Non-stop sleuthing produces a story that twists at every turn: Wilno, Warsaw, the Dead Sea, Tel Aviv, a Righteous Gentile, a hidden slip of paper in a candlestick, the Exodus, American uncles, an illustrious rabbinical family and more.
Enter Warsaw teacher Marianna Hoszowska, 23, who volunteers to assist members of the Children of the Holocaust Society; Maria Kowalska (Masha Fajnsztejn), 68, a toddler saved by her Righteous Gentile nanny Stanislawa Butkiewicz; and former Londoner, researcher Patricia (Trisher) Wilson, 59, of Ra'anana.
In September 1941, two-year-old Masha Fajnsztejn and her parents Yakub and Chana (Zusmanovicz) went into the Wilno ghetto with their extended families, including her cousin, Daniel (Fajnsztejn) Avidar, then aged nine. Chana made contact with Masha's nanny Stanislawa, somehow managed to bring the toddler out to her and her mother returned to the ghetto.
Chana told the family that she had given Masha to the nanny, along with money, jewelry and a pair of candlesticks with her brothers' names and American addresses hidden inside.
Masha's parents and grandparents, Danny's parents, two siblings, grandparents and other relatives perished. The last time Danny saw Masha was that day in 1941.
Masha tells the story in her cousin Danny Avidar's Kiryat Ono home: Stanislawa went to one brother who refused to help. Another brother wouldn't or couldn't help, but sent her to a cousin in a forest 23 kilometers away who built a special shelter for Masha if the Germans came. A priest gave her a new name - Maria Budkiewicz - and papers, and they lived in the forest for three years.
Stanislawa likely gave the candlesticks and jewelry to the priest who helped her. Although she tried to retrieve them, she was always told to come tomorrow, and understood they would not be returned.
The nanny, who never married, had a photograph of Masha's parents, told Masha she was Jewish and that no one had survived. Maria married and Stanislawa went to live with her in Zielonej Gory, 60 kilometers from Berlin. She died in 1990 at 88, and in 1992, was proclaimed a Righteous Gentile (non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust).
Danny was in several camps: Kaiserwald (Riga), Stuthof near Danzig, on a two and a half month death march to Stettin, and was saved by the Russians. He celebrated his liberation anniversary on March 10. After the war, he and his siblings returned home to see if anyone had survived: No one had. They asked about Masha and Stanislawa; someone remembered they lived in a nearby village, and they ran to look, but the nanny had just left. "We searched and searched and found nothing," recalled Avidar.
Not finding anyone alive, he and his siblings came to Palestine on the Exodus emigration ship, and his sister Dina Fajnsztejn Srolovich of Haifa submitted Yad Vashem Pages of Testimony (PoT).
Marianna had discovered a PoT indicating that Dina Fajnsztajn Srolowicz of Haifa had completed pages for Chana and Jakub (her first cousin); for her own parents Mordechai and Miriam Fajnsztajn, siblings Rywka and Batia; Jakub's parents, Abraham and Ida Fajnsztajn; and her uncle, philosophy Professor Daniel Fajnsztajn, wife Rachel and three children.
In her October 27, 2006 posting to a Jewish genealogy discussion group, Marianna wrote, "Maria didn't know about her [Dina] and the family members until yesterday," adding that Maria was traveling to Israel the following day with the Children of the Holocaust Society. "Do any of you know Ms. Dina Srolovicz or anyone from her family?" Maria, she said, would be happy to meet Dina or her children.
Wilson got to work and located two PoTs from 1957 and 1982. She turned to Bezeq Online, but Dina wasn't listed. In Haifa, a short list of Srolowicz appeared and she decided to call each one.
One man wasn't related, but knew Dina and her husband, with whom he had served in the army. Did he know where Dina lived? No, but he remembered they had a shop. He retrieved a 1999 phone book with the number. Were there children? Yes, a daughter, but he didn't know her first name or married name.
Wilson called, no one answered; she assumed the shop had closed. She e-mailed Marianna that she would call the cemetery to see and ask about next of kin. The cemetery confirmed Dina had died; her daughter Elana had arranged the funeral, and provided the number.
Wilson called, there was no answer. She sent the number to Marianna who she immediately called from Poland. Elana answered, but neither knew the other's language. She was suspicious, reluctant to give information and hung up.
Meanwhile, Marianna had found another PoT from 1982, signed in English by Fruma Nir, for her mother Berta (Batia) Fajnstajn - Dina's sister - daughter of Mordechai and Miriam.
Wilson contacted Kibbutz Ma'anit, Fruma's residence, and the secretary confirmed she was there. "This is about the Holocaust and I don't want to upset her," said Wilson. "Are there children?"
