Monday, April 4, 2016

A Family Picture

Recently I made my way to Haifa to visit my cousin. Now this is no ordinary cousin. In genealogy speak she is a second cousin once removed. That means her father and I are second cousins and share a common great grandfather. She is one generation removed from the second cousin relationship. Have I lost you yet? This is usually where people's eyes glaze when we delve into genealogy speak,but stay with me as the story is a good one.

My cousin Zehava and I didn't grow up together. There were no family reunions and I never knew of her on our visits to family in Brooklyn. I tracked her down the hard way, my researcher nose hot on the trail. Many of the genealogists I know tend to fall into one of two categories; they like the research side of things or they like the connection with living cousins. I actually tend to fall in the first category. I always feel a bit shy once I track down a living relative, a bit like the dog who caught the car and doesn't know quite what to do with it. When I found and met a third cousin in Paris all my high school French fled in a panic. It is an odd interaction. You have no shared history, only a family tree in common. The more gregarious tend to fare better in these interactions, but sometimes my sheer enthusiasm carries me across that gulf of the unknown and unfamiliar.

I met Zehava through Yad Vashem. More precisely, I met her through her father's testimony on his grandfather, David Weinberg, a victim of the Holocaust. David was my grandfather's brother, a brother 18 years his senior. So let's follow the trail. I had interviewed a survivor in New York. I had always known her as part of the couple who rented my aunt's condo in Florida. When I had first interviewed my aunt she advised me-"Talk to Phyllis, she can tell you more about family". I soon learned that Phyllis came from the same town as my grandfather, Radom, Poland. She had an aunt Chana Rosenberg who married David Weinberg. Our families worked together in the milling business. While not related directly we had connections by two marriages. David and Chana were one. In addition the one survivor that we knew of in our family was the son of my father's aunt and Phyllis' uncle. He was a cousin to both my father and Phyllis.

My aunt was right. Phyllis knew quite a bit about family and with the information on these marriages I turned to Yad Vashem's records. Virtually all of my Radom relatives were murdered in Treblinka. Yad Vashem is a museum in Jerusalem that tells the story of the Holocaust. It is also an archive and is trying to document the lives of those who were murdered in the Holocaust. To that end they accept testimony that documents those lives. As I perused their records I found one that made my pulse quicken. There was my grandfather's brother, all the details Phyllis had provided checked out. I looked to the bottom of the page. There it noted that his grandson had provided the testimony and fairly recently. When I did the math I remembered that 18 year age difference and realized that grandson would be closer to my father's age than mine. And yet another wrinkle. The address on the testimony was in Hebrew. "How did a letter travel through the US Postal Service with a Hebrew address?" I wondered. It was then that I contacted the Israeli Jewish Genealogical Society. My questions were "Is he alive and if so how do I contact him?" A day later I had confirmation that he was alive and an address in English. I wrote a letter.

A month went by and a thin letter arrived from Israel. It was from Zehava and was polite, but brief. She thanked me for my letter, but noted that her father remembered little. I chuckled at her recall of this first contact over our recent dinner in Haifa. I had wanted more. And so that enthusiasm I mentioned carried me forward. I googled Zehava and tracked down an email. Now this is the delicate stage of these interactions. You want information, but you don't want to be a pest. We began a correspondence.

When she advised me that she had a conference in Montreal, I replied, "I'll meet you there." I booked a flight and a hotel for a Montreal weekend. It occurs to me that most people don't do such things, but genealogists go where the search leads them and Montreal is a nice place to spend a weekend. We met and I was intrigued by this striking woman just a few years older than me, an academic. I also met her cousin who came from Israel and was the head of the Radom Society in Montreal. All interesting, intelligent people. I once had a friend comment, "I don't like the relatives I have now. Why would I want more?" In fact those that I've tracked down have been lovely people.

We had a second meeting in Chicago where she spends part of the summer and a third in New York. That gathering was quite unusual. Zehava came with her adult son and daughter. By now I had become friends with Phyllis' son and daughter and they joined us as well as Phyllis' granddaughter. There we had both sides of the family of Zehava's great-great grandparents. I was on the groom's side. My friends, Phyllis' children, represented the long-gone bride. Together we represented a new formation of family, once sundered.

And now Haifa. We told her of our travels in Israel. She shared pictures of grandchildren and her son's new wife. As we left we took a photo. A family photo.

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