1st cousins separated by Shoah meet for first time

“I was looking for info about dead people, and instead I found a live relative,” said Liora Tamir after meeting cousin Aryeh Shikler.

liora tamir and aryeh shikler_311 (photo credit: (Isaac Harari/Yad Vashem))
liora tamir and aryeh shikler_311
(photo credit: (Isaac Harari/Yad Vashem))
Almost 70 years after their grandparents were murdered by the Nazis in Poland, first cousins Liora Tamir and Aryeh Shikler met for the first time Thursday. Yad Vashem’s methodical records and the Internet, the first address for amateur genealogists, brought the two together in a Facebook-facilitated get-together at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Tamir was born in Vorkuta in the Soviet Union in 1946, her mother having been imprisoned in a gulag due to her political beliefs. Tamir’s mother, Yona, promised her that when she turned 15, she would reveal the family’s story to her. But Yona Shapira died when Tamir was only 12, leaving her an orphan with no clue as to her family’s heritage.
Tamir spent the rest of her youth in an orphans’ home in Leningrad and believed that she was alone in the world.
“Excitement doesn’t even describe what I felt,” said Tamir hours after the meeting Thursday. “I felt that I had gone to another space, where I am not alone. I understand that I need to get used to thinking of myself as part of something: Before, I had my children, but now there is an entire family.”
The process began earlier this year, when Tamir discovered a Soviet-era document concerning her mother.
“I typed my mother’s name on an Internet search in Russian,” recalled Tamir. “Suddenly I saw her name appear – I felt shivers, I felt uncomfortable. I saw where she was born and where she was sent to a forced-labor camp. The link was for a memorial in Moscow to people who were in a gulag.”
Following up on the lead, Tamir requested – and received – Soviet archival documents that included the names of Yona Shapira’s parents, Naftali Hertz and Golda Shapira, as well as their place of residence. They also confirmed that Shapira had been in Palestine, and that she had been expelled by the British.
Tamir’s daughter, Ilana, suggested that if Yona Shapira’s parents were still living in the Galicia region of Poland at the time of the Holocaust, there could be records available regarding their fate. One visit to the Yad Vashem database provided the mother-daughter genealogy team with an answer: the two were killed in the Holocaust but their son – Yona Shapira’s brother – had settled in Haifa.
In 1956, Simcha Shikler – Shapira’s son – had submitted pages of testimony for both parents. Shikler, it turned out, had followed his sister to Palestine, but fearing that he, too, would be deported, he changed his last name to his mother’s maiden name, Shikler.
Ilana tracked down Shikler’s son Aryeh, and also found his granddaughter Limor Ganot via Facebook.
Facing for the first time the possibility that not only was she not her family’s sole survivor, but that her first cousin might be alive and living in Haifa, Liora contacted Shikler.
Shikler confirmed that his aunt, the daughter of Golda and Hertz Shapira, had been in Israel before the war, and that she had been a communist activist. He, too, had no idea that his aunt’s daughter was alive and living in Israel.
Cynthia Wroclawski, manager of the Shoah Victims’ Name Recovery Project, was happy to host the meeting held between the two families on Thursday.
“Without that page that was submitted to Yad Vashem in 1956, this never would have happened,” said Wroclawski.
The Shoah Victims’ Name Recovery Project is one of the institution’s flagship projects and was started shortly after the establishment of Israel.
“What is unique about these pages is that on the bottom is a place for people to write the names of those who survived, a format that enables these sort of reunions.”
Wroclawski acknowledged that even with the information, it is rare that there are reunions of such close family members. There have been, she said, rare instances of siblings reuniting, although such meetings are becoming even less probable as the years go by.
“I was looking for information about dead people, and instead I found a live relative,” Tamir told Wroclawski.
The database of Shoah victims’ names now includes over 4 million people, and Yad Vashem researchers are working hard to find the names of the remaining 2 million Jewish victims. The database was first put online in 2004, with fewer than 3 million names – and has since grown to its current size.
“There is still a lot of work to be done,” said Wroclawski. “There are those who still find it difficult, or second- and third- generations who feel that they do not have enough information to fill out the forms. But we are still trying to encourage everyone to make the information that they have available, so that future generations will also have this resource.”
The database is accessible in Hebrew, Russian and English, and Yad Vashem has recently concentrated efforts in the former Soviet Union and among Russian speakers.
Many of the missing victims’ names are those of people killed in the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, code-named Operation Barbarossa. In those early years, mobile killing squads known as Einsatzgruppen massacred Jews in occupied towns. As a result, no deportation or ghetto records exist for entire communities that in some cases were literally eliminated overnight.
Anyone interested in submitting names of Holocaust victims can contact Yad Vashem at (02) 644-3808. English-speaking volunteers are available to help in documenting family members.