Tag Archives: genealogy

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

Exploring “Emotional Genealogy”

What is “emotional genealogy” and how does it differ from traditional genealogy?

Award-winning travel journalist Judith Fein describes “emotional genealogy” as a combination of a family’s history and the behavior of family members who have created that history.

An acclaimed speaker and workshop leader, Fein is the author of Life Is A Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel and the just-released The Spoon From Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands. (If you’d like to read an excerpt  from The Spoon From Minkowitz, click here: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/minkowitz-and-me/)

She was kind enough to share some thoughts on “emotional genealogy” with readers of The Jewish Writing Project:

JWP: How did you first come upon the idea of emotional genealogy?

Fein: I noticed that when I saw names and dates on my family tree, I fell asleep under the branches. I so admire people who do genealogical research, but I realized that I am definitely not one of them. On the other hand, whenever my parents or relatives related the slightest crumb of family stories, I became ravenously hungry.  “Hmm,” I thought. “What do you call it if you are mesmerized by the tales of those who came before you? Emotional genealogy. It seemed to fit.

JWP: What is emotional genealogy?

Fein: It is not only the stories that are told and have been handed down, but it is also the family behavior patterns that are transmitted. There are positive behaviors–like optimism, the thirst for social justice, kindness, an artistic or musical bent–but also the dark ones like rage, violence, lying, addiction, stonewalling silence.

JWP: What if I don’t know anything about my ancestors?

Fein: There is always a snippet of information or a piece of a story. Even the most minor details are pieces of the puzzle. If you have older relatives who are living, they are a prime source. If you have cousins, they may have some stories. As a child, you certainly observed behaviors of your relatives. Do you see them in yourself?

JWP: What if no one in my family knows or wants to talk about them?

Fein: Then you go to Plan B, which involves research or using your intuition. Are you particularly drawn to a certain country? You may have had ancestors there, even without knowing for sure. Are you attracted to certain types of people? Well, you may have an ancestral connection. Your own intelligence, creativity and intuitive instincts are sources of a different kind of information.

JWP: What did you gain from approaching your genealogy search in this way?

Fein: First, by learning the stories, I feel that I have roots in a very rootless world. They give me a sense of meaning and purpose. That is why I wrote my book, The Spoon From Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands.

Second, I have understood the behavior patterns in my family–especially the toxic ones. I have seen how negative traits are passed down from one generation to another. And I have vowed that the buck stops with me. As someone recently told me, “If you don’t transform it, you transmit it.”

JWP: Thank you, Judith. Good luck with your explorations!

If you’re interested in exploring your own emotional genealogy, visit Judith Fein’s website for more information: www.emotionalgenealogy.org.

And if you’re interested in hearing her speak, click on this link to hear her inspiring TED talk on the beauty of travel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GErjagMyrYk&feature=youtu.be

You can view more of her work at her website: http://globaladventure.us

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Minkowitz and Me

by Judith Fein (Santa Fe, NM)

When I was 10 years old, while other girls were playing with dolls, I was obsessed with the shtetl, or village, my grandmother came from. I begged my parents to take me to Brooklyn, so I could sit next to her, feel the softness of her skin, and ask her about her village in Russia.

My grandmother was not forthcoming. Nor did she know exactly where her shtetl was located because it was an isolated village, and the only time she ventured any real distance from it was to come to the United States when she was 17.

“Grandma, where do you come from?” I would ask.


“What was it like?”


The less she said, the more my imagination went wild, conjuring up images of a dark, mysterious place in Russia with sinewy alleys. I was awed that my grandmother, the woman who was my mother’s mother and called me “mamaleh,” lived in such a place and knew its secrets.

“Please, Gram, tell me.”

“It’s better to forget about it.”

She never spontaneously talked about Minkowitz, and I never gave up questioning her or trying to find out about her life before she came to America, before I knew her. Who was she before she was my grandmother?

“Tell me what you ate there, Gram.”


“Where did you buy it?”

