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Twelve Tribes from Kirovograd

By Arlene Gorewitz Boumel

Related to: Yelisavetgrad (Town)Travel Reports

Photos of the current family and of the earlier cousins are here.

It is April 15, 2000. I step off the airplane at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, flanked by my husband, Robert, on one side and my younger son, Adam, 15 years old, on the other. I cannot believe that I am really here. This is a trip that we have been planning for months, but in reality it is the culmination of a journey that began a century ago. I look up, and there they are... six of them. One steps forward, and a bouquet of flowers is thrust into my arms. I stare at the faces before me, vaguely familiar. These are faces that I have gazed at for months, studying the photographs that have been sent to me over the Internet. They are strangers, and yet they are not. They are my cousins... cousins whose existence I was unaware of just a few short months ago.

I am enveloped in hugs. I am overcome with emotion. I am totally swept away by the drama of the moment. Later in the week we will be joined in Jerusalem by others who have traveled from Russia and Ukraine to attend a very special Family Reunion. There will be seventeen of us in all. And surely other reunions to follow.

But, I am jumping ahead, so let me start my story at the beginning. This is a story that spans cities, countries, and an entire century.... a story that began in Tsarist Russia, and culminated in a miracle a hundred years later, made possible by the Internet. It is the story of an unsuccessful quest by my father, and by his father before him. It is the story of a family's longing to be together. It is a story so amazing, so awe-inspiring, and so full of unbelievable little coincidences that sometimes when I look back over the last few months, I become sure that the hand of God has been at work.

It began a few months ago when I decided to use the Internet to do some genealogical research. Nothing special about that... it seems everybody is into genealogy these days. I was searching for information about the family of my grandfather, Abraham Gorewitz. He had come to the US alone as a boy of twelve in 1906, his parents trying to save him, as the oldest son, from conscription into the Tsar's army. He was a typical Jewish immigrant to Philadelphia, and his story is a typical story, shared by thousands of others. He left behind in Elisavetgrad, Russia (later to be known as Kirovograd, Ukraine) his parents and eleven younger siblings (some of whom were not yet born when he left home). He never saw them again. But there were, for about 33 years, letters back and forth, photographs exchanged. Through those photographs, he watched his younger siblings grow up, marry, and start families of their own. He kept in touch with them until 1939, when he received a final letter from a sister... and then all contact was lost. He tried after World War II to find them through HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) but could not.

My grandfather went on with his life, worked, raised his family. But he never forgot. Throughout his life until he died in 1951, his plea to his children... my father and my two aunts... was, "Find my family. Please, find my family." I grew up not knowing my grandfather or anything about his family. That side of the family tree contained only a blank, a void, a hole, an emptiness. My grandfather died the year before I was born, and I was named in his memory. I therefore felt a special connection to him. He was very handsome, and I loved looking at his photograph. As a child I often tried to imagine what his life must have been like, how lonely it must have been for him even though he married into a large family and was embraced by them.

I tried to imagine how his parents must have felt, putting him on a ship and sending him across the ocean to a strange place, knowing that they might never see their first-born again. And I imagined how terrified he must have felt, a small boy yet, sailing across the sea to a foreign land, leaving behind the family he loved and facing an unknown future. After my grandfather's death, my father, Solomon Gorewitz, dreamed of fulfilling his father's dying wish. Throughout his life he tried to locate his lost aunts and uncles, his lost cousins. My Dad went to Moscow twice, in 1964 and 1967, to try to locate them, but was not successful. In fact, he was told (untruthfully) that the town of Elisavetgrad had been destroyed during World War II. In actuality, after the Russian Revolution, the name of the town changed, and the area became part of Ukraine. But my father did not know this, and nobody told him.

