Prague - Several weeks ago she was an unknown woman with a little boy sitting on her lap. Now we know her and her son's name as well as the story of her whole family. They all perished in Auschwitz in October 1944 after they missed a chance to leave the Nazi-occupied country due to the boy's illness.
Last autumn, the Jewish Museum in Prague decided to trace the names and research the fates of hundreds of mostly unidentified people in Nazi-era portrait photographs. The museum posted the pictures on the internet and called on the public to contact the museum if they could provide any clues.
The woman with the boy turned out to be Gertruda Zelenková, wife of the famous interwar architect and stage architect František Zelenka, and their son Martin.
Son's fever sent family to Auschwitz
At the beginning of the search for names and fates of people who disappeared in the Holocaust was a BA thesis by Martin Jelínek, who is a student of museum studies at Masaryk University in Brno and at the same time a Jewish Museum employee.
In his thesis, Jelínek wrote about the possibilities of identifying unknown persons know only from the museum's photo archive. Later he decided to continue his search.
In an effort to find out about the family Zelenka, Jelínek, got in touch with František Zelenka's niece, who lives in Los Angeles. From her the student knows that the Zelenkas got visas to leave the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, but had to postpone their departure as their son, Martin, fell ill; they did not get another chance.
"The were supposed to meet at the train station with my grandmother and leave together. But only Trudy came and said they were going next week because Martin had a fever," wrote Zelenka's niece, Kate Haber, to Jelínek in an e-mail.
Search aided by Aktuálně article
Jelínek says that the Jewish Museum's project has so far yielded the names of almost 40 people previous only known from photographs. "We've even heard from a man who recognised himself in one photo, featuring him and his sister as small children," Jelínek told Aktuálně.cz.
So far Jelínek has mostly exchanged e-mails with people who helped him and the museum identify previously unknown faces; but he also plans to meet them in person. An interesting thing is that most of the traced names are of people who survived the war. "Their relative advantage may have been that they came from mixed [Jewish-gentile] families," says Jelínek.
The project received publicity also thanks to an article ran by Aktuálně.cz in January. "Two people have contacted us after reading this article," says Jelínek. They are the daughter of Kurt Schenk, who died in 1994 in Opava, and the son of Josef Skalla, who also survived the war.