Friday, March 07, 2008


Three of my mother's four grandparents were from Poland. One family, who I will call the Gs, came from a middle-sized industrial town in central Poland. Over the years I have learned a lot of interesting tidbits about all my relatives, including the Gs, who are particularly fascinating because they are the family I can trace the farthest- back to my 5th great-grandfather, born c. 1770, which for everyday Ashkenazim (that is, not related to any rabbinical or famous dynasty families), is pretty good, especially since that's around the time Jewish surnames started becoming standardized and it's probably damn near impossible to go back farther. (Most of my other branches, my comparison, can only go back to my 2nd great-grandparents.)

Anyway, I've done pretty exhaustive research on the Gs, and I've always tried to cast a wide net, to try not to let any potential connections get away (like the time I found some relatives in the old country mentioned on some totally unrelated people's Ellis Island records). But some branches, even within the Stein family, I've been a little lax on. So lately I tried to correct that by taking another look at some of my g.g.grandfather Stein's in-laws (who are still my blood relatives through their sister).

Now, one of the things I should mention is that over the years I have kept a running list, compiled from a number of sources, mostly Jewishgen and Yav Vashem, of relatives living in Europe during the Holocaust. A famous Jewish genealogist (I can't remember which one) has a great line in talking about the myth that there are Ashkenazi Jews in America who "didn't lose anyone" in the Holocaust: "If you go back far enough and start tracing back down, you find someone who was there." That is basically what happened with me. My mother's grandparents had all immigrated from Europe, her parents were born here, and there was never any discussion or hints that the family scope went beyond that. She once told me that she had just assumed they all came from small families.

Actually, their extended families were all quite large- particularly if you go far back enough and trace down. The Gs were a special case: the first ones that came to the U.S. in the late 1890s were successful enough that they were able to bring over an entire immediate family- four brothers, one sister, their spouses, their children, and a few miscellaneous cousins, to boot. For whatever reasons, though, (and there were probably many) most of their cousins, the bulk of the family, stayed put. And they perished.

So I actually have two lists- I have the list of people whose deaths have been documented- years, places, means- Auschwitz, Treblinka, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald death march, the ghetto, the forest... gas, shooting, lethal injection...

But there's another list, which in some ways is substantially worse. And that is the list of relatives whose fates remain unknown. We just don't know. We don't know if they survived, we don't know if they died. We don't know how, or when. For all we know, they might have died years before the Nazis stepped foot on Polish soil. Some of the older ones on my list, certainly, probably were not around when the Holocaust began. But I also know that there were some 90-year-old Jews in Poland in 1941. And so until I know otherwise, those names, as improbable as it seems, will stay there.

Genealogy can be rewarding but also arduous. There is something exhilarating about finding a new branch of relatives you didn't know about- but this excitement turns bittersweet when you start doing the math and realize that the children whose births you've just uncovered would have been teenagers or young adults in the 1940s. And you don't know- may never know- what happened to them.

Last week, though, something different happened. I was trying to find out more about my g.g.grandmother Leah's family, which I will call the Bs. Leah had three brothers and one sister (two others died as infants). I was looking through everything I could find: Polish business records from the 1920s, Yad Vashem records and lists of the 1940s, anything I could think of. I knew her younger brother Levek had a wife and three children. I knew there was a family there. Five people hadn't just disappeared. There had to be something.

And then, amazingly, there was.

Not in Nazi records. Not even in Polish records. Ellis Island, 1890s. They made it. They left. They survived. 50 years before the madness came, they were already an ocean away, in safety. Levek became Leo and died at age 75 in 1941, the same year the Nazis invaded his home and started killing his relatives. The great irony: America saved him, but he didn't live any longer than his cousins.

But there was one very important difference. Leo's children lived. Both his sons, and probably his daughter, too, married and had children of their own. And their children and grandchildren are still with us, running around somewhere in Boston or New York or maybe somewhere else by now.

The most moving line in Schindler's List for me is not the Talmud quote, "He who saves one life saves the world entire." It's the line a few minutes later where Schindler is sobbing, saying he didn't do enough to save more Jews. Yitzhak Stern approaches him and stares into his eyes. "There will be generations because of what you did," he says.

There will be generations. There will be a continuance. The line, the family, will go on.

I can take five more people off one list, and add them to another. And even as my "Death Confirmed" and "Fate Unknown" lists hurt, I can take solace from the fact that they are finite. The three children that came to America and never knew the Nazis' rule, whose children were allowed to live their lives and continue the family... that will go on. And that is priceless.

No comments: