USHMM's Matthew Steinhart Uncovers His German Heritage

Apr 14, 2017

Matthew Steinhart's archival family images. Enlarge image (© United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) Matthew Steinhart grew up in New Jersey with the awareness that his German grandparents, Leo and Ruth Friedman, had lost most of their immediate family in the Holocaust. His grandparents did not want to speak very much about their lives before arriving in the United States and both restricted their use of their native language. When both died, their untold stories left their family with a burning curiosity about where they came from.

Always sad to have such a small extended family, it was with limited clues that Leo and Ruth’s daughter Eileen started her genealogical research. She kept heirlooms and pictures and went so far as to reach out to a resident of her father’s hometown of Crailsheim who provided her with records from the International Tracing Service (ITS) about her family tree and cemetery plots in the town. However, her work, though thorough, left gaps in time and questions remaining about her parents’ journey.

It was then Leo and Ruth’s grandchild Matthew Steinhart who, outfitted with modern technology, picked up the genealogical research from where his mother had left off.

Uncovering Clues

Matthew has worked as the Video News Producer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum since 2015. The Museum itself holds a special significance for Matthew, as he visited it with his mother when it first opened in 1993. He recalls his mother crying while walking through a train car exhibited there and knew, even at the young age of 8, that this Museum was very important. It is now years later that Matthew feels an even deeper connection with the Museum.

Leo Friedman and Ruth Friedman Enlarge image Leo Friedman and Ruth Friedman (© Matt Steinhart)

Matthew’s mom was somewhat helped through the International Tracing Service, in Bad Arolsen, Germany, which documents and facilitates research about the victims of National Socialism to ensure the commemoration of their suffering. In 2015, Matthew was able to access the ITS records through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. These records are available free of cost to all survivors and their families through the museum in Washington, D.C. By searching the Holocaust Survivor and Victims Resource Center database and the digital copy of the ITS, Matthew accessed records maintained by the Nazis, including ID cards, death certificates, and names of family members he didn’t even know were related to him. The documents he received helped him piece together his relatives’ paths from deportation to death and to discover that his grandparents had just narrowly escaped Europe in time to avoid the same fate. His grandfather Leo left to work in Paris and came later to the United States, while Ruth was sponsored by an aunt in New York City to cross the Atlantic.

Reference Services USHMM

Leo and Ruth returned to Germany in the 1970’s, and were able to visit their childhood homes. When Leo returned to Crailsheim, which was destroyed by the Allies in 1945 due to its proximity to a train station the Nazis were using, he was offered the key to the city by the Mayor. He declined the honor, as many of the town’s citizens had stood by as their neighbors were taken away to concentration camps. He did, however, get the opportunity to visit the cemetery where his father was buried.

Gaining Citizenship

Matt Steinhart Enlarge image Matt Steinhart holds up his certificate of German citizenship on May 23rd, 2017 at the German Embassy in Washington. (© U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum) Mr. Steinhart was eligible to obtain German citizenship because his grandparents had been deprived of theirs as part of the persecution that took place between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945. On May 23rd of this year, Matthew stood in front of the European and German flag to accept German citizenship at a ceremony at the German Embassy.

Matthew’s journey has not stopped there. With the support of his museum, Matthew has been filming each part of his journey of discovering and coming to terms with his family’s past. “Who you are as a person has a lot to do with your family and your history,” Matthew explained. By accepting the citizenship once taken away from his grandfather, Matthew says, “it has made me whole.”