Planting the family tree

A personal history project results in a spectacular Israel reunion

September 11, 2007 10:37
adam smith 88 224

adam smith 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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New Yorker Dr. Adam Smith has been just a bit busy lately. He's just completed an internal medicine and pediatrics residency and, in August, began a pulmonology fellowship. He took his medical boards on August 13, arriving in Israel four days later for the weeklong family reunion he's been planning for several years. For the last seven or eight years, Smith, 31, has been compiling a family tree, which today includes more than 2,300 descendants of a single Hungarian ancestor, Leib Oberlander, born near Drohobych, Galicia, and who later settled in a small town, Chinadievo, near Mukachevo (the old Hungarian name is Munkacs, pronounced Munkatch in Yiddish). He's traveled the world meeting relatives in the US, Israel, France, Hungary and Ukraine, conducted archival research in Europe and attempted to account for the family's Shoah victims and survivors. Two years ago, says Smith, "I had about 1,400 names on the family tree, and I thought I was almost done!" He thought it would be a shame if he didn't compile everything into a book, because "if I don't do it, I'm sure no one else will." Along the way, he's discovered family in France, Argentina, USA, UK, Germany, Ukraine, Slovakia, Australia, Costa Rica and Israel (from Nahariya to Eilat). The earliest relatives made aliya circa 1935; the most recent in 2006. Overall, Smith has found the family to be extremely warm. He believed that "If I had all of these people together, there were enough commonalities that people would be able to connect well with one another." He began planning the family reunion for last summer, but the Lebanon war postponed it. On August 22, family from the US, Germany, France and Hungary joined the Israeli relatives, some 150 in all, at Neot Kedumim. "It obviously had to be in Israel," he says, as numerically, about half the family lives in Israel. "It is symbolic to have everyone together in our homeland." As a side activity, and because there was a great deal of gratitude for what he had accomplished, Smith decided to invite people to donate funds to the JNF/KKL to plant trees in the family's honor. "We've raised more than $11,000," he says. Smith's research benefited from his linguistic abilities in Hebrew, French, Spanish, and a bit of Hungarian. He has personally conducted research in Hungarian, Ukrainian and Israeli archives (Yad Vashem, Central Zionist Archives and Safed's Hungarian Museum), hired researchers in Ukraine, Hungary and Slovakia, used the Shoah Foundation database, US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) survivor database and JewishGen, where he's a Hungarian Special Interest Group member and has provided microfilms and transcriptions to help other researchers. Connecting the dots During his research, parallel processes were occurring. Smith was receiving Ukrainian archival records, "some seemed relevant to my family, others less so." Concurrently, he was contacting living relatives in the US and Israel, trying to connect the dots. "I had five large family trees with many loose ends," he says. "Speaking to family helped piece it together." The more Ukrainian records he received, the more he could connect and eventually the five became one tree. "I had a unique opportunity to be brought into people's lives. I got used to calling strangers and telling them that I was their long-lost cousin," says Smith, adding that although they responded differently, almost all responded positively. When it came to the Israeli cousins, he says, "I think that before I even got to the explanation, they were already asking me when I was coming to visit!" He began to travel frequently to Israel, was warmly welcomed into many homes and immediately treated like close family. "I felt a strong sense of closeness from the Israelis and, since many were more closely connected to the Shoah, they had a strong sense of family." This contrasted somewhat with Smith's experience with American relatives: "The Israelis responded more emotionally to the family tree, while the Americans responded more analytically." The family About a year ago, Smith's earliest document was an 1852 marriage record from Chinadievo, near Mukachevo (Munkacs). The groom, Shepsel Oberlander, son of Leib, was born in Chinadievo in 1830. Smith contacted an Israeli researcher looking for Oberlanders from Galicia (formerly Austro-Hungary, then Poland, now Ukraine) from Drohobych. He was perplexed, because the Israeli's family tree began with Shepsel Oberlander, son of Josef. He speculated that they were the same family, that the two Shepsels were named for a common grandfather. Scholars agree that the Jews of eastern Hungary migrated into Hungary from Galicia, which was the province of Austro-Hungary. Drohobych is about 80 miles north across the Carpathian Mountains. At this point, Smith decided to use DNA testing with Family Tree DNA. Two male Oberlanders were tested - one from Smith's side and one from the Israeli side - resulting in a Y-DNA genetic match. Smith believes the family acquired the name in Galicia in 1787. Leib Oberlander, born near Drohobych in 1800, migrated to Chinadievo, where he married and started a family around 1830. The couple had at least six children, whose descendants now number 2,300 and growing. Reunions of another sort Smith nearly reunited two brothers separated by the Shoah. Their mother was an Oberlander, and their father a Weisz. Sandor Weisz arrived in the US immediately after WWII, and Americanized his name to Alexander White. His