossenburg," she said. "We have a transcript of the people who survived. Out of the thousands, only 25 were left."

Maiman was one of them. His name was No. 21 on the list. The researcher, while trying to learn more about Maiman, began looking into the background of the other survivors. No. 22 on the list was a man named Otto Goldschmitt who in 1995 gave an oral history account of his time in Nazi Germany to the USC Shoah Foundation.

The Nazis sometimes spared the lives of prisoners who had skills they could exploit. In the video, Goldschmitt explains that Maiman saved his life by persuading him to raise his hand when the soldiers asked if any of the prisoners were electricians.

According to transcripts, Goldschmitt said he protested, but Maiman told him: "Don't worry about it. Whatever we have to do, I do it for you and I give it to you."

Feinstein said her great aunt told her that the Nazis forced Maiman to build fences around the concentration camps. "She said he built them with weak areas and with holes to help people escape," Feinstein said.

She added that the family had known Maiman had a brother who fought in the resistance movement and was killed two weeks before World War II ended and another brother who met his wife in a displacement camp. They had a son there and survived.

The museum recovered a photo of the son, then 2 years old, along with a note from his father detailing his experiences.

A ship manifest showed that in 1947, two years after the war, Maiman sailed to New York and then traveled to Milwaukee, where he joined the surviving members of his family. He was 31.

Diane Afoumado, one of the museum's chief researchers, said as the survivors are passing on, many of their stories are getting lost, and one of the key missions of the museum is to help connect family members to those stories.

"We want to help bring closure," she said. "We want to provide families with as much information as possible, especially the second and third generations."

A particular focus has been on Chicago because it has a large Polish community with residents whose family members were probably war victims.

Feinstein said her family is now trying to confirm a story that Maiman helped the U.S. government locate Nazis after the war.

"What's so striking to me is that the Nazis endeavored not just to kill millions of innocent people, but to destroy any memory or them," she said. "What the museum does is help people reclaim that history by re-establishing what was in those gaps."

dtrice@tribune.com

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