"Yes, her son, Ohad, who is working in the fields now. Here are both phone numbers, call after 6 p.m., he'll be home."
Wilson e-mailed Marianna and sat back to wait a few hours. Before she could call, the phone rang - Fruma's son Ohad, who said Marianna had called his mother who had called him and he called Wilson. "He was so excited that there was a possibility - that after all these years someone might be alive," she recalls. "Where is Masha? I'll go get her and bring her to my mother."
Wilson e-mailed Marianna for the itinerary, and the phone rang again. An older man said, in English, "My name is Danny Avidar and my great-nephew just called me. Fruma is my niece, and the page of testimony was for my late sister. I cannot believe what you are telling me - my cousin is alive?"
"Yes, I believe we have found your cousin Masha."
"That's impossible. Not a chance. The last time I saw her was in 1941."
Avidar went on to describe that he was nine and in the Wilno ghetto. He knew Masha was taken away by her nanny. "It's impossible."
"Nothing is impossible," Wilson replied. "How old are you, Danny?"
"In my 70s."
"I want you to sit down."
"Where in Poland does Masha live?"
"That's why I'm asking you to sit down. Masha isn't in Poland, she's here, in Israel."
Utter silence. Wilson thought, "a brokh, I've killed him, given him a heart attack and he's lying on the floor."
A few minutes later: "She can't be here, she can't be here."
"I promise you she's here in Israel."
"Where is she? I want to go to her. I want to bring her. I'm going to get my car."
"I don't know yet, but I'm going to find out."
Marianna e-mails that the group is at the Dead Sea, and Wilson calls the hotel. She asks about Masha and the group and is connected to her room. But Masha speaks neither Hebrew nor English and Wilson cannot talk in Polish or Yiddish, so a friend who speaks English translates into Polish. Masha answers, and the friend translates into English.
"I'll return to Tel Aviv on Monday and fly to Poland on Tuesday," she says.
"Your relatives are anxious. They can't wait until Monday and want to see you now. May I give them your number?"
Avidar calls the hotel. A short time later, he calls Wilson, adding that he suddenly remembered his Polish. "My daughter will take me to the Dead Sea Friday morning to see Masha. I can't wait until Monday."
He says that when he was asked about his family, he always said "My family is my cousin Masha and she is two-years-old. That's all I remembered."
Friday evening and Saturday, Wilson's phone rings off the hook - she knows who it is. The minute Shabbat was out, she called Avidar, "Nu?"
They went to the hotel and found the Polish group by the water. He asked if they knew Masha.
"Yes, see those women coming out of the water? One is Masha."
Avidar walked up to a woman, and said, "You are Masha!"
"How do you know?"
"You're the image of your father."
"I was two, you were nine. How do you know?"
"I remember," said Avidar.
"There were no words," he later recalled. "We put our arms around each other and cried."
The whole group was crying and clapping, happy for Masha who had found someone. They talked for nine hours: "The hardest part was telling her how her parents had perished," said Avidar.
He said everyone would come to the Tel Aviv hotel on Monday night: his sisters, the children, the grandchildren.
Avidar told Wilson, "What can I say to you? There are no words for what you have done. All I can say is that you will be in my heart forever."
On Tuesday morning, he reported that everyone had come from all over Israel. Although he couldn't change her group ticket, he promised to send another one.
Meanwhile, Masha's children had been e-mailing Avidar and wanted to fly over immediately. Masha returned to Warsaw, where Marianna met her and heard the story over coffee.
The Wilson household settled down again. Marianna e-mailed about a Polish newspaper story and that Polish TV wanted to make a documentary, and she had presented a program about Masha's experience. Once again, Wilson thought the story was finished.
In February, Avidar called about Masha's March trip, that Polish TV is making a documentary, has filmed in Poland and is coming to Israel, and the mayor of Kiryat Ono (where Avidar has lived for 37 years) Yossi Nishri wants to meet Masha on Sunday, March 11. "You must come," he tells Wilson.
When this writer called Avidar to confirm an interview with Masha at his home, he said "There's something I've never told anyone," and told about the candlestick with the names of the brothers hidden inside. Chana had said, "If we don't survive, there are American relatives who will take her."
I called Wilson with these new clues and she immediately started tracking the brothers, utilizing online resources for immigration, census, Social Security and cemetery records.
Chana Zusmanowicz Fajnsztajn came from Ashmiany (50 miles from Wilno/Vilnius, 75 miles from Minsk). She had two brothers who went to America. The immigration doors closed in 1923, so they must have arrived before. Chana was born in 1914; presumably, the brothers were older.
