Much of what Rose Maklan Ross knew about her parents’ experiences during World War II came out during trips to the movies.
She and her mother, Gisela Maklans, made weekly trips to the movies, arriving 20 minutes early to talk.
“It was the one place she felt safe,” Maklan Ross said. “She could speak in the dark.”
Maklans survived the Auschwitz and Stutthof concentration camps. Her father died on the train to Auschwitz. Her brother and mother were sent immediately to the gas chambers, and she and her sister were sent to live in the camp, where her sister later died.
After the war, Maklans met Rose’s father, Leo, at the Neustadt/Holstein displaced persons camp in Germany. Leo Maklans, a Latvian shoemaker before the war, also survived time in Stutthof and the Kaiserwald concentration camp.
Maklan Ross, now 73 and a resident of Delray Beach, was one of the first children born in Neustadt.
When her mother died in 2002, Maklan Ross packed up her mother’s South Florida apartment. She took home old, fraying photo albums with black pages and little tabs anchoring the pictures to the page, and documents – immunization records, documents identifying her parents as camp survivors, records of their medical exams – from their time in Neustadt.
She put them all in a box that she looked through every year on her mother’s birthday, and took out for her children’s school projects on their family tree or World War II. But mostly they stayed in the box, until 2018.
“All of a sudden I got this sense of urgency that if something happened to me, it would be a box that goes to the family, and then they look at it, and they put that box on another shelf,” she said. “And I just couldn’t let it sit there and just disappear.”
At around the same time, Maklan Ross read an article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel about South Florida residents donating artifacts to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“I said ‘this is it, here’s the answer to my problem,’” she said.
Maklan Ross reached out to Aimee Rubensteen, the acquisitions curator for the museum based in South Florida.
Rubensteen researched Maklan Ross’s parents, then met with Maklan Ross herself to see the artifacts and talk about her family.
She said she was struck by how Maklan Ross had not just photographs or just documents, but both, from overlapping time periods – which allowed Rubensteen to piece together a fuller picture of the Maklans’ life in the Neustadt displaced persons camp.
“It’s an amazing thing to be able to look at the family photos of Rose’s parents getting married, Rose’s parents having a child,” she said. “And alongside these photographs we have all these documents of what they were doing – they weren’t just getting married and having a kid, they were trying to immigrate as soon as possible.”
The immunization records and camp documents Maklan Ross kept in a box showed that her parents were building a paper trail that would allow them to leave Neustadt for their eventual home in New York.
Maklan Ross said she carried the weight of her family’s experiences in the Holocaust, even as many of the details remained a mystery to her. She longed to know more about her mother’s life before the war.
“Was she happy? Did she laugh?” Maklan Ross said. “Those were the things that mattered to me, was to know that at one time she could have been happy.”
She said her mother grew up in an observant Jewish family, but rarely went to temple after the war – so rarely, in fact, that Maklan Ross vividly remembers a trip to a Bronx synagogue for High Holidays when she was 10 or 11.
Her father dressed in a suit and she and her mother put on silk dresses, and when they got to the door of the synagogue, a man asked for their tickets – $75 for the whole family. Maklan Ross’s parents hadn’t purchased tickets.
“And my mother just looked at him and said ‘I will pay you nothing. I have already paid,’” Maklan Ross said.
Her mother took Maklan Ross and her father by the hand and marched them into the synagogue.
“The way I remember it, it was like Moses in that famous scene when the waters parted,” she said. “And no one ever said a word.”
For Rubensteen, the rich context provided by Maklan Ross’s collection, and her family’s stories, will become especially important as the number of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust are dwindling.
“The stories that are told around the objects don’t just provide context,” Rubensteen said. “They will be the context for the future, when we don’t have firsthand accounts anymore.”
In addition to Maklan Ross’s own recollection of her parents’ story – much of it gleaned from her mother 20 minutes at a time in darkened movie theaters – Maklan Ross donated a taped interview she did with her mother the year before her death.
Maklan Ross said when friends heard she had given all her family’s wartime photos and documents to the museum, some were shocked that she’d handed over the records of her family’s history.
“Everyone said to me, ‘you gave it all away,’” she said. “I mean, it doesn’t do me any good to have them, but it can do good for other people, you know?”
Others, though, were inspired by Maklan Ross’s donation to look through their own family documents and photos, and to call other family members to track down records from the years during and after the war.
Rubensteen said she’s already talked to one woman who was prompted by Maklan Ross’s donation to inquire about donating her own materials.
Maklan Ross has no doubts about her own decision to give up her family’s photos and documents, which the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has already digitized and made available on its website.
“It makes me feel as if I’ve put my parents in a place where they can have some respect,” she said.