A Child Named Feigele Wiecznik

Article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A 90-year-old Ramat Gan woman helps solve a 65-year-old family mystery with its origins in Poland and the Ukraine during the Holocaust The photograph has haunted me for decades. Hanging on a wall in my home, just below a portrait of my grandfather Moshe, it shows his sister, my great-aunt Rivka and her family, posing in a studio in Lodz, Poland in 1921. Between Rivka and her husband Shimon Wiecznik are their twin baby boys Chaim and Hershel, sitting barefoot in dressing gowns on an ornate table. On the right, a curly-haired toddler named Berel rests his elbows on his father's knees and laughs. On the left, the oldest son Yehuda, then 11, stares straight into the camera, a serious expression on his face and a book grasped in his right hand. Not in the picture is a daughter who was born two years later and named after Rivka and Moshe's mother Feiga, who had just passed away. In 1942-43, Rivka, Shimon, and their five children were all murdered in the Holocaust, as was my grandfather's other sister Dvora and four of her six children. One of Dvora's surviving sons, Avram, eluded the Nazis by continually moving through various areas of the Soviet Union with his wife and infant son Baruch. After the war, he discovered that his parents and siblings had died in Auschwitz and Treblinka. When I visited Avram in his Bat-Yam apartment decades later, and asked about the Wieczniks, he replied, "I tried for a very long time to find them, but they disappeared without a trace." I viewed the Wiecznik photo every day for years, wondering what the children were like as young adults and, what became of them all, especially Yehuda, who shared a first name with my father and looked very much like my dad did at that age. After my grandfather, father, and Dvora's surviving sons all died, I was certain I was the only one in the world who would remember that these people ever existed. But I was wrong. Through the services of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial and research center, along with the power of the internet, I discovered an elderly woman with answers to some of the questions my family had asked since World War II. Since the 1950's, Yad Vashem has been collecting what it calls "Pages of Testimony" for as many victims as possible. Survivors, friends and relatives provide as much information on each page as they can. On a visit to Jerusalem in 1989, I submitted seven pages for the Wieczniks. In 2006, the "Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names" was posted on the Internet. As soon as the documents went online, I entered the unusual last name in the website's search window, and up came my handwritten entries. But the search turned up something else that literally sent a shiver down my spine: three additional pages, written in 1999 for Rivka, Shimon, and an "Idek" Wiecznik, by a woman named Rosa in Ramat Gan. On the line where those submitting the pages are asked their relationship to the deceased, she simply wrote "family." Who was Rosa? How was she related to these people? And who was Idek? It took a year before I had the time to track down Rosa, with the help of Patricia Wilson of Raanana, whom I contacted after reading in The Jerusalem Post about her use of the database to reunite families. "Call Rosa right now," Wilson instructed me. "She only speaks Hebrew and Yiddish, but since you speak Hebrew, she can explain everything." From New York, I dialed the number immediately; Rosa answered in a strong, clear voice. I identified myself as the great-nephew of Rivka and Shimon. Rosa, somewhat taken aback, said her sister Baila had married their oldest son Idek. "Who is Idek?" I asked, as I held the 1921 photo of the Wieczniks in my hand, thinking that this somehow was an awful mistake. "Well," said Rosa, "there was Idek, then Berel, then the twins, then..." At the word "twins," my eyes immediately filled with tears. Rosa was Yehuda's sister-in-law; she'd only known him by his Polish nickname, Idek. We were, indeed, speaking about my father's first cousin and his family. We talked for a while, and agreed I would visit Rosa on my next trip to Israel. One year later, this past September, I arrived at the apartment of Rosa Gisser, nee Machtinger, now widowed, on Rehov Itamar in Ramat Gan, accompanied by great-aunt Dvora's grandson Baruch. She answered the door, red-haired, tiny, but looking quite sturdy for her 90 years. As we sat down at a small table on her porch, I could barely wait to start asking the questions for which I had long assumed there would never be any answers. "Tell me about your sister, and what you remember about Yehuda," I began. "What can I say about Baila?" she sighed. "She was beautiful. And Yehuda, Idek, was so handsome. He was a wonderful man, intelligent and talented. In fact, he taught us Esperanto!" "They met at the Jewish cultural center, the Kultureyo, in Lodz, and got married in 1935. I was 17 at the time; they were both 25. My parents loved Idek, and they also became close with his parents. Idek entered into a business partnership with my father; they created a small glove factory and a store in two rooms of the apartment where Idek and Baila lived, and it was a success." What about the rest of Idek's family? "The twins, Chaim and Hershel, were little devils, and so funny. They were about 14 then, and always fooling around," Gisser recalled, smiling at the more-than-70-year-old memory. In our phone conversation a year earlier, Gisser told me she had one photo each of Baila and Idek, taken in a studio in the late 1930s. She now brought the pictures, mounted together on a stained, fading piece of cardboard, to the table... and there was Yehuda as an adult, still looking like my father, still staring right at the camera with a serious expression, just as in the 1921 photograph. "I also have a picture of Feigele, you know," Gisser announced. Feigele? "Their daughter. She was born in 1936, a year after they got married." As I stared at the photo of a cute little blond girl, happily scrunching up her face in a hammock with two young friends, history, for me, underwent a seismic and shocking shift. Until that moment, the Shoah had always been something that had occurred to the generations of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Suddenly, I was looking at a picture of Feigele, named after our great-grandmother Feiga. Her grandmother and my grandfather were siblings; despite the distance in time and geography, we were of the same generation. I was shaken to the core. I managed to ask Gisser the inevitable question: What happened to everyone? The tragic story tumbled out in a rush... How the family tried to escape the Nazis by fleeing, separately, to Russia; how Gisser, in her own years-long odyssey to avoid the German advance, had a bittersweet reunion with one of the twins, Chaim, during his frenzied and ultimately failed attempt to find safe haven; how Idek, Baila and Feigele made it to the Ukraine, where they most likely died in August, 1942, during a horrific, two-week-long massacre of 19,000 Jews in the ghetto of Kremenets. Suddenly, Gisser stopped and stroked her left arm with her right hand. "I have goosebumps," she said quietly. "It's so hard to think about these things again." For me, this was closure, the solution of a 65-year-old family mystery. For Gisser, however, it was a return to the scene of the crime, a shattering reminder of the profound and painful losses she had suffered so long ago. I thanked her profusely for sharing her memories and photos, for making the relatives I'd never known come alive again, if just for a moment. "My heart is still broken," Gisser said, as she held the pictures of her sister, brother-in-law, and niece. "I have not stopped crying since then." We spoke a bit more about Feigele, whom Gisser described as lively and precocious. Then Baruch and I walked out of a dark apartment filled with ghosts of Poland into the warm sunshine of Israel. The mission of the Yad Vashem database is expressed in one sentence on its website, written in a letter by a man not long before he was slaughtered by the Nazis. It says, "I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger." My little cousin was only on this earth for five years. But now, every day, I look at the new addition to my wall of photographs, and I remember that there once lived a child named Feigele Wiecznik. • Steve North is a New York-based broadcast journalist.