Finding Holocaust connections and lost memories

Growing up, I was always under the impression that my ancestors all made it out of Europe before the Holocaust. Seven out of eight of my great-grandparents were born in Europe. The last one to come to America arrived in 1923, 16 years before the start of World War II. However, once I started to dig into my genealogy, I found pockets of hidden family history and connections that had been lost for generations. 

Paying particular attention to my father’s side of the family, I started my research about two years ago. My fascination with unearthing any information on the family came from my passion to find answers. My paternal grandmother, an intelligent woman who captured my childhood imagination with her fascinating stories, has been living with dementia for nearly a decade. Two years ago, my father made the painful decision to remove her from her home. When she first showed signs of the disease, she was forgetful and paranoid, but had sharp memories of her past. Yet as time passed, even those memories started to fade, her ability to have a normal conversation worsened and she could no longer recall my name.

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What my grandmother left in her house were dozens of photo albums. I spent the next two years sifting through every single photograph.

I found hundreds of photos, some going back to the 19th century. Yet, few had any identifying information. It was painful knowing that my living grandmother would be of no help in providing the names of those unknown faces. Consulting her would be no use.
The backs of some of the photos had messages written in Yiddish. Deciding to hire an expert to translate, I discovered the original spelling of my great-grandfather’s last name, which was on many of the photos.

Two weeks ago, I was speaking with a close friend about the photos. I was frustrated with having the translations but not knowing the stories of my forgotten relatives. There was a photo of a little boy writing to his uncle, my great-grandfather, in 1927, and a group photo of the boy, a little older, with three siblings from 1933 wishing his uncle and family “Shana Tova.” My friend did a search on Yad Vashem’s online database of victims with the boy’s surname and the town my great-grandfather’s family came from. He discovered a record of names given by that same boy, now a man, in 1978. He was grandmother’s first cousin, and both of his parents and all of his siblings were killed in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941. He was his immediate family’s sole survivor.

I KNEW RIGHT away that I had to find the boy’s children and grandchildren. Surely they were alive. Perhaps they had never seen the photos of their father and his siblings, or the other photos I had of the boy’s parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The photos all came to America long before the war because my great-grandfather – the first family member to leave Poland – arrived in 1913.
I made a lengthy post on a Jewish genealogy group on Facebook asking if anyone could find these descendants. The record given to Yad Vashem showed that he chose to immigrate to Israel after the war. The very next morning I had a message from someone in Israel who found the children and grandchildren all on Facebook. Amazed at how quickly they were identified, I messaged all of them.

After only an hour I had my first response. One of the women I messaged confirmed that the photos were of her grandfather. Neither she, nor anyone else in her family, had ever seen photos of his siblings who died in the Holocaust, and they all assumed none existed. She and her sisters were so excited that they all gathered at their mother’s house. I learned that the little boy in the photo ran away from Warsaw to parts of mainland Russia when he was 17. After the war, he found that all his family members were dead.

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After speaking over Facebook we talked by phone. We are all third cousins, but we were complete strangers. The sisters shared that their grandfather had no photos of his siblings. These girls had not even heard of my great-grandfather, their great-grandmother’s brother.

Coincidentally, they were facing their grandfather’s second yahrzeit. He died in 2016 at the age of 95. They marveled at my timing in delivering their grandfather’s family’s Rosh Hashanah card 85 years later on the week of the holiday. We all plan to meet next summer in Israel when I visit, and the girls plan to submit the photos to Yad Vashem.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I went with my family to see my grandmother. These visits are usually frustrating since it is so difficult to have a meaningful conversation with her. Nevertheless, I decided to show her photos of her grandmother, the mother of the woman who mothered the little boy in these long-forgotten photos. I showed her a picture of this woman and said, “Grandma, who is this?”

Her eyes lit up with a smile as she sat in her wheelchair and said, “That’s my grandmother. I loved her. You know, she was a really smart woman.”

She continued to easily recognize other long-gone relatives whose photos I showed one-by-one. These are people who died decades ago. That night, I had one of the most lucid conversations I ever had with my grandmother since she was placed in assisted living. I owe this to the power of photographs, forgotten in dusty old albums, hidden away for decades, and there to bring together lost family stories, lost family members, and lost memories.

The writer is a genealogy enthusiast and history teacher from East Brunswick, New Jersey.

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