Tag Archives: family trees

The Fate of Cousins Who I Never Knew

by William Levine (Belmont, MA)

On July 1, 1941 my mother was a popular 17-year-old girl in the insular world of Atlanta’s Jewish community. No doubt she was looking forward to being pursued by her favorite crushes from Georgia Tech’s Jewish frat in the carefree summer of 1941. Mom had also assimilated enough of Dixie culture to be a true Southern Belle, helped by her enrollment in the prestigious citywide Girls High School. Most likely on July 4th, Mom took in the pyrotechnics show in Atlanta that ushered in the day as a Federal holiday.

On July 1, 1941, my mother’s 2nd through 4th cousins, twice removed, the Seligson family of Riga, Latvia, were doomed as the Nazis occupied Latvia’s capital city and rained down hell on its Jews. The Seligsons also most likely witnessed a fiery display on the 4th of July as fellow Latvians burned down Riga’s Chor Synagogue.

On December 8, 1941 my mom most likely listened to President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech via a handsome radio in her well-appointed living room in the affluent Ansley Park section of Atlanta.

December 8th was also a “day of infamy” for the Seligson family, if they were still alive. On that day they may have been among the thousands of Jews killed by the Nazis in the Rumbula Forest just outside of Riga. If so, their last seconds on earth were spent lying in an open pit atop dead Jews and bracing to be shot in the back of the head. By the end of the day the three generations of Seligsons in Riga were gone, murdered on either November 30th or December 8th 1941.

Mom died in 2006 without knowing that she had relatives who had died in the Holocaust.   Of course, I also did not know either, as I relied on her for family history. We had discussed her family and WW II casualties, and Mom said that a distant cousin in the Navy had been killed in action. But she had no inkling of any Holocaust victims.  In 2016, however, my view of a family luckily unscathed by genocide changed.

I received an e-mail from a reader who had viewed my piece in Family Tree magazine describing how a distant minor-celebrity cousin, the late Bert Parks, had led me to my previously unknown Latvian ancestry via a notation in his Wikipedia page. Cousin Bert, the late host of the Miss America pageant, had not given me an introduction to a beauty wearing a tiara, but rather had given me a something better: a clue to my family’s history.

My token fan, Jan, said that she too was related to Bert Parks, so we might be distant cousins.   Shortly after hearing from her, I learned that Jan was my fifth cousin, a discovery based on her family tree spanning eight generations on my mother’s maternal side. I spent several hours perusing the tree’s numerous branches. It seemed like I was related to half the Jews in Atlanta. But a few perusals later I found that I was also distantly related to eight Seligsons, with the notations by their names: murdered by Nazis or died 1941.  This realization added personal sadness to the horror, outrage and revulsion that I felt when I thought about so many Jews who had been swept up in the evil of the Holocaust and strengthened my need to honor their memory.

My eight Seligson cousins personalize the Holocaust for me. Now that I know about the fate of my Latvian cousins, I am more profoundly saddened and thus more connected to the river of blood that flowed into the death pit outside Riga in the Fall of 1941, where, presumably, an iota of DNA found in the pit would match mine.

But thank goodness there is a counter-balance to the sadness that came with my discovery of the Seligson’s slaughter. It comes with the discovery of hundreds of living relatives (family tree verified) descended from these eight Holocaust victims. As a lucky American, I have the opportunity to make sure that future generations remember my Riga relatives who got caught in a cyclone of hate. This past year at Yad Vashem, I felt writing a check in memory of my relatives who died in the Holocaust was more meaningful than previous perfunctory donations. Next year my pledge will honor all my cousins by name, including my nine year-old cousin, Miriam Seligson (1932-1941).

I now want to visit Riga. Should I get there, I will first visit the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. This museum is laid out within the confines of the Riga ghetto, which was the way station for the Seligsons for five months before they were herded into the pit in the forest to be murdered. Then I would like to go to the Jewish Memorial at Rumbula. This is where the Seligsons’ bodies lie trashed in a pit. I will pay my respects, as well as the respects from my mom, the happy go lucky Georgia girl of 1941.

William Levine is a retired IT professional and an active freelance writer residing in Belmont, MA.  He  has a growing interest in genealogy.


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Filed under American Jewry, Boston Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, German Jewry, Jewish, Jewish identity

Family Feuds

by Cheri Scheff Levitan (Atlanta, GA)

When my father was 15, his father passed away after a long illness. The family – my grandmother, father, and uncle – sat shiva, and extended family members and friends came to pay their respects. Shortly thereafter, as my dad recalls, it seemed as though everyone disappeared and forgot about them. At first, he wondered why his immediate family became the “black sheep” of the larger one. Slowly, but surely, with no answers forthcoming, the clan lost touch. He, in turn, totally put them out of his mind and life. That was over 55 years ago.

I decided to launch an ancestry search two years ago to find those “missing” cousins. I obsessively wondered, where HAD all the cousins gone? Who were they? What had caused them to drift apart? Starting with only a handful of names, and sifting through the databases of ancestry.com, my family tree gradually grew. Throughout the process, I called, networked, emailed, connected via LinkedIn, and “friended” on Facebook dozens of blood-relatives – across generations and family branches – all for the purpose of answering my questions and satisfying my curiosity.

