Blast From My Past, Ep. 6: Heirloom Hunters

Blast From My Past, Ep. 6: Heirloom Hunters

We are excited to share the 6th episode of the Blast From My Past podcast. In this episode, we get a moving glimpse into the work of heirloom hunters: people who make it their life’s mission to locate old, lost photos, letters, and other personal items, and return them to the descendants of those who left them behind.

Listen to the episode below:

The podcast features two heirloom hunters: Chelsey Brown and Kate Kelley, also known as “The Photo Angel.”

Chelsey Brown is an interior decorator by trade who made a name for herself offering expert tips and advice on stylizing rented homes. As a budget decorator, she spent a lot of time looking for hidden treasures at flea markets. Alongside the quirky antiques and inexpensive room accents, she found herself drawn to a different kind of treasure: personal documents and photographs of unknown origin. She realized that these items would be of great value to the family members of the people these items belonged to, and began using the genealogy tools on MyHeritage to track down the descendants of the owners and return these items to them.

As an heirloom hunter, Chelsey has made national headlines with her intriguing finds and various dilemmas she’s faced while returning lost heirlooms. In this episode, we dive into one particular story of a letter she discovered among a pile of Holocaust-related documents in the home of a flea market vendor she knew. Though she does not speak German and neither she nor the vendor knew what the letter said, Chelsey felt drawn to it and decided to have it translated. It turned out that the letter was written by a woman named Ilse Loewenberg to her sister, Carla, who lived in England. Sent just after Ilse was liberated, it bears the terrible news that the sisters’ parents and two other sisters, as well as Ilse’s husband, had perished in the Holocaust. Ilse’s pain and shock just radiated off the pages, and Chelsey knew this document had to be returned to her family.

Chelsey knew that if the vendor understood what the letter actually said, he would probably auction it off for thousands of dollars and it would never get back to Ilse’s family. So she fibbed to the vendor, saying that it was just about food stamps, and convinced him to sell it to her. Then she went about tracking down Ilse’s family and finding someone to send the letter to.

Using MyHeritage and Geni, Chelsey learned that though Carla and her husband Siegfried didn’t have any children, Siegfried had a brother who did — and she was able to track down and contact his granddaughter, Jill Butler.

Jill was astonished and perhaps a little suspicious at first to hear from Chelsey, but they eventually spoke on the phone and had a deeply meaningful conversation about their families. Chelsey sent the letter to Jill.

“The letter is a very tangible way of helping the next generation remember,” says Jill. “The fact that we have these physical, handwritten replicas can say, ‘We were there.’”

Kate Kelley, The Photo Angel, has been into genealogy since she was a child, and inherited many photographs from her family members. But among the photos she inherited, she received some photos of non-relatives as well, and she decided to try and find the people in the photos and return them to their families. She succeeded — and she was hooked. That’s how her project, The Photo Angel, got started.

Like Chelsey, Kate has had some deeply moving experiences with reuniting families with their lost artifacts. In this episode, we learn the story of a Christmas card she discovered in an antique store on a family trip that featured a couple with a little boy. She was able to connect the photo to the little boy in the Christmas card — who is now a man in his 70s living in Florida. The photo was taken in his hometown in Wisconsin, and the card was sent to family members in the Virginia area. She was able to contact the man and return the photo to him. She asked him whether he recalled going to the studio and having the photo taken, and he said that he didn’t — but that the card brought back some wonderful memories of his parents, who had been gone a long time, and he couldn’t thank her enough.

Enjoy this episode, and make sure you follow or subscribe to the podcast to ensure you don’t miss upcoming episodes!