I hardly thought it was a life-changing question.
We were driving home from a family gathering one evening this past May with my husband’s 95-year-old grandmother, Frieda, a Holocaust survivor from a small town outside Warsaw. I told her I’d been spending a lot of time on genealogy websites, immersed in tracing the trajectories of my immigrant relatives, most of whom—lured by the promise of America—had left Eastern Europe long before World War II. I had always thought Frieda’s family’s story was not as flush with immigrant tales; most of her relatives had stayed in Poland, which is precisely why Frieda had so few relatives. She and her late husband Chaim had survived the war by fleeing to Russia in November of 1939. They spent the next six years doing forced labor under increasingly dismal and treacherous conditions. They were the only members of their immediate families to have lived.
And so I asked Frieda what she had heard about America as a child. Did people talk about wanting to go there?
“I didn’t know very much. We didn’t talk about it,” she said. She shrugged dismissively.
And then, almost as an afterthought, she added: “My mother’s two older sisters went there. She was supposed to go, too, but the First World War broke out.”
My pulse quickened. In the 14 years I had known her, I had heard numerous stories about Frieda’s past recounted in vivid detail. But I couldn’t recall her ever once mentioning two aunts in America. And Frieda wasn’t someone who could afford to have two aunts unaccounted for.
“Mumma!” I said excitedly. “They must have had children and grandchildren here. We can find them! We have to!”
Frieda seemed skeptical. Her mother, Chaya Rojza, had somehow lost touch with her sisters before Frieda was even born; Frieda remembers her crying over the one photograph they’d sent back from America, a formal studio shot in which they wore long black skirts. Find them? It seemed preposterous. She didn’t even know their last names. All Frieda knew was that her aunts once lived in Chicago and that one had a husband named Avram. One aunt, she said, had died of cholera. When Frieda arrived in Baltimore in 1958, she’d tried to track them down using the meager methods at her disposal, to no avail.
It became immediately clear to me that we needed find out absolutely everything we could about what had become of Frieda’s aunts. And we needed to find out as fast as humanly possible.
It took two weeks of intense sleuthing—two frantic, fevered weeks during which I all but ignored everything and everyone else—to get the whole story. I pieced most of it together online, poring over ships’ manifests, census records, old city directories, and Social Security documents. The incredibly generous people of the listserv run by the website Jewishgen.org helped me use what I had found to get a solid bead on the first aunt. And, in a bit of amazing serendipity, I connected with a professional genealogist who had been hired a few years ago to trace a branch of Frieda’s American family; she found an old newspaper clipping that connected all the dots and led me to the second aunt.
Neither woman, it turned out, had ever lived in Chicago or died of cholera, though one did have a husband named Avram. The actual story was both entirely mundane and, for Frieda, far richer. Her Aunts Beile and Henia Ruchel had renamed themselves “Bessie” and “Rachel” in America. They’d lived long, full lives in New England, with six children between them and scores of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
And one Monday evening in June, more than 70 years after the Holocaust claimed both of her parents, her grandfather, all six of her siblings, her in-laws, and an almost inconceivable number of all the aunts, uncles, and cousins she had ever known, we learned the astonishing news: Frieda had three first cousins alive and well, the octogenarian American daughters of her mother’s older sister Bessie.
I set about connecting Frieda with these women, a process both wondrous and strange; unlike some long-lost relatives, they didn’t actually know a single person in common. Bessie and Rachel had shared next to nothing about their lives in Poland—names, details, family stories—that could elicit a satisfying, Lifetime-movie moment of recognition. But the scant details we had all fit. And when a cousin emailed a photograph showing an eerie resemblance between Frieda and her Aunt Bessie, we took solace in what we thought was our only bulls-eye.
Until the night of Frieda’s first call to her 89-year-old cousin, Irene. I sat in Frieda’s apartment with her son Allan, and her daughter Rita—my mother-in-law—all of us craning our necks to listen as the two women talked on speakerphone. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Frieda asked Irene the question weighing most heavily on her: “Did your mother ever talk about her sister, Chaya Rojza?”
My heart sank. The previous two conversations had made clear that this wouldn’t bear fruit. I braced myself for Frieda’s inevitable disappointment that her mother Chaya Rojza Szarfsztejn, murdered so unceremoniously at the Majdanek death camp, would once again be overlooked, lost to history.
We were completely unprepared for what happened next.
“Chaya Rojza? Well, my name is Chaya Rojza,” Irene announced, to the surprise of even her own granddaughter, who was also listening on speakerphone from Irene’s apartment in Massachusetts. “That’s what I was called until I was 10. Then I said, ‘No more of that. My name is Irene Rose.’ ”
Chaya Rojza. Frieda’s eyes fluttered closed. She reached out for me to hold her hands. And we sat silently like that for a moment or two, the past and the present suddenly seamlessly connected.
I thought of a favorite Sharon Olds poem. Upon hearing the news of the death of her first love, Olds writes that she wanted to “close myself like a door/ as you had been shut, closed off, but I could not/ do it, the pain kept coursing through me like/ life, like the gift of life.”
It was the gift of life that coursed through us that day in a senior-living facility in Baltimore, more than a hundred years after two Polish sisters left their entire family behind to start anew in America. It can be almost unbearably brutal, that gift of life. But it is an awe-inspiring gift indeed.
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