Snatched from oblivion

One woman’s endeavor to discover the names of her young relatives murdered in the Holocaust.

On August 23, 1942, 10,000 Jews of Siedlce were loaded onto trains for a short ride to Treblinka (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
On August 23, 1942, 10,000 Jews of Siedlce were loaded onto trains for a short ride to Treblinka
(photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
OF THE 1.5 million Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust, only about half are listed in Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. The rest are missing. Relatives who filled out pages of testimony for the parents didn’t remember the names of the little ones.
My own father, Shmuel Nussbaum, was one of them. He must have been in emotional crisis when he filled out a page for his son, Moshe, my half brother, who was four years old when he was shot and thrown into a mass grave along with my father’s first wife, my grandmother and my aunt and uncle.
Looking at his handwriting, I can tell his hand was shaking and he confused some of the facts. He got the date right, December 17, 1942, the final aktion against the Jews in Baranowicze, a town in the easternmost part of Poland (which today is part of Belarus).
The day when the last remaining Jews, nearly 3,000, were rounded up and shot.
When my father provided information about his older brother, Shmeryl (short for Shmaryahu), who lived in another town, Siedlce, he remembered that his older brother had five children but not their names or ages. My cousins were reduced to a chilling fragment: “and five children.”
“Unfortunately we have too many like that,” says Dr. Alexander Avram, Director of the Hall of Names and the Central Database. “This is distressing. Not only were these children brutally murdered, but even their names are erased from human memory.”
In 1954, Yad Vashem launched the unprecedented project of documenting the names of victims. So far it has collected about 4.6 million names, of which 2.7 million are on pages of testimony. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Authority allows individuals to use its archive services to research family histories and invites the public to submit pages of testimony for Jews they know who were murdered during the Holocaust. For assistance in Israel, call (02) 644-3111; for assistance in other parts of the world contact: This year, Israel marks Holocaust Memorial Day on May 5.
With a collection of 179 million pages of documentation in its archives, Yad Vashem is racing against time to collect testimonies and artifacts before the generation of the Holocaust survivors dies out and is making efforts to find the missing names.
“Our motto is to continue until the last one is found,” says Avram.
One obstacle is the privacy laws of municipal civil registry archives dictating that 90 years must pass before birth records become public. Since children murdered in the Holocaust were born in the late 1920s and 1930s, more than another decade must pass before the records become available for research. Today, they may be accessed only by family members.
That being the case, I felt it imperative to find the missing children in my own family and fill out the Yad Vashem pages of testimony for them. It seemed untenable that, like their lives, their names too vanished in black smoke.
Finding my uncle’s children was easy. I wrote a letter to the civil registration office in Siedlce, the Polish town where my father was born, giving them the names of my uncle and aunt, and requested they search for five children born to that couple in the 1930s.
After a few months, I received a letter. They had found three of the five. Record books are missing for a few years, they explained.
Sara was the first name I saw. An unexpected flash of tenderness enveloped me.
Sara. I could picture her. My cousin was nine years old when the Jews of Siedlce were loaded onto trains for a short ride to Treblinka. Did Sara hold on to her mother Esther’s hand? Or maybe she clutched the hand of little Tauba, her four-year-old sister? Did my uncle carry little Chava in his arms on the march to the train? It became personal. They were no longer a number. Astounding the difference knowing their names makes.
In another way, however, it makes it terrible.
The roundup of 10,000 Siedlce Jews, on August 23, 1942, has been well documented.
As the column marched to the railway station, the street was already covered with corpses. From a hiding place, a Polish Home Army photographer captured the scene. A Wehrmacht soldier, Hubert Pfoch, who was passing through Siedlce on his way to the Eastern front, took photographs of the loading of the trains and recorded what he saw in a journal.
“The guards… cram 180 people into each car, parents into one, children into another… They scream at them, shoot and hit them so viciously that some of their rifle-butts break.”
It was a hot August day and the people had already waited for hours in a square without food or water. A survivor, Noach Lasman, described the loading of the box cars:
“Somebody began to shout ‘Wasser, Wasser!’(Water, water!). Everyone took up this cry. They took it up in other cars, as well, and several thousand people chanted ‘Wasser, Wasser!’ Suddenly, the sound of machine gun fire could be heard from a car. The soldiers had decided to quiet the people. They placed one of the tormentors on the ramp who put the barrel of his gun into the window and blindly shot into the crowd. The shrieks of pain ...replaced the word ‘Wasser.’”
It’s painful to imagine my uncle Shmeryl, my aunt Esther and my five little cousins in this scene from hell. And that is even before I think about what happened to them when they made the 62-kilometer journey to Treblinka. Other members of my family on the trains that day were my aunt Chana Berg, her husband Chaim, their son, David, and my father’s youngest brother, Simcha.
I have not given up on finding the missing two names. One day, I will travel to Siedlce and sit in the office until they go through all the records once again.
Finding the names of my husband’s side of the family wasn’t as simple and involved major sleuthing work.
His mother, the sole survivor of her family, had brothers and sisters but Zeev didn’t know their names, ages or even how many there were. He wasn’t even sure where exactly they were born. His mother, Chana Kopf, was one of those Holocaust survivors who cloaked herself in silence.
On Yom Kippur and Holocaust Remembrance Day, she lit candles for the dead.
Every Friday, she listened intently to the Israel Radio program called “Searching for Relatives.” The children, already in pajamas, were not allowed to make noise. Who knows, perhaps by some miracle someone survived and might be looking for her? By the time I married her son, she was already gone and the memory of her brothers and sisters was expunged for all eternity.
