“Were you in a concentration camp? No. Were you in hiding? No. Were you in the underground? No. Where did you go after liberation? England.”
Alison O’Callaghan is prompting her father, Simon Phippen, as they complete a form on Sept. 23, 2019, at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national museum of Holocaust commemoration. They are sitting in an office at the museum’s Hall of Names. The hall’s mission is to compile the identities of all Holocaust victims, but that is not what’s going on here. Something stunningly counterintuitive is occurring.
Phippen, an 85-year-old resident of Andover, England, is officially registering himself as being alive. For more than six decades, he’s been listed at Yad Vashem as dead.
He’s changing his registration—bringing himself back to life—in the presence of eight newly found Israeli and American relatives. One is his first cousin, Moni Sana, 87, of Ra’anana. Until two days earlier, the men hadn’t seen one another in more than 75 years, each thinking that the other was killed in the Holocaust in their native Iasi, Romania.
The reunion, and Phippen’s status change, resulted from the efforts of someone else sitting in the Hall of Names: Gemma Brown, Phippen’s granddaughter. More than two decades earlier, Brown began digging into her past, ultimately unearthing more than she could have dreamed. The journey that she unwittingly began is one more reminder that even as Holocaust survivors die off, disappearing from our ranks, their stories—baffling, astonishing, heartbreaking—just keep surfacing.
Gemma Brown, 43, grew up in Ripley and then Kingsclere, England, knowing that she’d been adopted. Twenty years ago, she ordered a birth certificate, necessary for opening a bank account. It arrived with a document containing familiar information about her biological parents: that her mother was 15 and her father was 18 at Brown’s birth. It didn’t include their names or hometown. But the document asked whether Brown wished to contact her biological mother. She did.
A few weeks later, in June 1999, Brown carried her newborn son, Harry, in a car seat to a room in a social-services center to meet Angie Saunders, her biological mother. Saunders was diminutive, with short, blond hair dissimilar from the shoulder-length auburn locks of Brown’s adoptive mother. The women spoke about their lives. They went outside to smoke. “It was very odd,” Brown said. “I’d played out that scenario in my head so many times over the years, and now it was happening.”
Saunders’ father is Phippen. When Saunders became pregnant at 15, her immigrant father, raising five other children, forced her to give up the baby for adoption.
Brown was taken with her new relationship to her birth mother. Until returning to work when Harry was 8 months old, Brown visited Saunders every week. Back then, angry with her grandfather for forcing her adoption, she refused to meet Phippen. Eventually, she relented, and they met. And over the years, Brown has become close with her biological family.
At first, Brown learned about her grandfather what her birth mother knew: that he had for years insisted to his family that he was born in England (despite traces of a foreign accent), only later admitting that he was from Romania. And then, in 2008, Saunders called Brown, the daughter she’d given up for adoption, to say that she’d learned that her father, Phippen, was Jewish. Saunders was Jewish, on her father’s side, so Brown was part Jewish, too.
Brown was intrigued, and she wanted to know more. She joined a Facebook page of Jews with roots in Romania. She joined JewishGen.org, a genealogical-research group. On Yad Vashem’s website, she found a short form called a Page of Testimony, submitted on Nov, 22, 1956, by a Tel Aviv resident named Zvi Luchinitzer. A Holocaust survivor and Phippen’s uncle, Luchinitzer had listed Simon among four members of the Mairovitz family he assumed were killed in 1941 in Iasi. Brown searched for Luchinitzer, but couldn’t locate him or any descendants. After the Luchinitzer dead end—unbeknownst to her, Zvi’s sons changed their surname to Almog—Brown stopped researching.
But she couldn’t keep away. Last spring, she resumed the search, typing Luchinitzer on Facebook. She found this brief 2011 post by Carol Ritter Elbaz, a Houston resident: “I am looking for anyone of the Luchinitzer, Shachman, Sahna, Sana last name from Iasi.” Brown sent a Facebook message to Ritter Elbaz.