“There was a market once a week, on Tuesdays. We had beans, potatoes, beets, corn….” her voice trailed off. She went into the kitchen to stir the chicken soup, and I watched the yellow chicken legs float to the surface and then disappear.

“Are you hungry, mamaleh?” she asked.

When I nodded, she opened the refrigerator and took out a jar full of schmaltz—rendered chicken fat—that was speckled with burnt onions. She spread half an inch of schmaltz on a piece of rye bread, and handed it to me.

“Did you eat schmaltz in Minkowitz?”

She nodded yes. I took a huge bite of bread, relishing the schmaltz, because it linked me to my grandmother’s village.

I was never very interested in religion, but I loved everything about my grandmother’s culture: the Yiddish newspaper that was folded up on an overstuffed, upholstered armchair in the living room; the front parlor, where I slept, and which looked out over the street; the pantry closet which smelled vaguely from matza. Most of all, I loved that she came from Minkowitz. It sounded so exotic. It was somewhere across the ocean, in a vast country called Russia. She wasn’t born in America, like I was. She came from a mysterious place and she was a foreigner with secrets. I felt about her the way the ancients must have felt about travelers who arrived in their midst; they wanted to hear stories, to learn about how people lived in faraway lands. The slightest details that my grandmother divulged about Minkowitz became indelibly imprinted on my brain.

“Gram, did you go to school?”

“No, mamasheyna.”

“Why not, Gram?”

“We weren’t allowed to.”

“Why couldn’t you go to school?”

I was like a little prosecuting attorney, and my grandmother softened on the witness stand. She got a faraway look in her eyes.

“I stood at the bottom of the hill, looking up at the school where the Russian girls studied. They wore blue uniforms. I wanted to be educated like them.”

“But you couldn’t….?”

She shook her head no. I wrote down everything she told me, and thought about it until the next time I saw her. Then I started asking questions again.

“If you didn’t go to school, what did you do all day in Minkowitz?”

“When I was 10 years old, like you are now, I was working.”

“What kind of work?”

“I dried tobacco leaves in the field with the women.”

I had never seen a tobacco leaf. Why did they need to be dried? I wrote down what my grandmother told me, and mulled it over until our next conversation. My mother said I was making my grandmother crazy. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I loved my grandmother. I was just asking her about her childhood.

“Tell me about your house, Gram. What did it look like?”

“The floor was made from goat dreck.”

Goat shit for a floor. Were there clumps of dung? Who spread them out? Did they stink? What happened if you walked on the floor with bare feet? I clung to each tidbit, marinating it in my mind and imagination, repeating it to myself as though my life depended upon my remembering it.

On one visit, I was playing with cans of food in my grandmother’s hall closet, stacking them, and unstacking them, using them like big tin Legos. She walked by and patted me affectionately on the shoulder.

“Where in Russia was Minkowitz, Gram? Do you know the name of the biggest city in the area?”

Oy. Always Minkowitz. The biggest city was Kamenetz Podolsk.”

Again, I wrote down every word she said. I thought I was getting ancestral gems, but later, when I looked at the content, it was paltry indeed. No stories. No slice of life anecdotes. Just six facts about my grandmother’s life in Minkowitz. That was it. The weekly market was on Tuesday. When she was 10 years old, she dried tobacco leaves with the women. She lived at the bottom of a hill. The Russian girls went to school on top of the hill. The floor of the house was made of goat dung.  Kamenetz Podolsk was the big town. I repeated the scant facts over and over, clinging to them, imagining what they looked like, felt like, smelled like. It was so vivid that I felt as though I had lived in Minkowitz too.

I knew that in Minkowitz they spoke Yiddish. I started trying to imitate the sounds of the language since I couldn’t speak it. Instead, I invented a sort of fake Yiddish. I would call my grandmother, and, when she answered the phone, I would cheerfully ask, “Grandma, vus habastups-du?”

“Judie,” she would say sadly, “I don’t understand your Eedish.” That’s how she pronounced it: “Eedish.”