So what did I learn? If we were playing a round of the game show “Family Feud” and had surveyed a hundred people for their responses to the question “What causes family members to stop speaking to each other?”, the top ten answers on the board would reveal:

  1. Death of a parent/inheritance disagreements
  2. Dislike or meddling of spouses
  3. Parental favoritism/sibling rivalries
  4. Educational differences
  5. Religious differences
  6. Political differences
  7. Financial/spending differences
  8. Personal vices (i.e. alcohol or drug abuse)
  9. Career choices
  10. A dark family secret

Unfortunately, these heavy and complex reasons existed and happened in my own family.  And, knowingly or unknowingly, they were passed from generation to generation.

Family feuds are more common and enduring than we realize. Long before the Hatfields and McCoys, the Bible exposed us to some doozies! The book of Genesis, for example, tells about the jealous Cain killing his brother, Abel. Then it moves to Sarah and Hagar, wife and concubine of Abraham, dueling for his affections and battling for their sons’ rightful inheritance. Later, it introduces Jacob and Esau, polar opposites competing for their father’s blessing and birthright. And, from there, Jacob’s family struggles are depicted – conflicts between his wives and between his sons – reading like a soap opera that is complete with rivalries, deceptions, jealousies, and lies. In the majority of these scenarios, conflict resolutions come in the form of the adversaries going separate ways.

I consulted my friend and colleague, Rabbi Lou Feldstein, and asked why the first book of the Bible would share so many examples of flawed people and families right from the get-go.  He simply replied, “If these ‘holy’ families can be so dysfunctional, imagine what our dysfunctional families can achieve.” The patriarchs and matriarchs, with their very human imperfections, suffered from the same relationships challenges that we face today.  But, these trials can be resolved and overcome.

Eighteen months ago, in Boston, my father and I pulled together an impromptu “reunion” of over 30 first and second cousins, between the ages of 60 and 80, most of whom had not seen each other in more than half a century. This past Sunday, he and my mother hosted 5 of his first cousins with spouses in Florida. Between these events, communication between relatives has been ongoing, steady, and positive; new relationships are being formed, and genuine love and affection have bloomed.

My father’s 15-year-old self is gone. His indifference has vanished. His hurts and scars of resentment have healed. His 55-plus years of being disconnected from his family is over. His father, my grandfather, is smiling down upon us and resting in peace.

Cheri Scheff Levitan wrote this piece for her blog, Through Jewish Eyes (http://throughjewisheyes.com), where it first appeared in slightly different form. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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The First REAL Connection!

by Cheri Scheff Levitan (Atlanta, GA)

Filling in bits and pieces of the Sheff Family Tree has become a daily activity. I easily spend an average of 2 hours each weeknight — and goodness knows how much time on the weekends – searching for information and clues about family members.

Late one Friday afternoon, when I should have been preparing Shabbat dinner, I was doing some last minute sleuthing and uncovered the name of another cousin, a Deanne Ruth Sheff. I added her to the tree and, lo and behold, learned that her name appeared in someone else’s family tree, too! Could it be? Is someone else somehow connected to my tree? Is this real live family? I quickly sent an email to “Tree Owner”:

Hi! I think we’re related. Deanna Ruth Sheff’s grandfather was Barnet (Barney) Sheff. He was my great-grandfather’s (Abraham) brother. Deanna and my dad, Stan Scheff, were 2nd cousins. Who are you? Do you know any of the Sheff family history?

Hope to hear from you,

Nervously, I waited for a reply. Mercifully, it came only a few hours later:

I am Kenneth Howard Platter. My mother was Deanna Ruth Sheff. I can provide you with plenty of family history as I am close with my cousin Debra Goodman who knows quite a bit. Our families all grew up together on Lotten Street in Brookline. You can call or e-mail me. So what is your name and where do you live?

I let out a loud “woo hoo!” David, my husband, thought I was crazy. I couldn’t help it. I had finally made a real connection. After months of sifting through records of deceased family members, I would talk to someone who was alive. I was elated! Now I could get somewhere with this project. A cousin of my very own who has information about the family. It was too late to call Ken that very second, but I was thrilled by the thought that we’d speak before the weekend was out.

I had to get it all straight in my mind: Abraham and Barnet were brothers; Grandpa Bill and Samuel were first cousins; Deanna Ruth and Stan (my dad) were second cousins; Ken and I are third cousins. Got it. Crystal clear. But was there anything to learn about Ken before I called him?

I snooped around on the computer looking for birth dates, names of siblings, etc. All of a sudden, a city directory entry showed me a past residence for the Platters. Could this be true? Had the Platter family really lived at 29 Michelle Lane in Randolph? My family had lived at 31 Michelle Lane, directly next door, until the summer of 1968. What are the odds of that? Was I imagining things? Had we been friends? Had we known that we were cousins?

It was time to call my parents to tell them what I’d been up to and get Ken Platter on the phone!


Cheri Scheff Levitan started researching the Sheff Family tree in January 2010. She shares her tale on her blog, Finding Me…a personal journey (http://cslevitan.wordpress.com/), where this excerpt first appeared in slightly different form. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.


Filed under American Jewry, Family history