One on One: 'Never say everybody was wiped out'

Trisher Wilson uses her hobby - genealogy - to bring hope to Holocaust survivors still searching for long-lost relatives.

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
April 11, 2007 22:56
One on One: 'Never say everybody was wiped out'

trish wilson 298.88. (photo credit: David Deutch)

'Come in and make yourself comfortable," Trisher (Patricia) Wilson says, smiling ear-to-ear when she opens the door of her Ra'anana apartment and rushes off to boil water for coffee. "Take off your shoes, if you like." Though the subject I have come to discuss with the self-proclaimed amateur genealogist is somewhat somber, Wilson is anything but. Indeed, the 59-year-old married mother of three - who made aliya from London in 1993, when her kids were 21, 18 and 12 - discusses the search for roots in general, and the rewards of bringing people together in particular, with unbridled animation. It's a hobby she says she stumbled upon late in life - and completely by accident. But "once you're hooked," she insists with the passion of someone who's found her true calling, "you're absolutely hooked." Which is lucky for all those she has helped "complete circles," thanks to her incessant and dedicated sleuthing. In fact, in the last two years alone - of the seven she has been diligently connecting dots - she has reunited 12 families separated by the Holocaust. Her chief tool, says Wilson - who ran a business with her husband supplying the Jewish community in England and Europe with kippot and after-meal grace booklets - is the Internet, without which she'd "have zilch." This enables her not only to conduct research, but to network with genealogists the world over. Another crucial reference is Yad Vashem, especially its stock of Pages of Testimony - forms filled out by friends or relatives in memory of people who perished. Though the majority of these were written in the 1950s, she explains, Yad Vashem is now conducting a campaign to enlarge the list. And the Jewish Family Research Association of Israel (JFRA), of which Wilson is a member, is assisting in the endeavor through a project whose slogan is: "It only takes one page." The idea behind it is to encourage as many survivors as possible to fill out testimonies. To this end, JFRA is going to senior citizens' homes and asking residents to supply names. Wilson is aware that some people "might think [this] involves telling their stories, and many survivors can't cope with that." But, she insists, "We're not asking for any stories. We are only asking them to fill out a page with a name of a cousin or even an acquaintance - whether or not they know if that person perished, or whether they have any idea where that person might be today." Is it Wilson's optimism that has led to her success stories or the other way around? Whichever, she emphasizes the positive. "People who have lost family - especially in the Shoah - often say, 'I'm the only one left. Everybody was wiped out,'" she explains, stressing, "Never say that. Never give up hope." What made you take an interest in genealogy? About seven years ago, I got out a photograph of people I didn't recognize, with my maternal grandmother's name on the back. It was a picture my father had told me to look into. "Find out who these people are," he had said. And I had stuck it in a drawer. After he died, I looked at it again, and I thought, "I wonder who these people are." My grandmother - one of five siblings - had told us that she had a brother who went to America from England. All I knew was that his name was Nathan Nadler, and that he lived in Detroit. Well, eventually I located his grave and his children and grandchildren. And you know, when I found them, they all said, "Oh my God - we didn't know our grandfather had any siblings!" So I printed out the family tree for them, and they were shocked. Then I made a family chart, listing the address and telephone number of every single living member of the family - those who gave permission, of course. I was also told that my great-grandmother had a brother who had gone to America from Romania, and that he lived in Rhode Island. Well, I found the whole family, even though they had spread out all over America. My kids think I'm completely mad. But I think it's so important to know your roots. That's how I got started. Then I realized I could do it for other people, which got me hooked. And, once you're hooked on genealogy, you're absolutely hooked. Soon, everybody began coming to me. How many families who were separated by the Holocaust have you managed to trace, and how long does it take? In the last two years, I've reunited about 12 families. Some took a few months; some I did in a day. How do you do this - mainly through the Internet? Oh yes. Without the Internet, I'd have zilch. That's why I classify myself as an amateur. I don't have to leave my apartment to actually go to archives to search for vital records. There are several crucial Web sites, among them "Jewishgen" [www.jewishgen.org]. A real breakthrough came a few years ago, when Ellis Island posted 25 million passenger records of those who entered America between 1894 and 1922. It's the most amazing thing! It enables you to look up a relative from America and see when he arrived. But on Ellis Island, names were often completely distorted by clerks who couldn't understand the immigrants' pronunciations. The No. 1 myth of genealogy is that immigrants' names were changed at Ellis Island. Immigrant clerks and translators of more than 60 languages assisted the immigrants, and they worked off passenger manifests that had been prepared before embarkation. But what's so clever about the Ellis Island Web site is that it has something called "soundex," a phonetic system for classifying names that sound similar. So, for example, when I was looking up my family - Weintraub - different members of whom arrived in the United States at different times, I found one called Weintraub, another Weinraub; then Weinrub; then Weintrub. The site also has all the countries they could possibly have come from. But the far best thing was when Yad Vashem posted on its Web site the names of three million people for whom "Pages of Testimony" were filled out. A "Page of Testimony" is a form one could fill out in memory of a person or people they knew perished in the Holocaust. The majority of these were filled out in the 1950s, following the Shoah. The form could be filled out in any language. At the bottom of the form is the name and signature of the person who signed it. Now, the