Although our last name was not very common, throughout his life my father questioned anybody he met who had a similar name. He wrote letters. He went to Israel, checking archives and Holocaust victim sites. His youngest sister, my aunt Edith, who remained in the home in Philadelphia that she had lived in as a child, kept the telephone listed in the name of my grandparents, "just in case" one of the relatives should find their way from Russia to the US. So that they would be able to find us. (In fact, the phone is still listed that way to this day.) Regularly over the years, messages were sent to Russia via Voice of America. Even after my grandfather's death, my grandmother continued this practice. But there was never any response, no information was forthcoming. And in the end my father died in 1987, unable during his lifetime to fulfill his father's dream.

And so my family has assumed, for many years, that my grandfather's family had perished in the holocaust. We had no information to indicate otherwise. But... I now have available to me modern technology that my father and grandfather could not even envision. And so I decided to try one last time to get some information to enable my family to have some closure on this. Truthfully, when I started my search, I was not expecting much. I was hoping to uncover maybe one surviving distant relative, or at least some concrete evidence that they had all died.

I began with very little information, provided to me by my Aunt Edith. At my urging, she went into the basement and dug out some dusty old boxes filled with crumbling yellowed documents that had been stored away and forgotten about years ago. In January 2000, she provided me with several things. First there was a stack of photos from Russia, with Russian and Yiddish writing on the back. Other than two photographs of her grandparents (my great-grandparents), the rest of the photos were unidentified. Somebody had scrawled notes in English. "This is a brother," "a sister," but they remained nameless faces. She also provided me with a copy of the HIAS application that she had helped her father fill out after World War II. And she gave me the translation of the last letter (originally written in Yiddish) that my grandfather had received in November 1939 from his younger sister, Liza. In this letter, Liza asks my grandfather why the family has not heard from him for three years. (He HAD written regularly but apparently his letters were never received.) She advises him that their mother, Chaika, passed away almost two years before, at the age of 63, after a sudden illness. She says that at her death, their mother "did not yet have one gray hair in her head." That their mother's one dying wish was to see my grandfather again, and that all she wanted was for "all her children to be close." Liza sends greetings from a brother, Misha, who apparently lives near her in the same town. She talks about two younger brothers, Zelman and Lev, who are now "orphans." And she informs my grandfather that one of her two daughters has just had a baby and that the baby is named after their mother.

This information is all I had. What it amounted to was six or seven names, the name of a town, the name of a street, a few bits of personal information. Nothing more. It seemed absolutely hopeless! But it was the first time I even had a geographical point of reference.

Prior to that, my only image of my grandfather's homeland was visions of Fiddler on the Roof. I had pictured a tiny Russian shtetl, cows grazing in a pasture, fur-hatted Cossacks ravaging small villages... in short, Anatevka. But now I had at last a real name of a real city in a real place. And I had real names of real people. And so I started my search, trying whatever I could think of, to no avail. I constructed a family tree with the tiny bit of available information, searched through the JewishGen website, sent e-mails and mass mailings across the US and around the world to people with the same name. Many people wrote back to me and shared their own fascinating family stories... but none appeared to be relatives.

I scanned the backs of my photographs and sent them to an Internet friend with whom I had been corresponding, Ben Khazanov, a physician living in Tomsk, Russia. Although Ben's home in Siberia was far from Kirovograd, he was able to make some inquiries for me in Russian to several newspapers. He also told me, after looking carefully at the faded writing on the backs of the photos, that my last name was either "Gurevich" or "Goorevitch." I was thrilled to have this tiny bit of information.

Finally, in the end, it turned out to be SO very simple. Using ICQ, an international Internet "Instant Messenging" service, I decided to go back to the source... the small town that my grandfather left almost a century ago. It took only moments of Internet surfing to learn the current name of the town.

My distorted image of Russian shtetl life was quickly shattered.Instead of a tiny village, I discovered Kirovograd to be a thriving metropolis with hospitals, universities, and a website for their Chamber of Commerce. And I found multiple people connected to the Internet. Knowing no other way to go about it, I simply decided to ask strangers there for help. Using the ICQ member directory, I sent brief messages to anybody I could find in Kirovograd who spoke English. Several responded to my messages and agreed to assist me. I was really not expecting anything. But a young man named Alexey, seventeen years old, was adamant that he could get information for me. I did not really believe he would be able to help. I was very skeptical that somebody so young would have the necessary knowledge or maturity. But he insisted that he and his father, who spoke no English, had connections. We corresponded for a while. They wanted to negotiate a contract with me, but I was hesitant. And I was not sure how committed I was to paying a fee for them to search old archives for information on deceased relatives. But finally I agreed to send them what little data I had, thinking that after reviewing it they would have a better idea as to whether there was enough information available to even pursue it.

