In search of names

I searched for Uszer Kahan on the list of Jews deported from France and quickly found his name and the bare facts of his fate,

By TOBY SONNEMAN
May 1, 2019 18:45
4 minute read.
Holocaust

Holocaust memorial candles. (photo credit: TED EYTAN/FLICKR)

The woman I was named after, Toba Kagan, was the favorite sister of my grandmother. Toba, her husband and five of her six children perished in the Holocaust. They lived in a region which had been Polish until the Soviets took over in 1939. After the German invasion in 1939, Jews, along with Roma, were targeted for mass murder.

Chilling statistics and horrifying descriptions of massacres and death camps leave us with a harsh and necessary record of collective catastrophe. But to restore humanity to the individual victims, one needs something more. At the very least, one needs a name.

When I set out five years ago, trying to trace what had happened to Toba Kagan and her children, I had few facts to go on. The only survivor of her family was a daughter who had gone to Israel in 1937 and spent most of her life on Kibbutz Negba. She was unmarried, had no children and left no record of the names of her five siblings.

My mother had died, but by fortune, I unearthed an old letter from her, which said that Toba’s two sons had been engineers in France before being deported from there. My cousin, Mel Werbach, who’d done extensive genealogy research, discovered one of their names: Pinchas. But though I searched the list of 76,000 Jews deported from France and found many Kagans, none of them were named Pinchas.

Yet, there was a clue. My mother had also written that she’d tried to get help for the brothers, her cousins, through “the Quakers” – the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which was helping refugees in France. I asked an archivist with the AFSC collection at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum if there was anything on Pinchas Kagan. Weeks went by; then one day, a digitized case file arrived on my computer screen. “I think you will find it interesting,” the archivist wrote.

The file contained a real treasure: a two-page typed letter my mother had written in May, 1942, searching for information on Toba’s sons. They had studied in Belgium, moved to France and wanted to come to America, she wrote. The brothers spelled their last names differently – “Uszer Pinchos Kahan,” and “Owszyia-Geszel Kagan.”

I searched for Uszer Kahan on the list of Jews deported from France and quickly found his name and the bare facts of his fate, “Deported to Maidanek on Convoy no. 50, departed from Drancy on [March 4], 1943.”


WITH USZER Kahan’s name, I could learn about his life. Belgium’s archive held his 1924 passport application to study at the University of Liège, and a photo of a young man with deep-set eyes and prominent ears. In the archive in Tarbes, France, where Uszer had lived, I studied his foreigner’s file, holding identity registration cards that traced his 1930 entry into France and desperate flight south to France’s “free zone” in 1940. In the archive, a three-year contract from Panhard, the automotive manufacturer, documented his work as an industrial draughtsman from March, 1942. He never completed the contract, as he was arrested by French police in February of 1943. In Paris, I saw his name engraved on the Wall of Names at Memorial de la Shoah.

The search for Uszer’s brother, Owszyia Kagan, was more complicated, due to his difficult-to-spell given name. I could find no mention of him on the list of Jewish deportees until I spoke each Kagan name aloud and recognized his name by sound, rendered as “Awazyga.” This initial error had virtually obliterated him from the record of victims. His name was jumbled again in records of his internment in a Vichy-organized forced labor camp.

Fortunately, in his 1928 passport application to study electrical engineering in Belgium, Owszyia’s name was spelled correctly and signed in his own hand. With this document, I convinced archivists at Memorial de la Shoah to change his name on official records.

 Still, at the Wall of Names in Paris, the false name Awazyga Kagan – nobody’s relative – remained engraved in stone, while the name of my relative, Owszyia Kagan, was invisible. It seemed like the last injustice.

 Then, years later, a small miracle happened: an announcement that the Wall of Names would be rebuilt, to allow for various corrections. The new Wall of Names will include the name Owszyia Kagan, deported on Convoy 24 on August 26, 1942. My search for his name has become, unexpectedly, a kind of commemoration.

 Another small miracle occurred as a result of researching the names of Toba’s sons. My genealogy-obsessed cousin had been trying to identify the unknown relatives in an old family portrait he had. After I sent him the digital files from Belgium, including photographs of the two brothers, he wrote back. “Exciting breakthrough!” he said. Looking at the family photo “for the 100th time,” he suddenly realized that it portrayed the entire Kagan family before Uszer, the oldest, left for the university in Belgium.

 That photograph now has a place beside my desk, where I look at the people I have come to know, just a little. Toba and David, owners of a flour mill in Dubno, would be shot in a mass killing; Uszer and Owszyia would immigrate to France and be deported to their deaths; and Genya would change her name to Sheindel, join a Zionist youth movement and immigrate to Palestine.

 And then there are three other daughters with dark brooding eyes. Although I have tried and tried to find a record of their names, as yet I have not succeeded. I continue to search.

The writer is an American, the daughter of a refugee from Nazi Germany and the author of ‘Shared Sorrows: A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust.’


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