Saturday April 20, 2019

The tale of a family who escaped Nazis and a tea cannister that bears proof to all

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In the Bronx home of Guta and Mayer Rak, this tin canister used to hold Swee Touch Nee tea. Image source: Sabina Rak Neugebauer
  • A canister from the time of holocaust was retained by Rak couple.
  • It contained gold that the couple hid for financial crisis
  • Their grand daughter came up with the idea of getting her engagement ring made from the gold in canister

Discovery at Auschwitz led to a mug that concealed a ring and necklace that was painstakingly hidden from the Nazis for 70 long years but the sad part is that the museum couldn’t identify the owner.

Following the story, a reader, Sabina mailed soon and wrote that she wanted to share a story of similar object. “But in this case, I know a lot about the people the object belonged to” she said. Very soon, a story of Sabina’s grandparents and their tea canister popped up, according to the NPR report.

The canister was rusty, having size similar to a coffee can. It contained bags of Swee Touch Nee tea that had differentiated, sweet and floral smell. The tea was hallmarked in the home of Guta and Mayer. Sabina’s mother, Eda Rak commemorates her parents drinking the tea in large glass cups and held a sugar cube between their teeth.

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Before World War II, Mayer Rak worked as a writer, but years later, he worked in the garment industry in the Bronx. And switching between these two professions, he and his wife spent years escaping the Nazis and Soviets. All their lives, they used the canister without elucidating its story until one day, they disclosed the story to their daughter.

Guta and Mayer Rak with their daughter, Eda, in 1947. Eda was born in Lodz, Poland, when the Raks briefly returned to their home country after the end of World War II. Image source: Courtesy Sabina Rak Neugebauer
Guta and Mayer Rak with their daughter, Eda, in 1947. Eda was born in Lodz, Poland, when the Raks briefly returned to their home country after the end of World War II. Image source: Courtesy Sabina Rak Neugebauer

The story dated back to 1939 in Warsaw, capital of Poland where the Raks lived. That very September, Nazis invaded Poland. So the Jewish couple-the Arks were frightened about the holocaust. “Aware of what was to come, they took whatever small pieces of jewelry they had” said Eda. “They went to a local tinsmith and asked him to hide the metals in the lip of the container by melting them.”

The smith forged the jewelry and gave it back to the Raks. The tin travelled east with them and later to Soviet Union, where the Raks were arrested in the view of being spies.

They carried it to labor camps in Siberia, where they were forced to cut timber there as told by Sabina. After they were released from the refuge camp in 1942, they took a road to south and reached Tashkent that lies in modern Uzbekistan. The canister followed them there too. “At the end of the war, they fled Russia just ahead of the secret police, and went west back to Poland hoping to be reunited with their family, the canister still with them,” Sabina wrote. The Arks returned to Warsaw to learn that their whole family was wiped out and all their relatives were dead. The Raks had to travel to Sweden and then to New York as they had nothing left in Poland.

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Although the canister covered fathoms with them, they never felt a need to open up the canister. They never inquired if the gold was actually melted and put in by the tinsmith. There could have been a possibility that the smith might have pocketed the jewelry. “They were immensely proud,” Eda says, “that through all these peregrinations they never needed to find out if they had been cheated or not.”

“At their death, that was my inheritance,” 70-year-old Eda says. And she said she was never interested in knowing what was inside the canister. The thing inside canister remained a mystery until an idea popped up in Sabina’s head. She and her fiance, Marcio Siwi, are abot to get married later this month. She expressed a desire to her mother if she and her fiancé could get their wedding rings made out of the gold inside the canister.

The can contained enough gold to be made into two rings for Sabina and her fiancé
The can contained enough gold to be made into two rings for Sabina and her fiancé. Image Courtesy: npr.org

The matter wasn’t about gold or lead present; it was about the history that the metal has lived, said Sabina. The object allegories a great amount of pain and resilience, that had to be incurred to the next generation so as to let the emotions survive. Eda wasn’t sure at first. “What was in the tea canister … wasn’t what was valuable,” she says. “It was the fact that it was their companion through all their travels. How is that possible, that you can be locked up in a slave labor camp and still hold onto this little piece of tin?”

But after being convinced by Sabina’s thought, Eda finally agreed to the idea and took the can to a local jeweler, Harmeet Singh. The jeweler readily agreed and took the challenge. As an experienced jeweler, he could feel the metal being tucked away under the lip but couldn’t identify it well.

In order to retain the shape of can, he made a special bent tool to reach inside the container and he hen heated the container slowly.

“Things started to loosen up,” Singh says. Afterwards, he was able to pull out three curves of metal that had distinctive luster of gold. “It was an amazing moment,” Sabina says. “It was so powerful, because it meant even in this incredible moment of vulnerability, the jeweler in Poland, the tinsmith, really stuck to his word.”The gold was held in place with lead solder and Singh expressed astonishment as bonding gold, tin and lead like that is not an easy task.

Singh melted down the metal and came to know that it was 18-karat rose gold ,a kind that was very much prevalent in most of Eastern Europe.

The amount of gold it had were enough to make rings for Sabina and her fiance, Albeit, more of gold left over can be used by Sabina’s younger sister if she wants it.

But Eda prefers to keep the tin forever. It’s still a symbol of her parents’ resilience and their resistance to pain.

“It was just so thrilling that there was goodness in the world,” Eda says.

-by Shruti Pandey, an intern at Newsgram.Twitter: Shruti Pandey

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  • devika todi

    such tales of survival fill me with so much of inspiration!

  • AJ Krish

    The hope despite all the odds.The gold that they never needed.Now,he history behind the ring is a tale to be told.