On February 9, 2000, two days after I emailed them the specifics of my grandfather's family, I received a brief note back from Alexey. "Good News! Arlene, though you also concerned with mistrust to me, as I had promised - we have found your relatives." He went on to give me brief details, saying that a letter from a cousin would follow in several days. I did not believe him at first, of course. It simply never occurred to me that he would uncover living, breathing human beings.

However, several days later I received, via email, a translated letter from Stasya Gurevich, the granddaughter of one of my grandfather's brothers, Misha, the brother mentioned in the letter from Liza. She told me how happy she was to hear from me, gave me a little of the family history, told me that all the cousins are still in touch and that they now were all aware that the American cousins had been "found." Even then, I was distrustful about the validity of that letter... until I opened the photographs that she had attached, to find my great-grandparents staring back at me from my computer screen. I sat for many moments in stunned silence. It was an indescribable feeling.

Needless to say, there were many shocked people on both sides of the ocean. My family's story turns out to be very different than I had imagined. It was not a story of devastation and loss. It was not even a story about Holocaust survival, as it seems the family was barely touched by this tragedy. Instead, it was a story of family ties and love and triumph against innumerable odds.

From what I can tell at this point, the entire large family remained in Kirovograd for most of the last century. Except for two siblings... a set of twins who died in early childhood... the rest grew up, married, and raised their children and grandchildren there, some moving in later life to the towns of Kharkov (in Ukraine) and Moscow.

It was, of course, difficult during the war years. They were hungry, they were unemployed. The Nazis moved ever closer. They feared for their lives. But, they clung to their heritage and they clung to their hope. They moved eastward when they had to, away from the Russian front. They fed each other, they sent their children to safety in each other's homes, they sustained and supported one another. And they survived and flourished.

The Cyrillic spelling of our surname in Russia differed from the English spelling and pronunciation, which had initially complicated Alexey's search. Our name was confirmed to be "Gurevich." Another complicating factor was that the first names my grandfather used to refer to his siblings were the Yiddish names by which he remembered them in childhood. However, after the Russian Revolution, Yiddish was not generally in use and all of the siblings took on names that were more "Russian." So of course this confused things further.

Eventually, however, it was the name of the street that the family lived on, remembered by my grandfather and listed on the HIAS application, that made the difference. The family was able to be traced through ownership records on the family home, which remained in the family's possession until ten years ago. It turns out that our cousins all knew there was an older brother who had been sent to America... but because of the Cold War and the danger in having any ties with the US, there was no attempt to try to contact my grandfather. At one point, it was even forbidden to discuss him, and he became the family's "secret." We have since learned that they heard our announcements on Voice of America and knew that we were looking for them. They had a family debate about what to do, and decided it was too dangerous to respond. They say now that for years, it was their dream to find us.

Of course, with the passing of the century, my grandfather's brothers and sisters are now all deceased. However, their children and grandchildren survive. Within days of my initial contact, I was receiving telephone calls and emails from various places around the world. My grandfather's family turns out to be truly remarkable... The family has produced doctors, engineers, military colonels, and even an aeronautical scientist who was instructor to the first Soviet Man in Space, Yuri Gagarin. (I have a photo of the two of them together, sent to me via email.) And most incredible of all is the close ties that they have maintained. How they helped each other survive, how almost a century later they still are in touch with one another and they all still remember my grandfather.

