(No. 23/2004 - October 2004)
Editor: Fran Bock
A Happy Ending
My grandmother died with a great secret.
She kept it from her two sons. She kept it from her grandchildren. Perhaps she felt guilty. Perhaps it was too painful.
The secret was that she had ten brothers and sisters in the old country. We never knew, much as we knew little about her life in Russia. When we asked, she would always reply the same way: "Why do you want to know such foolishness?"
She did tell me once that she had come from Kiev, but this was not true. She did not come from a cosmopolitan city, nor did she even come from the Ukraine. She came from a shtetl in Belarus called Kholmech, a place so small and remote that one of her sisters described it, not affectionately, as "the back of the beyond."
I learned these secrets fifteen years after her death and forty-five years after I had come upon a bag of letters in her dresser drawer, all written in a strange language. As it turned out, these were letters that her family had sent her from 1913, the date of her emigration, to 1935, after which Stalin made sending letters to America dangerous.
The letters detail the travails of a family sinking ever more deeply into desperation. War. Famine. Pogroms. Revolution. You Name It. The appeals for help became more urgent and explicit, and they arrived in the mailbox of a New York household that was itself struggling for survival. My father and I now know all this because we had the Russian and Yiddish letters translated, and these translations form the core of our shtetlink site dedicated to Kholmich, Belarus.
The letters contained one other puzzling revelation. My grandmother was taken to task by her family more than once for failing to write. Sometimes, apparently, years passed without her responding. This seemed incredible because no one was more family-oriented and effusively affectionate than my grandmother. Perhaps her survivor's guilt was paralyzing. Perhaps she felt helpless. Perhaps her timely replies were never delivered. Oh, perhaps, perhaps. She had read in the letters about famine in the Ukraine and in Belarus. When, decades later, we came into her apartment, it was endless hugs and kisses, and she never stopped urging us to "es a bissel" - eat a little! Maybe there is a connection here. But some mysteries will never be solved.
My father and I completed the main part of our website in 1996. Meanwhile I had become curious about what had happened to our family during the Holocaust and World War II. We hired researchers to go to Kholmich to conduct interviews. Eyewitnesses described the machine-gun massacre of the town's Jews in August 1941. Were my cousins among the victims? The researchers found a book called Memory in the Minsk Archives. It listed the names of those murdered in the Byelorussian shteltls, but my family was nowhere to be found. What had happened to them? Were they killed later in the war along with 20 million other Russians, as the German armies advanced?
In 2001, I posted the "necrology list" to the JewishGen's Shtetls of Belarus database site. Shortly thereafter, Professor Albert Kagnovich of Hebrew University in Jerusalem contacted me. In the course of his research into the larger, neighboring town of Rechitsa, he had come across another Kholmich list, this one compiled by an official Soviet investigation into the crimes of the Nazi armies. Our respective lists overlapped, but weren't a perfect match. There were some new names, but my family was still not among them. Professor Kagnovich suggested that we integrate our lists, and we did so. This list can be found at:
I still had no idea what had happened to my family. Honestly, my energies were always directed more toward finding my family history than finding my family, because it didn't seem possible that they could have survived. However, I must have harbored occasional illusions and hopes. One night in April 1998 I wrote the following poem:
Cousins, I am tracking you
to the ends of the virtual
Earth. I am prowling midnight alleys
of the Internet. I am knocking on desperate doors,
searching for files. I am obsessed. My family
says it's unhealthy. There is no web address
so distant that I won't surf there. They know me
at Yad Vashem. They call me by my first name
at the YIVO archives. Gomel State University, may I introduce
myself? I am launching e-mail into the heavens like the
Soviet space program of 1959. I am
Brookline's first space dog, sniffing for
celestial bones. In my mind, I have
crossed the frozen Dniepr many times to find
your home empty on the Byelorussian
shore. I have searched the snow on
your shtetl streets to find your
Toward the east, to the Volga, and safety?
Toward the west, to Aushwicz, and death?
History buried you like an avalanche
under metric tons of World Wars/pogroms
/re-partitions/Now a conflict with Poland/
/now a war with Germany/now the Cossacks charge/
then the iridescent exclamation point:
Chernobyl explodes-in your backyard. Nu, where else?
Obscurity failed you. Did you manage to chuckle
at your Jewish luck? Did you shrug your shoulders
and make a little joke with God?
Cousins, aunts and uncles, wait for me. I am tracking you, but
the snow is deep, and I am lost
in the absolute fog of time.
On April 29, 2004, I found a note in my e-mail mailbox from Professor Kagnovich, whom I had not heard from in three years. He told me that while conducting interviews about Rechitsa in Nuremberg, Germany, he had met a woman who appeared to be my relative. He had remembered the names from my web site. E-mails flew between Brookline, Massachusetts (where I live) and Jerusalem. Finally, I called Professor Kagnovich to make further inquiries.
Yes, the family that I had hoped to find, at best, on some Holocaust or World War II victim list was alive and well in Germany and Belarus!
On May 25, 2004, I called Germany and spoke to my cousins. This was the first contact we have had with this branch of the family since 1935, when Stalin and then Hitler got in the way. Up to the minute I made the call, I believed that I belonged to a very small family. Only an hour later, I discovered that I belonged to a very large one.
There is great excitement is Brookline and Nuremberg. We are pinching ourselves. We all feel that we are sleepwalking through a dream - but it is a very good dream.
This coming November, I will travel to Germany, and emails and phone calls will be replaced by hugs and kisses. A transcendent moment awaits, and we all know it.
A family, long divided, will be reunited.
Thank you, Internet. Thank you, Professor Kagnovich. Thank you, JewishGen.
I found them.
The Khlomech, Belarus website can be found at:
Copyright © 2004 Belarus SIG and Bill Schechter
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