Family, found! Last night, I made a toast to cousins, lost and found. Unoriginal as that may sound, those words touched almost all of the twenty of us at our very long table. What was clear to us was that we were thankful for all who were there, yet saddened by the many who weren’t. In other words, it was a reunion typical to Jews who could trace their lineage to eastern Europe prior to World Wars One and Two.
Many came with pictures, faded photos that were taken in the old country. That side of our family lived in a county in what was known as Slovakia, that part of the Austria-Hungary empire that bordered Poland. Jews comprised more than 25% of the population there; they lived in mostly peasant communities known as shtetls, much like the one seen in Fiddler On The Roof. Simple people, most were harmless.
A few who understood the danger of pogroms against Jews and who were uncertain about their future under communism, left or were sent to America. Many hoped to bring others with them once they established themselves there. They were young and hopeful and fearless.
“My grandfather Morris was one of thirteen children,” Steve began. “Including him, only four of them, teenagers, sailed on steamers to America.”
We listened intently as Steve spoke of his family and its ties to ours. Until a few weeks ago, many of us didn’t realize there was a missing branch of us, a close side of the family none of us had ever met. Steve, an attorney who, at about seventy, will soon retire from his Philadelphia firm, introduced Harold to us, his bald and jovial brother.
“I have five children,” he began. We listened as he described the members of his family; some of them, to our surprise, live only a few hours from Danville.
Earlier, I had spoken to Steve and ‘Hal’ about our shared relatives. Our great-grandmothers were sisters. “I knew only about two,” I told them, “Lena and Pauline.” At my store, I showed them a picture of Pauline, a woman whose image they embraced for the first time.
“Here’s a picture of our great-grandmother, with our great-grandfather. We know his name, but not hers!” said Steve.
That astounded me. Not only had our family suddenly ‘grown’ by a third, but this mystery had a similarly long history too. “My Aunt Mildred probably knows your great-grandmother’s name,” I suggested.
Both Steve and Hal seemed delighted and surprised. At dinner that night, my father’s sister, my Aunt Mildred, did indeed reveal Steve and Hal’s great-grandmother’s name, Rohlya, and her place of birth. There were many other brothers and sisters listed on the genealogical sheet Aunt Mildred had brought. “Don’t you have one of these?” she asked me.
I wanted to say that someone may have given me a copy years ago, but it may not have mattered as much then as it did after meeting Steve and Hal. Suddenly I wanted to read everything on the pages my Aunt had brought. I wanted to extend the joy I was feeling to my children and, ultimately, to theirs.
And I wanted to grieve and memorialize, finally, those who had perished in the Holocaust. For so many years, I had wondered, had hoped that all of our family had escaped.
Hal had remarked, “We have so much to be thankful for. None of us would be here were it not for those brave teenagers who left everything and everyone they knew to come here.” Indeed, the ones who stayed behind were probably exterminated.
Despite that daunting thought, I did not weep last night. By my side was my younger daughter, Mary Brett, buoyant proof that our family, like Steve’s and Hal’s and my cousins’, Ronnie, Linda, Keith, and Paul’s, would continue.
Still, I now felt I had reason to go and explore that region my great-grandmother once called home. Probably, I will try to find a piece of soil she may have walked on. Chances are that I will clutch handfuls of the ground they have become a part of, will touch them and their histories with my tears.
My guess is that Steve and Hal may want to do the same.
B. Koplen 3/15/12
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