Wilson went to stevemorse.org, and searched for New York arrivals. Two fit the details. Aron Zusnamowitsch arrived in 1902 from Ashmiany, married, a cantor. The other was Socher (Yissachar) Zusmanovitz, arrived 1906, single, age 17, from Ashmiany, going to Lewin cousins.
Who would use Zusmanovich in the goldene medina? thought Wilson and began looking for shortened names, filtering the search for Ashmiany. Naiman or Hyman Zusman popped up in 1906, going to his grandfather Leib. Unfortunately, Leib or Hyman/Naiman cannot be traced, nor Socher.
Aron's trail was easy to follow: In the 1910 US census, he is Zusman in Milwaukee, naturalized 1905, a "minister," married to Hattie, four children.
In 1920, in the same neighborhood, he's a "Jewish pastor," married to Yocheved with more children.
In 1930, she found son John, and son Samuel in Illinois. She looked for Aron for hours, until she saw Ziesman, "rabbi of a church," married to Jane, with the same children 10 years older: Dina, 19; Isidore, 14; Mendel, 13; Tommy, 11; and Danny, 9.
Could family still be alive in Wisconsin? Wilson went to the Online White pages, typed in Zussman, found 10 listings. "Since my husband's paying the bills, I called all of them," she laughs. Two were disconnected. She focused on the men, as the women would have married unknown spouses. There were Mendel, Danny, and Isidore.
She called Mendel; a feeble voice answered.
"Are you Mendel, son of Aron of Ashmiany?"
"Absolutely right - but you should call my brother Isidor in Milwaukee."
Wilson picked a random number, reaching dentist Dr. Richard Zusman's voice mail. She left a detailed message, asking him to e-mail, call or fax. At 1:15 a.m., Wilson gave up and fell into bed. It's Purim and the first e-mail is from the dentist, who confirms his father Isidore, 92, is Aron's son. Coincidentally, his sister Shelly Isaacs is now visiting Beit Shemesh - here's her phone number.
"I hoped she wouldn't think this was a Purimshpiel," thought Wilson as she dialed.
Isaacs was stunned as she listened to Wilson's details. Her father, she said, has a great memory, one cousin is a genealogist, another a journalist interested in genealogy - both might have more data. She didn't know if Aron had been a cantor, but her four sons have beautiful voices and sing in their synagogue. Her cousin's daughter is a Chicago cantorâ€¦ maybe it is genetic. A call to her mother confirmed that Aron was one of two brothers.
On Tuesday night last week, Isaacs was returning to Milwaukee, and as Danny Avidar and Masha were going to Yad Vashem that morning, they arranged to meet and take pictures.
At the Hall of Names, there was Avidar, arms around Masha, and Shelly Isaacs with Danny's sister Rachel.
Avidar spoke in Polish and in English to the cameras. Other visitors stood around, crying. The family visited the Remembrance Hall, and the walls of Righteous Gentiles. Avidar pointed out Stanislawa's name and told how she had saved Masha.
Polish TV asked Wilson to speak. "What could I say? I was deeply humbled and honored to be here at this place and to have enabled the reunification of this family. And to always say to people, 'Never give up hope that you'll find family.'"
Masha came from Poland, feels herself Catholic and thought the family in Israel wouldn't accept her. It was explained that she was Jewish. Her grandchildren have even been to Israel via the Birthright-Taglit program. They said they feel Catholic, but in their hearts Jewish because their mother is Jewish. Masha understands that she is Jewish.
Wilson is at her computer every day except Shabbat, trying to connect people around the world. "I go to bed every night and say 'Thank you for another day, for helping me, and let me help someone else tomorrow,'" she says. She also found a PoT for another Zusman from Ashmiany in Ramat Gan. Before Masha returns to Poland, they plan to meet, look at photographs and try to determine the relationship.
"The circle is closing," says Avidar, whose great-grandfather was Chief Rabbi of Hamburg, and grandfather was a rabbi in Koenigsberg. He rapidly sketches a family tree for Wilson, who's now looking for clues to Meier in Paris; Yosef in London; and Galia, an Antwerp pharmacist. Other children studied at the Mir Yeshiva, at the university in Odessa.
The Polish cameraman asked Wilson for help as they left Yad Vashem. "My wife's family is Jewish, an uncle came to Israel. Can you help me find him?" She gave him the websites for JewishGen, for Yad Vashem and other essential sites, as he scribbled them on an envelope.
As he got into the car, he said sadly, "You know, even today Polish people don't like Jews."
For more information, contact Patricia Wilson at email@example.com