The next time I called, I greeted her with the bogus, “Grandma, hoison boisin galempt.”

“Judie, I’m sorry. I just can’t understand your Eedish.”

When I was 19, bedridden with mononucleosis and hepatitis, I didn’t have the energy to roll over or kick the covers off when it got too hot. My grandmother got on a train in Brooklyn, which was unusual for her, and came to see me in Queens. She sat next to my bed, on a folding chair, and informed me that she finally figured out why she didn’t understand my Yiddish. “Because you go to college and you speak a very educated Eedish.” If I had had the energy, I would have leapt out of bed and hugged her.

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has written for more than 100 publications. An acclaimed speaker and workshop leader, she is also the author of Life Is A Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel and the just-released The Spoon From Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands, from which this piece is excerpted and reprinted with the kind permission of the author. Her website is http://www.GlobalAdventure.us


Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, Jewish writing

An Unexpected Discovery

by Laurie Rappeport (Safed, Israel)

Several years ago I became involved in guiding a group of students who were studying the history of the American Jewish Experience through music. The kids were examining Jewish America of the 21st century.

Toward this end they explored the traditional liturgy and music of successive waves of immigrants who made their way to America’s shores over the past 400 years. It was probably one of the most interesting subjects that I’ve ever tackled with a group of students.

The project first brought me into contact with the Milken Archives of American Jewish Music, which provided the students with a significant percentage of our research material. Much of the Milken material relates to the first Jewish immigrants who arrived in South Carolina from Brazil in the mid-1600s. These people were refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions and, after fleeing to South America, were forced to run again when the Inquisition reached South America.

The students had a wonderful time and I put the experience in the back of my mind until recently when I suddenly discovered that the history of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain and forced to wander the world, looking for sanctuary, was, in fact, my own history.

Until that time, as far as I knew, I was a bona fide gefilte fish and kreplach Jew with roots in Poland, Belerus and Lithuania. However, it turns out that one of my grandfathers, who hailed from England, was the descendent of Dutch Jews who were almost certainly of Spanish origin.

In 2008 I received an email from a man in New Zealand. Geoff had been born in Birmingham England and immigrated to New Zealand in the ’50s with his father and brother. However, recent documents had come to light that indicated that Geoff had, in fact, been adopted, and that his biological father had been Jewish.

In following through the family history that my family knew, as well as the history that Geoff had been able to determine, we were able to ascertain that Geoff and my mother were second cousins. A subsequent DNA test with my mother’s brother confirmed the relationship.

Throughout the following year Geoff showed great interest in his Jewish ancestry. Still living in New Zealand, he read voraciously about Judaism and Israel and contacted me on Skype several times a week to find out my take on the things that he was reading. In 2009 Geoff and his wife, Jenny, came to Israel to meet the family and attend my son’s wedding.

Geoff and Jenny continued to research our family’s history but they were also fascinated by Judaism. They returned to Israel the following year to celebrate Rosh Hashana with us and in February 2011, under Israel’s Law of Return, made aliyah. To say that no one was more surprised than I was is an understatement!

Geoff and Jenny joined an ulpan course to learn Hebrew and completed a formal conversion program in February 2012 with a giur and a Jewish wedding celebration as a new Jewish couple. The story of their return to Judaism was featured as a Friday spread in Israel’s largest newspaper. They bought a home and now live a 20-minute walk from my house in Safed in northern Israel.

Geoff has continued to explore our common genealogy and discovered a number of interesting details of our family’s life in England. The majority of England’s Jews are, like America’s Jews, descended from Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (One interesting note: many of these immigrants had intended to make their way to America but, when the ships docked on the eastern shore of Scotland or England, were tricked by the sea captains into thinking that they had arrived in America and never completed the train ride that would have taken them to the western shore and their second boat to America.)

What Geoff discovered was that, in at least two lines of our family, our lineage can be traced back to Dutch Jews who were welcomed to England by Oliver Cromwell in the late 1600s. (Jews were expelled from England in 1266 and were not allowed back into the country until Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, invited them to return.)  The majority of the Jews in Amsterdam during that period were descendants of Jews who had fled Spain in 1492.