As the borders of the Former Soviet Union have opened, the family within the past ten years has started leaving Russia and Ukraine and scattering across the globe. We seem to epitomize the true Diaspora. While a few do still live in Ukraine (Kirovograd as well as Kharkov), and a few in Russia (Perm and Moscow), the rest have emigrated elsewhere... Toronto, Berlin, Brooklyn, New Jersey, Israel.

The funny thing is that there are so many of them... it turns out WE were the ones who were lost. And yes, my great-grandfather's name WAS Israel... and yes, there WERE twelve children. So I can't help but feeling like we are the Lost Tribe of Israel, found at last. Within days of receiving Stasya's letter, my aunt Edith met with her newly found first cousin who lives in Carteret, New Jersey, less than an hour from her home in Philadelphia. She was accompanied by her daughter and her deceased sister's daughter. Because my family lives in Florida, we were unable to be there.

And then came our trip to Israel. The timing was pure luck. Though my older son, Josh, was away at college and would be unable to join us, my husband and I had been planning, for over a year, to take Adam with us and spend Passover with friends there. It was to be only my second visit, my first having been as a teenager in 1971. So I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time. In the midst of our preparations, everything changed and my trip took on a totally new meaning. We learned that several of my grandfather's siblings had children and grandchildren living in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And also, coincidentally, that the cousins in Perm, Russia... and the ones in Moscow... had been planning to travel together to Israel and visit their cousins there over the SAME two week period that we would be there. It is hard to understand how all the pieces just kept falling into place, but they did.

And so of course, we embarked on our incredible journey. It was wonderful to visit my friends, to rediscover my Jewish roots, to experience Passover in the Holy Land. But to meet with my relatives was something that I have no words for. Our reunion took place on April 23, 2000 in Jerusalem. Five of the ten surviving "tribes" as I have come to call them, gathered together. I viewed old home movies filmed in Russia, of birthday parties and barbecues and family gatherings, and it sent chills up my spine. It was as if we had all been traveling in parallel universes, unbeknownst to each other, living almost identical lives half a world apart. I thought about my grandfather, having lived a safe and protected life in America, but I grieved for all he had missed out on. There was sharing of old photographs, laughter and tears, plenty of food, toasting with Russian vodka. There were excited conversations in Hebrew, English, Russian... much of which I didn't understand. But the words didn't matter. And I have photos and videotape to remember this miraculous day, so I know it wasn't a dream.

I have no doubt that my father, that my grandfather and his siblings, and that my great-grandparents, Israel and Chaika Gurevich, were smiling down upon all of us. In early July, I travelled up north to Philadelphia, where I attended another mini-reunion and finally met the cousins in Carteret, NJ and in Brooklyn, NY. The cousins in Toronto... the grandchildren of Liza, the sister who wrote my grandfather the last letter... were able to join us as well.

Like my father before me, I have dreams for the future. Someday I would like to visit the house on Permenskae Uletza Street in Kirovograd, where my grandfather and his siblings were born. There is still so much to learn, so many unanswered questions, so many gaps to be filled in. I am overwhelmed with my collection of photographs, with pages of documentation and correspondence, with my growing family tree, with the little bits of information I have collected over the past few months which need to be sorted through. But in the end, I am left with the indescribable feeling of having lived through a miracle. The nameless faces in ancient photographs finally have real names. I have met some of them, I have met their children and grandchildren. They begin to emerge as real personalities. They have stories to tell me, a legacy to pass down. I want to know them. I have a history.

I dream of a day when my great-grandmother's dying wish will come true... when ALL of the cousins, scattered now around the globe... will come together in one place and "be close" as was her desire. I hope that others can gain inspiration from this story. I am sure that there are countless others out there who have lost family in eastern Europe during the holocaust years. Maybe they feel it is useless to search, maybe they are unaware of the resources available to them. But the message of my family is that one should never give up hope. Even in this day and age, miracles DO happen.... and anything is possible.

Thank you for enabling me to share this story with you.

Sincerely,

ARLENE GOREWITZ BOUMEL
Coral Springs, FL

2000 by Arlene G. Boumel

  • Last Modified: 06-08-2012
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