people who signed these testimonies might still be alive today. If so, they can be traced. The trouble is that although their addresses were listed, their telephone numbers were not. So, the question was how to find them? I used to do this by going to Bezeq on-line. Until just over a month ago, that is, when Bezeq revamped the site. You used to be able to type in the surname or first name of the person you were looking for - with or without a city of residence. This was great, because you could search the site in various ways, and eventually wind up with all the possibilities of a person's name in Israel. You would be surprised how many people's children and grandchildren still live close to their original addresses. Once I had a list of names [who might be of those who signed Pages of Testimony], I would phone each person on the list, and ask, "Are you connected in any way with such and such a person, who signed a Page of Testimony at Yad Vashem for her or his family?" Some would say no. Others would say, "Oh my God! She was my grandmother; she was my mother's sister..." And that's how the families were connected. Suddenly, Bezeq, in its wisdom [she says sarcastically] decided to upgrade to a modern system. According to the new system, you can only enter a surname, and you have to have a street name as well. I have been working with Bezeq to try to get them to understand that this system has practically wiped out the hope of Holocaust survivors being reunited, because doing this manually, by searching phone books is so time-consuming that many of these people will die before I manage to locate them. It's absolutely criminal. Heartbreaking. When I saw it, I sat there sobbing. Dr. Steve Morse [www.stevemorse.org], a professional technology and computer expert - as well as a genealogist - has created many tools and utilities to make searching various Web sites more productive. One of his tools is for people who don't read Hebrew. It works like this: Say you're looking up the family name Kagan - because you know they live in Israel, but you don't know how to spell Kagan in Hebrew. All you have to do is enter it in English, click, and all its derivations in Hebrew automatically appear. It's fantastic! It enabled people to connect all over the world. Morse has now put a note on this saying that Bezeq has ruined the endeavor - and that there's no point in his trying to adapt the new site, because it's useless. Yesterday, I encountered a prime example of just how useless. Somebody posted a request on "Jewishgen" for help in finding a survivor in Israel. The person provided the name of the person, and the name of one of his children, and said he knew the family had arrived in Israel in the 1940s. This is the type of message I frequently get. And it's a classic case of my needing the Bezeq site the way it used to be. Now I can't do it. Nobody can. We're waiting for an answer from Bezeq sometime after Pessah - but Bezeq said that in any case, there's no way the old system is going to come back. How do people know to contact you? It's been purely by word of mouth - though after an article was published about me recently, I was inundated with requests. Give an example of those requests. A gentleman from Brazil posted a message on "Jewishgen" asking for help. He said he found a Page of Testimony on the Yad Vashem Web site with his grandparents' names at the top. The man said that though his father had told him he was the only survivor in the family, this Page of Testimony seemed to be made out by a relative. But, he said, he was unable to read it, because it appeared to be in Russian. I wrote to him and said I would try to help. Then I downloaded the page from the Yad Vashem site, took it downstairs to my Russian neighbor and asked him if it was indeed in Russian. He said it was. I told my neighbor that the man in Brazil would like to know whether this person is living in Russia or perhaps Ukraine. "Oh no," my neighbor said. "He's living in Bat Yam." And we found his telephone number and rang him up. My neighbor spoke to him in Russian and asked him if he was the person who signed the Page of Testimony. And he was! My neighbor then told him he had a cousin in Brazil who was looking for him. The man said, "Absolutely impossible!" Immediately, I e-mailed the man in Brazil, who got on the phone straight away to Bat Yam. Within half an hour, a family was reunited. That's an example of a happy story. A sad one involves of friend of mine in London. A few years ago, while sitting shiva for her father, her mother - by then in her 90s - turned to her and her brother and said, "I have to tell you children something. Your father had a wife and children who perished in the Holocaust." My friend was stunned. The war had been a no-no subject in her household. She knew her father had escaped from a concentration camp, but that's all she knew. They had a photo album. And whenever she came to a photograph of a particular girl, she would ask her father who the girl was. Her father always brushed off the question, and said the girl was a cousin or something. After learning this news about her father, my friend asked me whether I thought it would be possible for me to find out about the family who had been killed. We found out the maiden name [of her father's first wife], and I looked for a Page of Testimony with that name, and there was one. The woman's niece had filled out a Page of Testimony for her and her two children. The address listed on the page of testimony was in Paris. Using the Paris phone directory, I found the woman's number and gave it to my friend in London. She then phoned the woman, and the woman was beside herself with excitement and surprise - because she had filled out the Page of Testimony more than 30 years earlier. She begged my friend to come see her in Paris, which she did. She went there for two days. The woman got out the family photo album, and the same photos that were in her house in London were in this woman's house in Paris. My friend learned more about her father in those two days than she had known about him her whole life - because her father would never talk about the past. She even got to see photographs of him when he was a teenager. What are the closest relatives you've reunited? First cousins. I've never reunited siblings, to my sorrow. Are you working on any specific case right now? For two years, I've been working on a particularly moving case. I can't talk about all the details yet. The mother of a family in the ghetto in Sosnowicz, Poland, somehow managed to leave