Suddenly, my students’ project took on a whole new meaning as I realized that the art, music, traditions and customs of the Mediterranean and Sephardic world comprised my own heritage as well.

There’s still much left to determine about our family’s history, but access to the increasing availability of both English and Dutch records may open the door to new discoveries. One far-flung cousin was able to find her ancestor’s ketubah in Italy while another break-away branch of the family has been located in Australia and New Zealand. It turns out that one of their descendants lives up the road from me in the Golan Heights!

In the meantime, Geoff and Jenny have become core members of our local synagogue. (Geoff arrives every Shabbat morning at 8:00 am. I told him that, in my entire life, I’d never made it to shul before 10:00 am.) Their latest project is wine-making, which they undertook so that, when they spend time in Italy (which they do every summer), they’ll have plenty of kosher wine.

Laurie Rappeport is originally from Detroit. She is an online educator who works with Jewish day school and afternoon school students to teach them about Judaism and Israel. She frequently uses the Milken Archives as a resource for historical studies about Judaism. 

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Filed under European Jewry, Family history, Israel Jewry, Jewish identity

Memories Lost and Found

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

The stamp of German Jewish culture left its imprint on me as a child growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s. My nanas, papas, and tantes spoke German and Yiddish and served kuchen instead of cookies. They dressed up a lot more than ordinary Americans and seemed very refined. They were still immigrants in a new country whose dependence on each other deepened the bonds within our extended family.

Decades later as an adult living in California and Montana, there were only rare moments to connect with my cultural heritage. I often tried to reach back and touch the memories from my childhood, to bring them closer and feel their presence in my daily life. But how could I grasp these vague shapes from the past as they receded further into the distance? My memories were no longer solid or extensive enough to offer more than a footnote to my identity. I was floating through life in the vast ocean that is America without an anchor, without a strong enough sense of home.

Most of my relatives who were born in Germany are gone now, so the only way to reclaim my past was to come back to the land from which they fled. I took this step two years ago and have wandered since then without a map or plan into the rooms of a place that is both new and familiar. The events that my parents closed the door on are here for me to discover and the memories from my childhood seem closer at hand. I’ve picked up the thread of family history that was broken in 1938 and am stitching it back into the fabric of a changed Germany.

Like a time traveler, I have stepped into the past and present, trying to understand the extent to which Germany lays a claim on me. I’ve opened myself to the pain of a genocide that cannot be understood and the joys of finding my place in the vibrant landscape of Jewish life in Berlin. I came here to experience the culture that captivated my senses as a child, but I never expected to find anything that would shed light on my own family history. I never suspected that my family kept secrets.

When my father’s family closed the door on their homeland, they locked my great-aunt Meta into a past that would remain hidden from the next generation. Meta was the Holocaust victim who my family never spoke about. My father was eight when he left Germany so he would have remembered Meta. But he inherited the silence of his parents, and chose not to share the story of his aunt who was left behind.

My father only wanted his two daughters to hear about how the family escaped to America, struggled as poor immigrants, and successfully pursued the American dream. He protected us from having to grieve over a loss that he had no control over. But the descendants of those who escaped and survived should not be spared from knowledge or grief; we have a collective responsibility to learn our stories and remember them.

It would have been easier not to dig up the past, to put aside my determination to fill in the gap in my family history. I could have avoided the awkward discussions with my aunt, the charges of tainted motives from one of my cousins, and the countless hours spent searching for records that had been destroyed. But the injustice of a lost memory loomed so much larger than the tensions caused by confronting my family’s silence.

More than seven decades of silence about a forgotten Holocaust victim have now ended. On July 2, 2012 we placed a stolperstein for Meta in front of the former Adler residence in Altwiedermus. We restored Meta to her place in our family and her village. This small stone is tangible evidence of a lost life; like a gravestone it marks a place to honor the dead. Meta’s stone is a permanent link to the past for our family and a town that has had no Jewish population since 1938.

