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Holocaust Survivor’s Purse Tells Story in the Smithsonian

The handbag and its contents will be on display through May

Lily Wilf
February 27, 2014
Holocaust Survivor Camilla Gottlieb's Purse (Smithsonian)
Holocaust Survivor Camilla Gottlieb's Purse (Smithsonian)

It’s said that the contents of a woman’s purse say a lot about her. In the case of Holocaust survivor Camilla Gottlieb, however, they say a lot more than that. In a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History titled “Camilla’s Purse,” a number of letters, official documents, and personal possessions from the Holocaust, which Gottlieb collected in a black leather purse, are on display. The collection of objects chronicle her deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, her liberation, and her immigration to the United States, amounting to a tale that represents many more people than just Camilla Gottlieb herself.

The happy, ordinary days of Gottlieb’s pre-Holocaust life are reflected in objects such as Gottlieb’s identification card, citizenship record, and traditional Jewish wedding contract. Then the Germans invaded Austria in 1938, and Camilla and her husband faced serious anti-Semitism in Vienna. In 1942, the pair was deported to Theresienstadt. Painful reminders of this experience appear in the food-ration coupons and train ticket that Gottlieb kept in her purse.

The final chapters, Gottlieb’s liberation and immigration to the U.S., are featured in the exhibit too. A letter to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an approved visa petition, and an emigrant entrance clearance form testify to her eventually successful efforts to reach America. After Gottlieb died in 1964, her grandson Robert Bodansky found the purse and its powerful contents, which will remain on display in Washington D.C. through May 2014.

Lily Wilf is an editorial intern at Tablet.

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