the ghetto for a short while and literally threw her baby into the arms of a young, non-Jewish Polish woman, saying, "This is my daughter, Chave Margules. Please don't let her die." Shortly afterward, the ghetto was wiped out. The Polish woman's family raised the baby for about three years. Then, after the war, when Jewish organizations went around collecting Jewish children, they found the little girl with the Polish family. She was eventually taken to an orphanage in France. An American couple came to the orphanage and adopted her and a boy, and took them back to the US. The little girl was raised in the US by the most wonderful family. All she knew about her background was that her name was Chave Margules. She grew up and got married, always wondering who she was. But nobody could give her any information. An appeal was put out a couple of years ago, and I decided to take up the challenge. Somebody in America had also been trying to help her. I did as much as I could on the Internet, and I happen to know two people - one in Canada and one in the States - who are very influential with particular records. They're businessmen, and I can't name them, because otherwise they would become completely swamped. I wrote to them to ask their advice on how to proceed. Well, they were both so taken with the story that they offered to provide their services free of charge. Within two days, we had her background. They found her birth certificate. We were then able to get her parents' marriage certificate. I even found somebody with a family tree with the father's side going way back, but we're still looking for the mother's side. I found cousins in Israel and in America, but they're fourth cousins. She was born in 1942, which meant that she was 15 months old when she was handed over to the Polish woman. Her grandmothers were sisters, nee Dancygier. Which meant that her parents were one another's cousins. And it was the Dancygier line that we found going back very far. But we have had complete blockage with Margules, her father's side, and Gutterman, her mother's side. If anybody has any connection with that town or ghetto and with those names, please contact me at wilsonettess@yahoo.com. Even if her parents and all her siblings were killed, she wants to know. Can you imagine how she feels now? She said that two years ago on Yom Kippur, she could finally say Yizkor for her parents, now that she knew their names. You can't imagine what this does to people and the impact it has on their families. They are completing a circle. You're not officially working with Yad Vashem, are you? No. But I will explain to you what they're doing now, and how important it is. It's a project called "The Shoah Victims' Names Project." They are enlisting international genealogy groups in the push to collect additional Pages of Testimony. This is where people like me can be of assistance. I'm a member of the Jewish Family Research Association of Israel (JFRA). We are mainly an English-speaking society. (There's another group here - the Israel Genealogical Society - whose meetings are mainly in Hebrew.) JFRA has branches in Tel Aviv, Petah Tikva, Herzliya, Ra'anana and Rehovot. And we have a discussion group on the Internet in English, where people put out messages. People from all over the world contact us for help and information. And we can connect people that way. JFRA is also a member of the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies, which is worldwide. That's the whole thing about genealogy. It involves networking. And the more names collected from the testimonies, the better chance there is of connecting people. To this end, one of our projects involves going to senior citizens' residences, among other places, and asking people to fill out Pages of Testimony. Many people have never even heard of this. Others don't realize what it is. They might think it involves telling their stories, and many survivors can't cope with that. We're not asking for any stories. We are only asking them to fill out a page with a name of a cousin or even an acquaintance - whether or not they know if that person perished, or whether they have any idea where that person might be today. Our slogan is, "It only takes one page." Because that's all it does take. You mention networking. Is it mainly done on-line? Every year, there's a major Jewish genealogical conference in a different city. Last year it was held in New York, and about 1,400 people from all over the world attended. In 2004, it was in Jerusalem, and I went for the first time. I was gobsmacked. The networking was amazing. And the things you learn! This year it's in Salt Lake City, so I won't be going, but I'm saving my money for the 2008 conference, in Chicago. Does any of this Jewish networking and connecting of families relate to medical issues? If a person needs a transplant, for example, can he use your services to locate a relative who might be a matching donor? No. The latest thing in genealogy is DNA testing - but not for medical purposes. It is not legal to reveal someone's DNA test results. I personally am going to have my DNA tested, because I have come across people with similar ancestry to mine - from the same shtetl, for example, or who have the same physical traits. DNA is a way of testing to see if there is a family connection between us. But only for genealogical purposes. Jewish genealogists recommend generally that testing be done through Family Tree DNA in Houston, Texas [www.familytreedna.com], which has the largest DNA sample database, including the largest Jewish database. Pricing ranges upward of $99, depending on how many markers are tested. What would you suggest to survivors searching for relatives? First of all, if you have a computer, the first thing you should do is to go onto "Jewishgen." It's free. Read through it slowly. And post information about your family. If you don't do this, nobody else is going to know you're looking. Put a message out there. Second, go to the Yad Vashem site [www.yadvashem.org]. There are also non-Jewish sites, but they have a Jewish section. Look in telephone directories. You'd be surprised how often you can find people this way. And use Google. I found a cousin simply by Googling her, and it turned out she was still using her maiden name. Most important, don't assume that there's no point in searching. People who have lost family - especially in the Shoah - often say, "I'm the only one left. Everybody was wiped out." Never say that. Never give up hope.


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