Meta’s memorial ceremony was the culmination of more than a year of effort to reconcile an omission in my family history. I did not come to Germany to be a family researcher or Holocaust historian. I never expected to experience the kind of pain and grief that I felt about Meta. But my need to account for the past placed me on the path of a single victim, and brought a depth of sorrow that I had been shielded from as the daughter of German Jewish parents.

As I stood on the steps of my father’s childhood home before the small crowd gathered on a rainy Monday morning for Meta’s memorial ceremony, I could barely retain the composure necessary to speak for Meta. But with the support of my sister and my son, who raised the money for Meta’s stolperstein as part of his bar mtizvah in Berlin, I gave voice to the life of a woman who was forgotten. This is one of the most powerful things I have ever done in my life.

I’ve made other discoveries about my family since coming to Germany, discoveries from the lost and found of a land that holds many fragments of a dark past. Each discovery strengthens my sense of self and helps me to find my footing as a Jewish woman in Germany today. I don’t want to lose myself in the past, but to touch and preserve a part of what was left behind, to carry the reclaimed memories with me into the future. I feel more free to live in the present now and ready to fill the pages of a new chapter in my family’s German Jewish history.

Donna Swarthout writes about being Jewish in Germany on her blog Full Circle http://dswartho.wordpress.com/. Her recent work has appeared on The Jewish Writing Project and in Tablet Magazine. This piece first appeared on AVIVA-Berlin.de and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the publisher and author. To read Swarthout’s earlier piece about her great-aunt Meta, visit:  https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/metas-untold-story/

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Filed under American Jewry, German Jewry, Jewish identity

Meta’s Untold Story

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

The few stories that were passed down to my sister and I were about survival, escape, new beginnings in America. These stories always drew a clear line between the tragic background of the Holocaust and the fate of our family. We never knew. No one told us. My grandfather’s sister, my great aunt Meta Adler, was left behind. Five siblings escaped to the U.S., Israel, and South Africa. Meta vanished from sight and memory.

No one in our family kept Meta ’s memory alive. We have to look back and construct a memory of her life. So we can keep her with us. Some people discover a living relative who they never knew about, a sibling who was given up for adoption or a parent who was long absent. We discovered Meta, an unwed country woman who worked as a maid and failed to pass the U.S. immigration examination because she was too shy or scared to answer the questions.

The silence was broken last year on a sunny April afternoon in Altwiedermus, the village where Meta and the rest of my father’s family trace their roots. We had traveled to the rural enclave, forty-five kilometers northeast of Frankfurt, to see the old Adler house and meet with Gisele, the woman who had spent years researching the fate of the twenty-seven Jewish residents of the village in 1933. I had almost canceled the trip due to a sense of unease about what might lie ahead. Instead, we drove into the past and the vague contours of my German Jewish family history were abruptly reshaped in a darker hue.

It was Gisele, someone I had just met, who told us about Meta as we sat at her dining room table and thumbed through an enormous album of her historical notes, photos, and clippings. Meta stared at us from the past with a direct gaze that ended the decades of erasure from our family tree. As Gisele patiently related further details about the thirteen Jews who perished, I was too stunned to concentrate and can’t recall much of what she said.

How could I not have known about Meta ? Was I told about her as a child, but the story hadn’t lodged in my memory beside the other vignettes with the happy endings that were passed down to me? In the following months I queried key family members about our family history narrative. It was through these conversations that I slowly became aware of the collective family silence about Meta. This knowledge brought deep sorrow, but there would be ample time to grieve for Meta. I felt a much more urgent need to honor her memory and restore her to our family.

That fall I met a Jewish woman whose family had fled to the U.S. even later than mine. “It was because my grandfather would not leave until all family members had permission to emigrate,” she said. “Not my grandfather,” I had to tell her. The silence about Meta was a thin cover for the guilt that must have haunted my grandparents. Couldn’t they have done more to help her escape?

