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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Brandeis alumna’s quest for lost trunk ends in ‘miracle’

Published: April 20, 2012
Section: News

For Brandeis alumna Erin Maidan ’03 of Waterloo, Iowa, this Holocaust Remembrance Day holds a special significance. This year she has honored her grandparents’ memory by reclaiming a lost artifact of family history—the trunk that held all of their possessions during the Holocaust, The Appleton Post Crescent reported this week. “It’s a miracle. It’s like getting a piece of them back,” Erin Maidan said. “The trunk is the perfect reminder of our struggles, and the hope that comes with redemption.

Maidan’s grandparents, Jozef and Sonia Maidan, were Polish Jews who both survived concentration camps, Dachau and Auschwitz, respectively. They hid in a forest near Bialystok, Poland, until they turned themselves into a concentration camp called Radom, living in fear of people finding them. Jozef was taken to Bergen-Belsen and later Dachau, and Sonia was sent to Auschwitz. Sonia, who arrived in a railcar packed so tightly that people who died could not fall to the ground, described her survival as a matter of chance. Sonia was liberated on April 1, 1945. She believed that her freedom was an April Fool’s Day joke and slavery was the reality, something Erin still cannot fathom.

The Maidans were reunited after the war, at a displaced persons camp called Felderfink, outside of Munich. Jozef saw Sonia’s name on a list of survivors and traveled for two weeks on foot to find her. They had lost everything, even their two-year-old son Avram, who was taken. Yet at the same time, they began to rebuild their lives. Sonia gave birth to a daughter, Rifka, at the displaced persons camp, and they raised two more children in America, one of whom was Erin Maidan’s father Henry.

The Maidans arrived in America with $18 and a trunk full of their remaining possessions, which has become a symbol of their immigrant heritage. They worked hard to achieve the American dream, learning English and running two tailor shops for three decades. It was initially Jozef’s skills as a tailor that secured his survival, because he was able to receive extra rations from the guards. When Jozef Maidan grew ill and had to close the store, they sold the trunk for money. It was bought by Orrin Miller, a local history buff. Erin Maidan did not rediscover it until she interned at the Grout Museum District and museum historian Bob Neymeyer helped return it to her. “As far as the trunk goes, Bob and Francesca (the museum staff) are the real heroes,” she said. Influenced by her family heritage, Maidan studied European Cultural History, German Language and Literature, and NEJS with a focus on Holocaust studies. She was the only Jewish German major in her time at Brandeis.

Maidan was one of only three Brandeis students to study abroad in Germany. She spent a year at the University of Heidelberg, the oldest university in Germany. Maidan was “prepared to go fully incognito” while doing research on Jewish-German relations after the Holocaust, the subject of her thesis. Yet she says what she found “surprised me intensely, and changed my entire life, especially how I relate to Germany. I had a wonderful time and found the healing I was never really searching for, but it found me.”

Sonia Maidan supported Erin’s journey, and even sent her off with a list of details such as her addresses before the war and places she must visit: the major Jewish centers of Eastern Europe such as Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, Krakow and Berlin. At the end of her trip, she spent a week alone in Poland, visiting Auschwitz. Maidan sees the bittersweet significance of the trunk. She says it symbolizes her grandparents’ suffering, but it also represents healing and the freedom to pass their Judaism onto the next generation.

On Holocaust Remembrance day Thursday, the Miller family presented the trunk back to the Maidan family in a small ceremony.

“It’s no surprise to me that all of this happened very close to Pesach. It is the month of freedom after all, now as much as ever,” Erin Maidan said. “My story continues, the Jewish story continues. We were slaves in Egypt, we were slaves in Europe and now we are free Jews thanks to their sacrifice … Not all is lost. There’s hope things can be returned.”