Nearly a month after Eugenia Yuspeh — one of the oldest remaining Holocaust survivors — passed away at the age of 97, her cremated remains still haven’t made it to her final resting place — because they appear to have gotten lost in the mail:
Traditionally, Jewish burial is encouraged to take place as soon as possible after death, and within 24 hours if possible. Though cremation is not a traditional method of Jewish burial, Yuspeh insisted on it.
Detailing the saga on Twitter., Arielle Yuspeh, her granddaughter, recalled her saying, “It’s how my whole family went, I want to go like they did.” Eugenia was alluding to her sisters and mother, along with dozens in her extended family, who died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, according to the Zachor Project.
Though she fled from Poland to the Soviet Union at the start of the war, Eugenia’s harrowing survival story had only just begun. In the USSR, she was captured by Soviet authorities and deported to a gulag in Siberia, where she worked as a lumberjack. She then escaped the gulag, and met her eventual husband, Albert, soon thereafter. For many years after the war, Eugenia, known as Jean but affectionally called “Nanya,” was reluctant to share her story, Arielle said. But late in life she began to open up about her experience with various Jewish groups.
Knowing that they would be moving her remains from Wisconsin to New Orleans, the Yuspehs expected it would take a little longer for Eugenia to reach them. But she has been missing since May 3, the day they shipped her.
Like so many other Americans who have passed away during a global pandemic, Yuspeh’s ashes were entrusted to the U.S. Postal Service.
In the past, cremated remains would usually be transported by family members themselves, but travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic have left more and more relying on the mail.
It’s become common enough that the USPS, who are the only legal transporters of human remains, offers a special kit for the transportation of ashes. The boxes are affixed with a bright orange label clearly stating their contents, they are only shipped by the USPS’s Priority Express Mail Service and can only be delivered with the signature of the recipient.
When those measures fail though, there seems to be little recourse.
Though the USPS is the only legal transporter of ashes, they frequently contract out overnight shipping to FedEx. Since Yuspeh’s ashes were sent on May 3, the tracking information has not been updated, Arielle wrote in a Twitter thread. The family believes that after leaving Wisconsin, the remains likely ended up in a FedEx processing center in Memphis, Tennessee, but have no way to know for sure.
The U.S. Postal Service has a few literal “black holes” where packages often disappear — and one of the most notorious “black holes” is the processing center in Memphis, Tennessee — where Eugenia’s remains, well, remain.
Aside from the Postal Service snafu, Eugenia’s story includes some rather odd details — namely, that she spent most of war in the relative comfort of a Soviet gulag — how this makes her a “Holocaust survivor” is anybody’s guess.
We say “relative comfort” because officially we are not allowed to acknowledge that unlike the gulags, Auschwitz had a soccer field, swimming pool, day care, dental care, maternity wards, an orchestra, and scrip money to purchase certain items such as food and cigarettes — all demonstrated in Carolyn Yeager’s book Auschwitz: The Underground Guided Tour.
But we’ve seen this vague definition of “Holocaust survivor” many times — for example, the strange case of Henry Wuga, the “Holocaust survivor” who left Germany before the start of WWII, and spent the entire war quietly and safely in Scotland.
Unfortunately, Eugenia, like many Jews who survived Word War II, believed the Allied anti-German wartime atrocity propaganda — that her family was killed in Gas Chambers™ disguised as showers and then cremated — which caused her to want to be cremated just like her family allegedly was.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that Eugenia’s ashes have been lost — after all, none of the ashes of her family — or any of the Jews cremated at Auschwitz, for that matter — have ever been found.