Reclaiming Meta ’s place in our family has not been easy. Only the faintest traces of her life have survived. Many people in Germany, from government archivists to self-designated Holocaust historians like Gisele, have shared clues about her fate. Months of research after our trip to Altwiedermus yielded little more than a set of financial records that the Nazis used to assess whether she could keep her meager Reichsmarks earnings. The trail runs cold on a bare sheet of paper dated May 9, 1942, four years after my father’s family fled to the U.S. The document notes that she was “evakuiert.”

Nine hundred and thirty-eight people were deported from Frankfurt on May 8, 1942. The records from this transport were destroyed, but Meta was likely among the deportees. We think they went east, possibly to the Izbica concentration camp in Poland. The date and location of her death are among many of the unknowns in her story.

The German government has placed Meta’s name among the Holocaust victims at two memorial sites in Frankfurt. Our family of survivors has so far done nothing. My father and his sister inherited the silence of their parents. They had a living memory of Meta, but could not reach back to embrace her. It is left to the “second generation” to look back from a greater distance and tell her story. My move to Germany in 2010 was the first step that made this possible.

My aunt has now broken her silence about Meta and supports our efforts to reclaim her memory. She remembers Meta as a woman in the shadows, perhaps someone who lacked a valued place in the family even before they left Germany. She also recalls that my grandfather, Meta’s brother, left the problem of what to do about Meta to my grandmother.

As a child I yearned to know more about my parents’ lives in Germany and the events surrounding their escape. Decades later I’ve uncovered a hidden truth about my family history: we closed the door on someone we lost. I will now pass down to my children a different Holocaust story than the one I heard as a child. Our efforts to confront the past, while living as Jews in Germany today, have become a new chapter in our family narrative.

This summer we will lay a stolperstein (brass stumbling stone) in the ground for Meta Adler. So she can be remembered, in the village of her birth and within our family. Meta’s stone will join the thousands of cobblestone memorials to individual Holocaust victims throughout Germany.

Donna Swarthout writes about being Jewish in Germany on her blog Full Circle http://dswartho.wordpress.com/. Her recent work has appeared on The Jewish Writing Project and in Tablet Magazine.


Filed under German Jewry, Jewish identity

In Search of a Baal Shem

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove,PA)

I never heard her call him the “Baal Shem of Michelstadt.”

Instead my grandmother spoke of “Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser” as a “Wundermann,” a miracle-worker.

My first real memory of him is connected to a beam of bright sunshine falling into her parlor window, setting off her “good” blue-and-white Wedgewood dishes glistening on the table. She was feeding me a mid-day meal along with telling me about the famous man.

I was not in her parlor frequently for my parents and I lived in another city and we did not see her often. Even  rarer was the chance of hearing my Oma tell me stories.

Tiny sun motes floated about the room that day as she spoke to me of the rebbe’s wisdom, his kindness and his strong religious faith.

“Both Jews and Gentiles in the small town of Michelstadt south of Frankfurt benefited  from his remarkable skills. Many a person depressed by business or health problems found the Rebbe’s calm, serene manner and his gift for active listening eased his troubles, perhaps even solved them. And when a healed  visitor walked out of Seckel Loeb’s door, it was always with renewed self-worth and confidence.”

Oma had her personal reasons for passing on tales about the great man.

Her own mother, my great-grandmother, Babette Muhr, had been brought to the home of the rebbe as an orphan child.  He had taken her in  and raised her as a member of his own family until the day when, as a grown young woman, she left Michelstadt to be married.

At least a half a century passed before the name of Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser entered  my thoughts again.

Long after I had arrived as a child-survivor of the Holocaust in the U.S, married, and had raised a family of my own, the mail brought a brochure put out by a well-known publisher of Jewish books.

One of the titles advertised for sale read: “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt.”

I could hardly wait until the small book arrived and lay open on my desk.