The only clue to finding them was the name of the town listed on her passport as the place of her birth, Laszczow, Poland.
And so began my friendship with Maria Kluge, the manager of the civil registry office in Laszczow, the town closest to the village where I later learned my motherin- law was, in fact, born.
At that time, every such office politely directed you to the Polish Embassy closest to your home ‒ fill out the appropriate form in Tel Aviv. Which is why it is best to touch Kluge’s heart. Otherwise, what would motivate her to rummage through dozens of dusty books filled with the handwriting of clerks long dead, to find, for a woman in faraway Israel, information about children, also long dead? “My husband’s mother died 25 years ago and didn’t tell her children anything about her childhood,” I explain to Kluge. “She had brothers and sisters, but we don’t know their names or how many they were.”
“Where are they now?” she asks with horrifying naiveté, a woman living in a town that was once 80 percent Jewish.
“She’s the only one who survived the war,” I explain. “The rest were all killed.”
I give her the birth date written in my mother-in-law’s passport and the names of the parents, mother, Hinda, née Krieger, father, Wolf Frajnd.
I call back after a few weeks and she says she has found nothing.
At the same time, my sister-in-law Ilana Zonnenberg and I began to visit distant cousins, all in their eighties. Everything from the past is vague, foggy and dependent on the memory of women who didn’t know Chana very well. Nevertheless, each divulges a clue.
Chana Rodoler, whom we visited in Netanya, grew up in a village some nine kilometers southwest of the village where our Chana was born.
“We used to meet on the Sabbath in the middle of the way at a friend’s house,” she tells us. “I would walk three or four kilometers by foot, and Chana came to meet me from the other direction. We talked. We laughed. We sang songs in Yiddish. Sometimes Chuli, her younger sister, would come with her.”
A sister? Chuli? I feel a shiver running through me.
It turns out that if you make the effort to visit Netanya, walk up one flight of stairs in a building on Jerusalem Boulevard, you can learn that Chana had a sister named Chuli.
Rodoler takes a deep breath and her story pours forth in a constant stream that gathers strength as it flows.
“On the eve of Shavuot in 1942 (May 22), they gathered the Jews from the surrounding area, loaded them into horse-drawn wagons and took everyone to a large barrack.
I had a friend, Goldie. I said to her, ‘Goldie, kimt. Let’s run away.’ She didn’t want to. She was afraid. I said to my father, ‘Tate, I’m running away.’ “And he said to me, ‘If you can, save yourself.’ (Chana’s voice chokes.) Those were the last words my father ever said to me. At two in the morning the door opened a crack and I crawled on four through a barbed wire fence. In the morning, they took everyone to Belzec and killed them.
“Some people avoided the roundup.
Chuli and her uncle, Josef, worked in the fields of a landowner in Podlow. I met her there and we talked about getting false papers and running away together.
But, on July 16, the landowner informed the Gestapo so the Jews would be killed and he wouldn’t have to pay their wages.
Chuli, Josef and 16 other people ran to the fields and hid in a ruin. The Germans found them and killed them all. I said to myself that if I stay alive, I will remember the date that Josef and Chuli were killed.”
It’s twilight. In Rodoler’s living room, to the sound of a ticking clock, the horrifying tale unfolds. On the same sofa where Ilana and I are sitting with coffee and cake, Chana Kopf also sat when she came to Israel in 1957 and began to visit the handful of distant relatives who had survived. It must have been in this room that she heard for the first time how her sister, Chuli, and her uncle, Josef, were murdered. Maybe that was the moment Chana decided she would protect her children and never tell them what happened.
Each time after meeting one of the cousins, I called Kluge with a new bit of information.
After the visit with Rodoler, I give her the name of the younger sister, Chuli.
“I’m sorry, but I looked through the years that your mother-in-law was born and there is nothing,” she says.
A few months pass, and the day after the Passover Seder I call Kluge again with another idea of how to pick up the tracks. She already recognizes my voice.
“I found them,” she says.
It turns out that Hinda and Wolf didn’t register their children at the time of their birth. Laszczow was seven kilometers away from the small village where they lived, and anyway, of what use are documents for small children? Hinda waited until 1937 to go the office in Laszczow to register all her children at once. She realized they were growing up and would soon need documents. According to Polish law, the children could not be registered under their father’s name since Hinda and Wolf were married according to Jewish law, but not in a Polish civil ceremony.
Hinda was now a widow, her husband having died two years earlier, and it was too late to get a civil marriage certificate. Hinda registered her children with her own family name, Krieger, as if they had no father.
“I know that this happened a lot with you people, bastard children,” says Kluge with barely disguised disdain. “Almost a third of the Jewish children registered in the books were born without fathers,” she says.
I am so excited and grateful that she found Chana’s brothers and sisters that I politely explain that the Jews were very religious and that incidents of illegitimate children were very rare and that many Jews didn’t believe in civil marriage, true even today in modern-day Israel.
She reads off the six names by order of birth: Yankiel, Chana, Chula, Albush, Rivka and Moshke, the youngest, who was born in 1931. He was 11 when he was murdered in Belzec.
I write down the names. They exist. I found them. I have reached my hand into oblivion and snatched back their identities.
I tell Zeev that I found the names of his aunts and uncles and a thought goes through my head.
“When exactly did your mother die?” I ask.
“On Passover eve,” he answers.
“We found her brothers and sisters exactly on the 25th anniversary of her death,” I tell him.