In 1949, 16-year-old Ernest Michel never dreamed that the very belt and pants he wore at Auschwitz would become treasured relics in a special exhibit. At the time, the young labor camp inmate was more concerned with survival. Now at age 79, the former executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) is proud to present "Birth of Two Democracies," a historic exhibit which will make its West Coast premiere in Los Angeles this month.
The collection includes over 130 items focusing on historical Judaica. Highlights include Michel's admission papers to Auschwitz; a letter from an SS officer, which was transcribed by an inmate; an autographed photo of David Ben-Gurion signing the Israeli Declaration of Independence; a speech that Albert Einstein delivered to the UJA in 1952; and a photo of the Peace Treaty signing between Egypt and Israel, which was autographed by Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter.
Also part of the display is the Kaller family exhibition, a collection of historical documents related to birth of the United States. Items include a rare copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and original documents signed by George Washington, John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin.
"This [collection] has become a lifelong obsession for me because I survived the camps," said the native of Mannheim, Germany, who was arrested by the Gestapo two days after Germany invaded Poland. After spending over five years at labor and extermination camps, he escaped from the last death march in April 1945.
Michel has visited Auschwitz several times over the years. Three years ago, he went with family and friends for what he deemed his final pilgrimage to the former concentration camp. "My feeling is that [Auschwitz] should be preserved as long as humanly possible. It should not be beautified or rebuilt," the survivor said, "but it should be preserved."