When Chelsey Brown heard about a letter written in 1945 by a Holocaust survivor and owned by a flea market vendor, she knew she had to find the letter-writer's family and return the artifact.
This is what Brown does. She's an “heirloom detective” who works with thrift shops, vendors and other sources to acquire artifacts and heirlooms, then uses her genealogy training to get those items back to their families. Brown, 28, told TODAY that she has a particular passion for returning Holocaust artifacts, which can be sold "underground or at auction for really high prices."
"I knew from the beginning when I started this (that) I wanted to get these items off the market, back to their rightful families, because I don't believe people should be profiting off of these victims," Brown said during an interview on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Brown said that the moment she spotted the handwritten letter by Ilse Loewenberg, she knew it was important. Other documents she acquired included English documentation of what Loewenberg experienced during the war, and other information like her birth certificate.
"Anything handwritten is kind of special ... I knew I needed to buy it," Brown said. She said that once she had it translated, she realized just how "powerful" the note was.
In the letter, Loewenberg informs her sister Carla that she is alive and has survived imprisonment during the Holocaust, though she lost her parents, two sisters and husband.
“Through the kindness of our liberators, I am able to give you a sign of life from me after so many years... Dad, Mom, Grete, Lottchen and Hermann: no one is alive anymore. My pain is unspeakably big. My husband, whom I married 3.5 years ago, was also taken from me! … When there will be a regular mail connection, I will tell you everything in detail," Loewenberg wrote.
Brown found that the sisters had reunited after the war and spent the rest of their lives living in New York City. Ilse passed away in 2001, and never had any children, but did have a niece, Jill Butler, with whom she was extremely close.
Brown said that after a week of searching online, she was able to connect with Butler using online genealogical records on MyHeritage.com.
"When I did find (Jill), she thought it was a scam at first but then we got on the phone, we had a two-hour long conversation," Brown said. "It was emotional for her, it was emotional for me. ... Her and Ilse were so close from the moment Jill was born to the moment Ilse died. She was just really taken aback. ... I think in a way, it brought Ilse back for a few moments."
In a statement provided to TODAY, Butler said that she and her family were "thrilled" to have the letter in their possession.
"We all loved our Great-Aunt Ilse and are thrilled beyond words to read her thoughts in her own handwriting after she emerged from the depths of the European inferno," Butler said.
Brown said that she and Butler remain in touch and plan to meet in person in the spring. In the meantime, she will continue tracking down artifacts and returning them to their families.
"I do think this is my soul’s purpose and I think for the rest of my life, I’m going to be returning these items," Brown said, emphasizing that she makes no money from the project and doesn't ask families for any compensation or to cover any costs related to their item's return. "I think this is what the world needs right now."