Unlocking the many secrets of the ‘Little Valise’


Imagine that you bought a new home for your family. Moving day comes, with all of its attendant excitement and anxiety. You bring in and set up all of your things to make this house yours.

Then one day, after settling in, you decide to go up to the attic and poke around. Much to your surprise, you find things that belonged to a prior owner and have been there for who knows how long.

And so begins the story of “The Little Valise,” which is now on permanent display at the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center, in Providence.

The small suitcase, which belonged to the Schafranik family, was discovered in a newly purchased old house on the East Side of Providence. Knowing that the former owner was a Holocaust survivor, the new homeowners donated the suitcase and its contents to the SBHEC for preservation for future generations.

The SBHEC added it to its collection of artifacts and, later, using a Library Services Archive Grant, Elliott Caldwell, an archives and special collections consultant at the University of Rhode Island library, discovered that it held 300 artifacts, photographs and documents. 

Knowing they had something of historic value, but, because the documents were in German, not knowing how valuable, the SBHEC began the process of translating the documents to unlock the mysteries of the little valise.

Holocaust survivor Alice Goldstein and former SBHEC president Judith Jameson headed up the team of volunteer translators. According to SBHEC’s Executive Director May-Ronny Zeidman, what they found “might be one of the top 10 historical archival finds in Rhode Island.”

What the translation efforts yielded was the fantastic survival story of the Schafraniks.

After Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, on Nov. 9-10, 1938, Heinrich and Leontine “Lola” Schafranik decided to leave Germany. They were trying to get to Rhode Island to reunite with their son, and in May of 1939, they managed to secure transport on the MS St. Louis. That ship’s journey came to be known as the “Voyage of the Damned.”

Due to isolationist sentiment at the time, the St. Louis was turned away from Cuba, and the United States, and returned to Germany, where most of the passengers perished in the Holocaust. But, what many people do not know is that some passengers were able to disembark in England. Heinrich and Lola Schafranik were among those lucky few.

Upon arrival in England, Heinrich was sent to a detention center on the Isle of Man. The time spent in the center took its toll on him, and he died shortly after reuniting with Lola. Lola was able to make her way to Rhode Island, where she lived for the rest of her life.

In order to preserve the Schafranik Collection and share it with future generations, the SBHEC secured funding to digitize the collection. This led to the idea that an interactive display would be the best way to share the documents with the public.

The SBHEC brought in The Digital Ark to digitize the collection and build an interactive museum-quality display with a searchable database. It tells two stories concurrently: What was happening with the Schafranik family and what was happening at the same time in the world. In this way, the display brings history alive for those who interact with it.

After eight years of painstaking work, The Little Valise is now on permanent display at the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center for all to see and learn from.

The “Secrets of the Little Valise” project was also funded through the generosity of anonymous donors and grants from the Bernhardt Foundation.

The SBHEC invites everyone to stop by to view this interactive historical presentation. The Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center is located at 401 Elmgrove Ave., Providence, inside the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center. Hours are Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m., and admission is free. For more information, call 401-453-7860.

LEV POPLOW is a communications consultant writing on behalf of the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Center.