Ritter Elbaz’s mother, Cecile, had often spoken about wanting to find the family of her sister Sura, Simon’s mother. On March 30, 1970, Cecile had mailed a letter from her home in Houston to the American Embassy in London, asking for diplomats’ assistance in locating them. She wrote that they’d likely have gone in 1945 or 1946 from Romania to England, the homeland of Simon’s father, Moshe. The embassy responded that they weren’t found.
After Cecile’s death, Ritter Elbaz researched occasionally. On June 6, 2019, she received Brown’s message. She reacted cautiously, wanting to discern what Brown knew—lots, it turned out. “I’m not finding it easy to piece things together with all the different spellings and the limited information that my grandfather can share, but I’m almost certain that this all fits together,” Brown wrote to Ritter Elbaz. “My heart is racing. I’m just trying to do as much as I can to find [Phippen] some answers whilst he is still with us. I think he would be happy to know that other members of the family survived, as I think he feels guilty.”
“Oh, my goodness,” Ritter Elbaz responded. “I’m feeling very overwhelmed right now. I am trying to process all of this.”
Ritter Elbaz sent a photograph of her maternal grandmother, Etti, the sister of Simon’s mother. None of the Britons had seen an image of her. Brown felt that Etti resembled Simon’s sister Betty, who’d moved to England with him after WWII. Another time, Brown saw a photo of Moni. He looked like Simon. There’s no doubt, she thought: The Israelis and the Americans were kin. Brown muted her conference call and bawled.
She emailed O’Callaghan, her aunt, whom she had met after connecting with her birth mother. “Wow,” she wrote. “We’ve done it.”
Brown, O’Callaghan, and Moni’s daughter in Atlanta, Carmela Ofer, took DNA tests. The tests confirmed their being related. In late July, Brown, two aunts and an uncle visited Phippen. “I’ve been carrying on family research,” Brown said. “Do you want to know what we’ve found?”
“Yes,” Phippen responded.
She revealed the news and showed him pictures of their “new” relatives.
During the Holocaust, the extended clan was “split up, and no one was able to find each other” afterward, said Luchinitzer’s grandson, and thus Simon’s cousin once removed, Raz Almog, a resident of the coastal city of Ashdod. “They were a close-knit family.”
Luchinitzer, who’d moved to Israel after WWII and died in 2006 at age 93, reasonably concluded that his sister Sura, her son Simon, and her daughters Yetti and Betty were killed. Moni knew that at one point, Sura placed Simon in an orphanage, left Betty with an aunt, and took Yetti to visit her mother, Dora, in their native Mogilev-Podolskiy, Ukraine, about 120 miles north of Iasi. Moni remembered going with Betty to visit Simon at the orphanage and playing with him there. But he didn’t know where Moshe was then or whether he survived the war. Nor was he aware of what Brown discovered online: that Dora, Sura and Yetti were deported in the summer of 1941 to the Rautel internment camp before their tracks vanished.
Moni had no idea that Simon and Betty survived the Holocaust. By virtue of Moshe’s citizenship in England, they had been sent there by Anthony Colin Kendall, a British colonel based in Bucharest as a consul during the war. Simon began his new life in a succession of four foster homes, culminating with the Phippens in Rhondda, Wales. As a recruit in the Royal Air Force, he was bullied for his Jewish surname, so he changed it to Phippen.
“My dear, dear children,” Kendall began in a letter he sent to Simon and Betty on Feb. 10, 1953, responding to Simon’s letter about his RAF training. Kendall expressed happiness at the siblings having loving foster parents “to replace the ones taken from you.” He continued: “I have prayed for you continuously. God bless you both.”
Simon would build a good life in England. He spent his career working in a civilian role as a teleprint operator, handling cryptographic messages for the RAF and the Ministry of Defence. Along with his children, he has 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
He buried his Jewish identity, but not completely. Nearly a decade ago, he visited Iasi. O’Callaghan and one of her sisters, Tracy-Jane, had already visited the city, including the synagogue and Jewish cemetery. The rabbi introduced them to congregants, who that day were commemorating the anniversary of the city’s notorious June 29, 1941, pogrom.