brother, Laszlo, was born in Hungary, but was stuck in the Soviet Union after WWII. Each knew the other had survived, but the KGB confiscated letters that Laszlo received from his brother. Laszlo escaped to Hungary, wrote to Sandor at his last Chicago address, not knowing he had moved to California. Alexander had also travelled to Hungary searching unsuccessfully for Laszlo, while Laszlo asked for help from Jewish agencies. When Smith heard the story, he called the USHMM (Washington, DC), and asked if their survivor database included Alexander White, born in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary. Yes, they replied. Smith called the family, spoke to Alexander's wife and learned he had died of pancreatic cancer just two months earlier. "It was unfortunate, but a nephew was able to meet his uncle and cousins." In another family story, says Smith, two survivors in Australia grew up in Munkacs; both their mothers were Oberlanders. Although both have first cousins in the US, Smith discovered the two are second cousins. Today, they meet every week. The reunion This Jerusalem Post writer travelled to Neot Kedumim with Smith's cousins: Sisters Tamar Selzer (Ramat Aviv) and Ilana Marks (Scarsdale, NY), and cousin David Aviv (Tel Aviv). Other attendees included Walter (Vova) Oberlander (Short Hills, NJ) and his sister Alla Oberlander Frak (Migdal Ha'emek); from Rehovot came retired theoretical chemist Mel Lax and his wife Ellen (originally from Brooklyn, NY). Each person commented, "Adam's done an amazing job." Some Israeli cousins had no idea what to expect from the evening, but stressed, "We're really happy we came." The event included a tree planting and everyone got into the act. Some Israelis found this a novel, first-time experience. More than 100 people spread out, stripping plastic bags from seedlings, planting them and carrying heavy water buckets to water them. After dinner, Smith presented an Oberlander history show with maps and photographs, saying, "I've discovered all of you… every single one of you is wonderful." Today, with 2,300 names, the printout fills 150 pages. He described visits with family, finding unexpected branches in unlikely places, displayed historic photographs and current views of family towns. A 1928 class picture had almost every student identified by a 90-year-old woman in Brooklyn who remembered her classmates. As each branch was mentioned or a group photograph shown, there were shouts of pride from the descendants. Some family names are Kallus, Weisz, Grunstein, and Oberlander, and Smith's research shows the families often married among themselves; many attendees were double or triple cousins. Today, Smith has tracked descendants of three sons and two daughters, all born in the 1830s - five of Leib's six children. In April, with 1,800 people recorded, Smith discovered yet another branch when he discovered Pages of Testimony in Yad Vashem's database and he contacted the woman who had submitted them. She had some 100-150 names and he did more investigation, adding hundreds of people. He located the Levy branch from Argentina, now in Haifa. A daughter married an Israeli of Moroccan descent, so the Moroccans were there. A Jerusalem descendant married an Israeli of Persian descent and they attended. "We have to thank Adam. This young man, while working as a medical resident, brought us all together this week, and we hope to see him again very soon," cousin Jay Eisenstark told the assembly, while cousin Esti presented a family tree plaque commemorating the event. A long line of relatives waited to thank Smith. The dominant images of the evening were broad beaming smiles and attendees writing down their new cousins' names and phone numbers. In preparation, Smith spent months fielding calls from Israel, often during hospital medical rounds. "You should really talk to my colleagues at the hospital to find out what this has been like," he laughed. Although "every piece of the planning was agony, it was all worth it." Also attending were Smith's parents, Paul and Gloria, of Morristown, New Jersey. Gloria, a social worker of more than 20 years, assists adoptees searching for birth parents. Paul is in the video surveillance industry with an office in Herzliya. They are understandably proud of their son's accomplishments, as well as those of their married daughter, Laurie Mendelsohn, who is working on her PhD in clinical psychology. Gloria says she thinks her son's affinity for genealogy and bringing people together was influenced by what she does professionally - he readily agrees. Smith mentioned the religious and secular family branches. One assimilated branch with Hungarian roots now lives in Germany. Although his cousin's husband is not Jewish, he very enthusiastically participated in the trip and, by the end, their toddler son Samuel was being called Shepsel - a traditional Oberlander name. Six degrees of separation Little by little, Smith, being an avid reader of this writer's former genealogy column (It's All Relative - 1999-2005) in Metro, discovered just how small the world really is. He just finished his residency with a mutual connection, cardiologist Dr. Omid Dardashti; and another cousin married a Milbauer (on the Oberlander tree). He also discovered his Wellisch cousins because a genealogy colleague, Henry Wellisch of Toronto, had posted his research to JewishGen's Family Tree of the Jewish People. From beginning his research, travelling the world, researching in archives, to meeting family and eventually bringing them together, Smith's tree planting has created a permanent memorial to their origins and where the family's roots will grow intertwined.

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