A Trace of Compassion

A Trace of Compassion

Alexandria Red Cross volunteer sleuths worldwide.

Several years ago, an Ethiopian immigrant's father was deported from that nation as a result of the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The son was unable to gain any information of his father's whereabouts or even his fate.

Another Ethiopian immigrant has not seen her brother for the last seven years, five of which he has spent locked up at the Dedessa internment camp.

Shortly after 9/11, the uncle of a young Somali woman, fearing for her safety, was able to get a message through to a niece he had not heard from in years.

Each of their stories are a small part of the work of the American Red Cross Holocaust Tracing Services. And they each turned to one person to help them in their desperation.

She is Christa Lyons, Lead Volunteer Caseworker, Alexandria Chapter of the American Red Cross. She brings to her job a dedication forged in reality.

She was born in a British internment camp in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1945. But due to wartime regulations, her birth certificate was not registered until a year later. When it was, it showed the place of registry, Spanish Town, rather than the reality — Mona Camp, Kingston.

"In 1940 the British arrested German and Italian nationals and put them in internment camps for the remainder of the war," Lyons explained. "One of those was in Jamaica. Another was in Australia. And a third was in Canada."

Lyons' father's grandfather was born jewish, she noted. "My parents left Germany in 1938. They went to Nigeria to work in a leper colony run by the Presbyterian church. My father was a doctor and my mother was a nurse," she said.

"In the internment camp we lived in tents and there were limited medical facilities. One of my brothers died in the camp when he was only one day old," Lyons revealed. She has two other brothers, one born after the war. They now live in California and Florida.

"After the war my parents tried to go to the United States, Canada, New Zealand or Australia, but nobody wanted us because we were still considered the enemy, being Germans. In 1948, a Presbyterian College in New Jersey sponsored us to come to America because of the work my father had done for them in Africa," Lyons recalled.

"We settled in Bloomfield, N.J. Then in 1952, we moved to Eureka, Calif., where my father became a country doctor," she said. Lyons became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1954.

THE FIRST CHANCE her parents had to communicate with relatives in Frankfurt, Germany, was in April, 1946. That was when the Red Cross delivered a letter from her father to his sister.

She has a framed copy of that correspondence as a remembrance of those times. She also has a copy of her grandfather's death certificate, dated September 29, 1943, location: Auschwitz. Cause of death was not listed.

"He had been a senior foreign correspondent for the largest newspaper in Germany prior to the commencement of the war. He was stationed in Paris but was ordered back to Germany," Lyons explained.

Her special talent for finding people became further honed through her life work as an adult in the United States. Just prior to 9/11, Lyons retired after 30 years with the Internal Revenue Service.

"For the first 10 years I was a Field Collection Agent. Basically, what I did was search for people who didn't pay their taxes. A lot of my work was in Berkeley, Calif., during the Vietnam war years when not paying taxes became a political statement," she said. Lyons is also a graduate of University of California at Berkeley.

"When I retired I was going to go to work either for World Wild Life or the Humane Society. But after 9/11, I decided humans needed more help than animals," Lyons said. She started her tracing for the Alexandria Chapter two weeks after September, 2001 attacks.

Her husband John, also a Red Cross volunteer, is co-chair of major gift giving. The Cameron Street residents, just steps from the Alexandria Chapter offices on North Alfred Street, also share IRS careers. He as a government attorney prior to retiring.

As explained by the Red Cross, the Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center is "a national clearinghouse for persons seeking the fates of loved ones missing since the Holocaust and its aftermath. We assist U.S. residents searching for proof of internment, forced/slave labor, or evacuation from former Soviet territories ..." The services are free, confidential, and offered nationwide through local Red Cross offices.

"Tracing services are one of the primary services of all societies of the Red Cross," according to Julia Wright, executive director, Alexandria Chapter. "It comes from a fundamental recognition of the human need to be connected with family."

Wright noted, "Christa's own personal experiences add so much value not only to her skills but also to the compassion she has for her work."

THAT ASSESSMENT was seconded by Ann Kelly, another volunteer caseworker in the tracing program, and a professor of English at Howard University for the past 30 years. "She's [Christa] the one who really awakened me to this need. Her tracing workshop really got me excited," she said. Kelly took that class in January, 2003.

"She's so enthusiastic and good at what she does, she inspires us all. You really feel like you are doing something truly worthwhile," Kelly said.

"Every week there seems to be messages to be delivered to a relative somewhere in the world. Many times the individual wanting us to help really doesn't know where the relative is located. In many cases, it's like detective work," Kelly acknowledged.

The program is not limited to locating potential victims or survivors of the Holocaust. "When families are separated by armed conflict, civil unrest, or natural disaster," the work of the tracing volunteers comes into play, according to Red Cross literature.

Based at the Tracing Center in Baltimore, the program has three primary functions: 1. Locating missing loved ones; 2. Exchanging family messages; and 3. Making international disaster relief inquiries.

It is part of the Red Cross' more comprehensive International Social Services mission. Coupled with tracing, it includes making health and welfare inquiries, securing travel documents, and providing information and referral services.

In addition to helping reunite families torn apart since World War II, tracing activities have been increasingly employed in more recent armed conflicts. "We've only had two Holocaust cases in the past two years," Lyons verified. "And, they didn't come to us directly. They went to Baltimore."

Lyons pointed out, "Perhaps 95 percent of our caseload now is other than Holocaust-related. There is a lot of tracing for a wide variety of ethnic groups. Most are from the upheavals in Africa."

IN THE CASE of the young immigrant's father deported from Ethiopia, in desperation he submitted a Red Cross message to the Alexandria Chapter addressed to his father. Less than six months later the local chapter delivered a return message. He was alive and well.

Almaz, another Ethiopian native and resident of Alexandria, who had not seen her brother for seven years, also used the Red Cross message system. Unfortunately, this time it was undeliverable because he had been released from the internment camp. But as a result of other messages, he was located and spoke to his sister by phone.

Through the diligence of the local chapter's International Services, the fears of the young Somali woman's uncle, were dispelled when after "months of sleuthing, overcoming outdated name and address leads," the message was delivered February, 2002.

Lyons has been selected to work as a mentor for Red Cross Chapters throughout Virginia. She will instruct others how to do tracing. "Last year we did a metro outreach effort with other chapters throughout the area," she said. "Normally, we don't work cases with other chapters."

According to the Baltimore center, mentors are selected "based on their proven expertise in such areas as mental health (delivery of news, experience with survivors, etc.), recruitment and retention of volunteers, outreach with community organizations, setting up a successful tracing program, and education ..."

Christa Lyons brings to this new assignment insight that can be claimed by few others in her role. She knows what it's like to greet a hostile world from the wrong side of an internment camp fence.