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Rare mail, on display Sunday, tells of Holocaust
Postcards and other items associated with Nazi-era concentration camps are shown above. They are part of a historical collection on display Sunday afternoon at the old Garfield School, 3212 First Ave. N. VICTOR ADY/Gazette Staff

A rare collection of Holocaust postal artifacts coming to Billings offers a personal look into the horror and tragedy of the World War II genocide.

A 1938 postcard sent by a mother to a hospital where people with disabilities were sterilized or killed inquires about her child. The card was routed to the section in charge of insane patients.

There is the only known surviving piece of mail sent by Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leader of German Jewry, while he was held at the Theresienstadt ghetto.

A 1944 parcel card is the only recorded example of sex slave mail.

And there is a torn fragment of Hebrew parchment from a Bible scroll that a German soldier used to wrap a package he mailed from Russia to Austria in 1942.

The artifacts are among 250 envelopes, postcards, letters and other items documenting the genocide in Europe from 1933 to 1945 in an exhibit sponsored by Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch and Congregation Beth Aaron. The congregation will hold an invitation-only showing Saturday. The exhibit will be taken to classes at West and Senior high schools today.

In addition, author Steve Feller, who wrote "Silent Witness: Civilian Camp Money of World War II," will present a program about Holocaust-related money in conjunction with the public exhibit. Coe is a physics professor at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The collection is owned by the Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation in Deerfield, Ill. Daniel Spungen, foundation board member, acquired the collection last year from Ken Lawrence of Bellefonte, Pa., who spent 30 years collecting the documents. The Spungen family, which manufactures ball bearings, established the foundation in 2006 to support charitable and educational causes.

The Billings display will be the first time the foundation has shown the exhibit outside Illinois, Spungen said. The exhibit is a gift to the community from Spungen, who is a Boys and Girls Ranch supporter.

Spungen, a collector and philatelist, said he bought the Holocaust postal collection "by accident" after a chance meeting with Lawrence at a stamp show.

Spungen was about to fulfill a dream to acquire one of America's rarest stamps, the Inverted Jenny, which is a stamp with an upside down biplane.

"I actually had it in my hand," he said.

Then he saw another man - Lawrence - holding Nazi stamps. They got to talking.

"We struck a deal. I ended up with his collection," Spungen said. Spungen assured Lawrence that he'd take care of the collection. "I promised this man it would never be broken up," he said.

"I'm 47 years old. I'm Jewish. I know nothing about the Holocaust," Spungen said. "I'm from Chicago. No one ever talked about it until 'Schindler's List,' " he said in reference to the 1993 movie. And he said he's not very religious.

Since acquiring the collection, Spungen has dedicated himself to learning about the Holocaust and to developing the exhibit. "The insured value of the collection is $1 million, but the educational value to future generations is incalculable," he said.

Lawrence said he is gratified that the Spungen foundation will carry on his mission and keep the collection together. "I'm 66 years old. I can't go on forever," he said.

A writer, activist and former vice president of the American Philatelic Society, Lawrence began collecting the documents in 1978 when he lived in Mississippi.

During the late 1970s, Southern states experienced a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi groups, Lawrence said. Some of them published pseudoscholarly journals dedicated to proving the Holocaust never happened, he said, and "I wanted to refute that stuff."

Lawrence was active in the anti-Klan network and worked with Klanwatch and the Southern Poverty Center. Despite Klanwatch's organizing and materials, Lawrence was concerned they were not reaching some people who were susceptible to viewing Nazis as heroic. Lawrence said he assigned himself "the task of addressing that need by showing, particularly young people, but everybody, what kind of society would be the result if they would be victorious."

Being a stamp collector, Lawrence fought back though postal documents.

"I had learned through my political and activist career, there is no substitute for material evidence," Lawrence said. "There's a big difference between seeing a picture of a Nazi atrocity and seeing and touching a letter" from someone who was the victim, he said.

With the help of friends, mostly in Europe, who spread the word, Lawrence began building his collection.

"It grew one item at a time for 30 years," he said. "Two hundred and fifty items is not a huge collection. It required a lot of patience to find that much."

Lawrence took his collection anywhere he could display and discuss it and to places where the Klan was a threat if he could get security.

When he became more affluent, Lawrence said, he was able to buy items, most of which he found in Germany or through auctions or dealers in Israel or Poland.

"Most people are surprised that such things exist," Lawrence said. "Most people haven't thought about it. It's an eye-opening experience."

Mail was essential to the totalitarian system, he said. The Nazis imposed strict rules on mail to prisoners and subjected all correspondence to censorship. Nazis built large concentration camps near major cities, like Munich, and contracted with civilians to supply food and materials for maintaining the camps.

"And the mail was an important part of the project. This was a reminder to anybody. This could happen to you," he said.

Lawrence's first document was a 1943 letter from young man who was enslaved at Auschwitz to build the camp. The man had been there more than three years and had no idea whether he'd ever leave, Lawrence said.

An item that produces strong reactions is the torn scroll fragment used as a wrapper.

"The Torah scroll is probably the most individually revolting item to look at," he said. "I say that as a person who is not religious. Nevertheless, the desecration is just so blatantly inhuman."

Despite the horrors, some prisoners decorated their cards or letters with art to try to cheer their families. The collection includes a 1941 Easter letter from a Dachau prisoner to his family in which he drew colorful bunnies and eggs.

"That's a remarkable testament to the ability of people even in the most dire circumstances to keep their spirits up," Lawrence said. "But it's all very sad. If you can look at this material and not have a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye, I've failed."

Lawrence's collection has won awards and medals at stamp shows including an international exhibition two years ago in Washington, D.C.

Since acquiring the collection, Spungen has expanded it to include money from the Holocaust. He has enlisted Feller, a coin expert and author, to talk about money and bank note forgeries. The collection includes a fake bill created by slave laborers in the Nazis' failed plot to undermine England's economy, which was the subject of a recent movie, "The Counterfeiters."

Another rare artifact, Spungen said, is a postal card documenting sex slavery at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Female prisoners were transferred from the camp at Ravensbruck to men's camps to provide sex for guards and administrators and were promised release.

"It's the only document known to exist proving there was sex slavery," Spungen said.

Besides Jews, the Nazis killed Poles, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses and people with disabilities, Spungen said.

Spungen said he hopes the exhibit will educate all people about the Holocaust and teach tolerance.

"The Holocaust is famous because 6 million Jews perished," he said. "However, many more millions died. It was a tragedy for humanity. When people walk away, they need to think about the words 'never again.' What does it really mean? I say it's 'never again' question mark. It's already happening in Darfur. We have to learn about tolerance."

When not on exhibition, the collection will have a permanent home at the new Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in the Chicago suburb of Skokie.