Facebook helps reunite family split by Holocaust

34-year-old mother of 2 uses facebook to unite family split by Holocaust.

kurt and thea wertheim 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
kurt and thea wertheim 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As the social networking Web site Facebook celebrated its fifth birthday last month, few users were as grateful for its services as Karen Haber, an Israeli and an amateur genealogist who used the site to locate dozens of family members dispersed by the Holocaust. The 34-year-old mother of two grew up thinking she had a very small family, with just one uncle and two step-uncles in addition to her immediate family. Through the Internet alone, Haber has made contact with 60 family members (40 of them through Facebook) - all descendants of the vast and wealthy Bachenheimer dynasty now spread across the globe. Among the relatives she's discovered is a 92-year-old fifth cousin in Israel whom she now visits once a month; a fifth cousin who is a clinical social worker in Woodstock, New York; a fourth cousin who runs an optometry shop in Zurich; and another fifth cousin who lives in Hong Kong and sells diamonds. Haber joined Facebook a year ago but hadn't thought about using it for genealogy. It was only after her mother introduced her to an online family history site, Geni, that her hobby took off. "I suddenly realized that my mom had a greater family tree," she said. "As I started uploading names, I thought I might find traces of them on Facebook or by Googling them." On Facebook, Haber's technique has simply been to send messages to those whose names appear on her family tree. On the whole, the responses have been overwhelmingly positive. "There was a person I found through Google," she said. "He and his father are big professors in the States and they were very reluctant. But when I contacted other people, like my fifth cousin in South Africa, the first note I received was, 'I love you so much!' Most [replies] are full of love and happiness." Haber has traced the Bachenheimers back to 1722. One ancestral story she heard from a cousin was that when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, two brothers named Halevi fled to Germany. A few generations later, the family changed its name to Bachenheimer and ÃœrÃœlf, and by the end of the 19th century, the family members in Germany numbered in the hundreds. A famous relation at this time was Rabbi Isaak Rulf, who was a professor of theology and attended the first Zionist congress in 1897. Some of the Bachenheimers perished in the Holocaust, but many left Germany before or after the Nazi regime. Haber's maternal grandfather, Kurt Wertheim, whose mother was a Bachenheimer, was a man of means and a volleyball player who was set to play for the German Olympic team in 1932 but had to withdraw due to an injury. By 1936, Wertheim was involved with a Christian girl - contravening the 1935 Nuremberg laws. His salvation came from his involvement in volleyball. One of his teammates was an SS officer who, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, delivered an ultimatum: Leave in two hours or be taken to a Gestapo cellar for investigation. Wertheim snatched all the money he could carry and fled to Luxembourg. There he met his wife, Thea, who was a distant cousin. The couple eventually moved to Israel, first living in Haifa and then Givatayim, where Haber currently lives with her husband and children. Haber's research has unearthed many surprises, the most recent being a Facebook message she received just a few days ago from an 81-year-old cousin she'd been searching for. "He opened an account on Facebook just to reach me!" she exclaimed. Haber home-schools her six-year-old son Jonathan Kurt (named after her grandfather) and three-year-old daughter Danielle Thea (named after her grandmother), and has little time during the day for her research. She often stays awake until the early hours trying to expand her family tree online, but says it's worth it. "I've found a best friend in my Swiss cousin, who also turned out to be the grandson of my grandfather's best friend," she explains. "He initially contacted me about our family and now we e-mail [one another] every day. Haber was not previously interested in genealogy, and now has a tool that "helps me find the descendants of people that my grandparents knew, people who share the same truth I do. I'm using Facebook and trying to unite this family."