  • Vrushali Mahajan

    Survival tales have always fascinated me. The one where Mr Sugihara saved 40,000 lives is another inspirational story

Next Story

Short-Circuit Likely The Cause of Notre Dame Fire, Claims Police Investigators

"It's a chance for France to bounce back, a chance to realize what unites us, because we have been too much divided over the past years,''

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firefighters who saved Notre Dame Cathedral
Members of Paris Firefighters' brigade enter the security perimeter to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, April 18, 2019. France paid a daylong tribute Thursday to the Paris firefighters who saved Notre Dame Cathedral from collapse. VOA

Paris police investigators think an electrical short-circuit most likely caused the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, a police official said Thursday, as France paid a daylong tribute to the firefighters who saved the world-renowned landmark.

A judicial police official told The Associated Press that investigators made an initial assessment of the cathedral Wednesday but don’t have a green light to search Notre Dame’s charred interior because of ongoing safety hazards.

The cathedral’s fragile walls were being shored up with wooden planks, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak by name about an ongoing investigation.

Investigators believe the fire was accidental, and are questioning both cathedral staff and workers who were carrying out renovations. Some 40 people had been questioned by Thursday, according to the Paris prosecutor’s office.

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, third left, and other officials listen to cello player Armance Quero during a ceremony in front of the Paris city hall, April 18, 2019.
French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, third left, and other officials listen to cello player Armance Quero during a ceremony in front of the Paris city hall, April 18, 2019. VOA

The police official would not comment on an unsourced report in Le Parisian newspaper that investigators are looking at whether the fire could have been linked to a computer glitch or the temporary elevators used in the renovation work, among other things. The prosecutor’s office said only that “all leads must be explored.”

Temporary structure proposed

Since the cathedral will be closed to the public for years, the rector of the Catholic parish that worships there has proposed building a temporary structure on the plaza in front of the Gothic-era landmark, and City Hall gave its approval Thursday “subject to technical restraints.”

“The rector has no cathedral for the moment. … But I’m going to try to invent something,” Bishop Patrick Chauvet said.

A crypt containing vestiges dating from antiquity is located under the vast esplanade.

President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants Notre Dame to be restored in five years, in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics, which Paris is hosting. Restoration specialists have questioned the ambitious timeline, with some saying it could take three times that long to rebuild the 850-year-old architectural treasure.

Honoring the firefighters

Earlier Thursday, Macron held a ceremony at the Elysee Palace to thank the hundreds of firefighters who battled the fast-moving fire at Notre Dame for nine hours starting Monday evening, preventing the structure’s destruction and rescuing many of the important relics held inside.

Emergency service personnel walk at the Elysee Palace in Paris after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, April 18, 2019.
Emergency service personnel walk at the Elysee Palace in Paris after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, April 18, 2019. VOA

“We’ve seen before our eyes the right things perfectly organized in a few moments, with responsibility, courage, solidarity and a meticulous organization,” Macron said. “The worst has been avoided.”

The cathedral’s lead roof and its soaring spire were destroyed, but Notre Dame’s iconic bell towers, rose windows, organ and precious artworks were saved.

Macron said the firefighters will receive an Honor Medal for their courage and devotion.

Paris City Hall also held a ceremony in the firefighters’ honor Thursday afternoon, with a Bach violin concert, two giant banners strung from the monumental city headquarters and readings from Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Remarkably, no one was killed in the blaze that broke out as the cathedral was in the initial stages of a lengthy restoration.

Securing area, cathedral

A large swath of the island in the Seine River where Notre Dame is located was officially closed Thursday by police, who cited “important risks” of collapse and falling objects. The area had been unofficially blocked off since the fire.

A crane hoists scaffolding past gargoyles outside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, April 18, 2019.
A crane hoists scaffolding past gargoyles outside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, April 18, 2019. VOA

Meanwhile, workers using a crane removed some statues to lessen the weight on the cathedral’s fragile gables, or support walls, to keep them from collapsing since they were no longer supported by the roof and its network of centuries-old timbers that were consumed by the inferno.

They also secured the support structure above one of Notre Dame’s rose windows with wooden planks.

Saving history

Among the firefighters honored Thursday was Paris fire brigade chaplain Jean-Marc Fournier, who told the Le Parisian daily he was able to save the cathedral’s consecrated hosts. The paper said he climbed on altars to remove large paintings, but that he was especially proud “to have removed Jesus” from the Cathedral — a reference to the Catholic belief that consecrated hosts are the body of Christ.

An earlier report credited Fournier with helping salvage the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus at his crucifixion, but Fournier told France Info Thursday he arrived after rescuers had already broken the relic’s protective covering and an official who had the secret code needed to unlock it finished the job. He praised the action that preserved “this extraordinary relic, this patrimony of humanity.”

Chaplain of the Paris Fire Department, Jean-Marc Fournier, center, waits at the Elysee Palace in Paris prior to a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, April 18, 2019.
Chaplain of the Paris Fire Department, Jean-Marc Fournier, center, waits at the Elysee Palace in Paris prior to a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, April 18, 2019. VOA

Among others honored was Myriam Chudzinski, one of the first firefighters to reach the roof as the blaze raged. Loaded with gear, they climbed hundreds of steps up the cathedral’s narrow spiral staircase to the top of one of the two towers.

“We knew that the roof was burning, but we didn’t really know the intensity,” she told reporters. “It was from upstairs that you understood that it was really dramatic. It was very hot and we had to retreat, retreat. It was spreading quickly.”

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Benedicte Contamin, who came to view the damaged cathedral from afar Thursday, said she’s sad but grateful it’s still there.

“It’s a chance for France to bounce back, a chance to realize what unites us, because we have been too much divided over the past years,” she said. (VOA)