The sisters also went to Pantelimon Street, where Simon grew up. They entered the building the orphanage once occupied, where Simon later lived. As it happened, Ritter Elbaz and Cecile had visited Iasi with Moni and his family in 1971. They, too, went to their ancestral synagogue, the cemetery and the childhood home of Moni and Cecile.
Every survivor possesses an extraordinary tale. Simon doesn’t really know his tale, or at least he never discussed his experiences when his children asked. O’Callaghan thinks that he blocked out his memories, after losing his parents and sister and home as a youngster. He doesn’t remember his upbringing or the Romanian orphanage or Moni and Betty visiting him there. Recently, he told O’Callaghan that he might remember enduring the 1941 pogrom, even seeing his father killed there. O’Callaghan is skeptical.
Approximately 750,000 Jews lived in Romania in 1939; fewer than half survived the war, even though the Germans didn’t occupy the country. Alexander Avram, the Hall of Names’ director, explained in a telephone interview that most Jews were killed by fellow Romanians in pogroms and shootings, and by starvation, diseases and cold in ghettos after being deported to Transnistria. Approximately 6,000 Romanian Jews, he said, died of heatstroke in the summer 1941 deportations known as “death trains” following the Iasi pogrom.
Luchinitzer survived after being thrown from such a train.
In a Tel Aviv hotel room, 36 hours before the Yad Vashem visit, Moni and his cousin Simon embraced at first sight. They sat down side-by-side on comforter chairs, with their families sobbing and filming and watching. They began catching up on their lives and their roots. “It is lovely to see the two of you together,” O’Callaghan told the elderly men that night.
Now, at Yad Vashem at the beginning of the family’s visit, Brown tearfully embraces Almog, her second cousin once removed. Almog hadn’t been at the hotel gathering. Brown only releases him after 30 seconds. She tells him that the trail leading to this day began with his grandfather’s Page of Testimony.
“You feel the connection, the past, the electricity, knowing we have roots that intertwine,” Almog tells a reporter observing the scene.
A guide leads the family to the exhibit on Iasi and then to the Hall of Names, whose dome is lined with photographs of European Jews in better times.
Coming to the museum was significant because the Holocaust is part of “our history,” O’Callaghan says as they leave Yad Vashem. “We didn’t grow up with it. This is where you can freely speak about it,” she says. “We were raised with no conversation about this. Now, we’re here with the extended family and it’s OK to talk about it.”
Speaking in early November of the visit, Simon admits to still feeling “overwhelmed” at meeting relatives he’d been cut off from for more than three-quarters of a century. “It meant a lot to me, because I’d always been led to believe that no one from my family was still alive,” he says. “For someone to remember that we used to play together—I didn’t know that. I was excited and saddened, after all these years, to meet someone like Moni, who remembered all these things from when we were two little boys.”
Simon’s mother’s picture has long hung in his bedroom, but until that first night in Tel Aviv, Simon didn’t know what his father looked like. He couldn’t even conjure an image. Moni gave him a photograph showing Simon’s parents together. Simon was stunned to see his father’s face. Moni’s wife, Ani, told him that Moshe was deaf and mute. Simon had no idea.
Brown, like the others, is grappling with her new reality. Years ago, thinking of her grandfather’s difficult childhood, his series of parents and his expelling her from the family through adoption, Brown told Phippen, “You should have known better.” After that, she let the matter drop. “I’m not bitter,” she says. “He absolutely made the right decision … I’m glad with who I am today.”
Part of that identity is being Jewish. Brown’s blond hair and blue eyes are typically Aryan, “yet I’ve got Jewish blood in my veins, so how fucked up is that?” she says. “It makes me increasingly angry that the whole ethos of the Nazi campaign was this idea, but I’m also this thing [the Nazis] wanted to eradicate.”
In Jaffa, she bought Star of David necklaces and bracelets for herself, Harry, and her partner, Steven. A blue-beaded hamsa, a hand-like Jewish good-luck charm, now hangs inside their front door.
“I’m embracing it,” she says. “It’s who we are.”
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Hillel Kuttler, a writer and editor, can be reached at [email protected]