From closet to exhibition: Camilla Gottlieb's purse

Intern Peter Olson interviewed Curators Nancy Davis and William Yeingst, whose new exhibition Camilla's Purse reveals the previously unknown story of one woman's survival in the face of impossible odds;a story her family only uncovered when they discovered a purse stuffed with documents.

Hiding in the back of a closet in Robert Bodansky's home was a purse that had belonged to his grandmother Camilla Gottlieb. The unremarkable leather valise was much like any that could be purchased in Vienna, Austria, before World War II. However, its contents mark it as a singular piece of family, and national, history; one that Camilla hadn't spoken of much during her lifetime.

Camilla Gottlieb, center, with her family.
Top from left: Lony Bodansky, Camilla Gottlieb, and Ilona Klaber, Camilla's sister-in-law. Bottom from left: Lony's sons Harvey and Robert Bodansky.

Within the purse was a record of Camilla's life, much of it unknown to Bodansky and the rest of Camilla's family. Like many Holocaust survivors, she tried to leave her past behind, but the religious certificates, legal documents, and correspondence within the purse helped put her story back together.

"It was packed to the gills!" says Nancy Davis, a curator in the Division of Home and Community Life. Inside the purse were more than 100 individual documents revealing aspects of Camilla's life in Vienna before World War II, her experience during the Holocaust, and her eventual immigration to America.

"It really was serving as a vehicle to contain all the documents that were important to her life." –Nancy Davis
"It really was serving as a vehicle to contain all the documents that were important to her life." –Nancy Davis

"She’s an ordinary person who lived through extraordinary circumstances," says William H. Yeingst, the Chair and Curator of the Division of Home and Community Life. Museum curators, in consultation with Camilla's descendants, developed an exhibition that uncovers a very personal narrative of one woman living in monumental times.

"The exhibition tells one woman’s story of surviving the Holocaust, her immigration to the United States, and the triumph of the spirit," continues Yeingst. It is this narrow, family-oriented focus that makes the exhibition a unique must-see in the museum. While the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum tells a wider story of the Holocaust, this exhibition delivers a more intimate experience of such a terrible time.

This telegraph was sent in May, 1946 and is from Camilla's daughter Lony. It let Camilla know that she'd be able to go to the United States and be reunited with her family.
This telegraph was sent in May, 1946 and is from Camilla's daughter Lony. It let Camilla know that she'd be able to go to the United States and be reunited with her family.

Leaving the exhibition, you may be struck by the importance of preserving you own family's history. "This story is not unique," Davis explains. "Many families could uncover stories of historical interest by looking into their family history." Through Bodansky's discovery and the new exhibition, the story of one woman and one family becomes part of the national narrative.

Tempted to poke around your attic?

Camilla's Purse opens on January 24, 2014, in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery. That day, a hand-picked group of history lovers and social media fanatics will live tweet a curator-led tour of the exhibition, which you can follow using the hashtag #docsocial. After touring Camilla's Purse, the group will see a special object at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Peter Olson is an intern in the museum's New Media department.