It was a collection of warm, sentimental episodes taken from the life of a man once renowned as a healer and worker of miracles. The book was written in the early 1900’s by a Swiss rabbi, Naftali Herz Ehrmann, under the nom de plume of  “Judeus.”

I was stunned to find in it many of the stories my grandmother had once told me, stories I had somehow not trusted to have been “real.”

But it was the photograph on the book’s last page which stirred me the most: a picture of a house.

It was a box-shaped wooden structure — two full floors and a triple-window mansard.  The metal plaque attached above the first-floor windows aroused my considerable interest. It read: “In this house the humanitarian S.L.Wormser lived from the year 1826 to his death in 1847.”

The plaque was dedicated as a tribute by his hometown of Michelstadt.

I concentrated on the windows in that photograph. How I wished I could transport myself into the past. This house was surely the home of Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser, the Baal Shem of Michelstadt, and now I knew these were the windows through which my great-grandmother must have looked out at the world.

The more I read about the Rebbe’s life, the more faint images culled from my grandmother’s tales came back to me. I remembered certain details which were mirrored in the book.

After forty-one years I finally decided to go back to Germany.

One important reason for my return was the nagging wish to learn more about him, to find out what I could about the man they called the Baal Shem.

On the June day when friends drove my husband and me to Michelstadt, I carried the book about the Baal Shem with me.

We reached Michelstadt in the middle of the day. Ancient houses embellished with distinctive “Fachwerk” decorations lined the cobblestoned streets. I closed my eyes and pretended to be back in the medieval hamlet of southern Germany that was once the destination of many a Jewish and non-Jewish pilgrim headed for a visit to the bushy-bearded saintly man with the kind brown eyes known throughout the neighborhood as teacher and healer.

After a hearty meal in the oak-beamed dining room of the Green Tree Inn, I no longer needed to pretend. I was close to realizing my fanciful daydream. This very hostelry was a favorite with Jewish travellers who visited Rebbe Seckel Loeb. Many stories about the Baal Shem of Michelstadt grew into legends here, nurtured no doubt by glasses of excellent local beer. Because of their fondness for the inn, some patrons even nicknamed it “The Jewish Canteen.”

Armed with the family record, I finally entered the tall doors of the “Rathaus Annex” and headed for the chief of tourist reception. I told the man I was looking for links to an ancestor who grew up in the house of Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser. Immediately I felt my tourist stature increase to that of a VIP.

Meanwhile I could hardly wait to see the house of the Baal Shem.

No one knew the Wormser House by that name, so it took much searching and asking for directions before I located it. Suddenly I stood in front of it: my photograph had come to life.

One hundred and thirty-five years after Rebbe Seckel Loeb died here, the house was still in use. I walked around it and inspected it from every angle. Now it was occupied by a law firm, but no one was in. I was disappointed that I could not enter. I so wished to see the rooms where the Master taught the Holy Books, where the wise man counseled the troubled on urgent problems now long forgotten, and where my own ancestor climbed the stairs.

I left the Wormser House hesitantly and returned to the Rathaus-Annex where I had an appointment with the town archivist.

In one wing of this ancient seat of the mayors of Michelstadt, a Herr Hartmann presided  over  records dating back to the 13th century. His amazing collection of documents owed its survival to the little bomb damage the town sustained during World War II

I knew nothing about my great-grandmother except her name: Babette Muhr.

Herr Hartmann delved into his well-preserved archives of the Jewish community. Within a few minutes he located a page listing the death of a rabbi named Wolf Muhr in 1848. This is really a coincidence, he told me, because he had never come across that name before, let alone the name of a local rabbi.

I was convinced that there was a connection between Rabbi Muhr and my ancestor and asked the archivist to trace it.

We did not succeed that day, but I found a book of local Jewish history on his shelf and he allowed me to browse in it.

I discovered that Wolf Muhr was Seckel Loeb’s cantor who handled the town’s rabbinical duties in Michelstadt until 1826. During that year Rabbi Wormser returned after a lengthy stay in the town of Mannheim where he worked as a healer at the local hospital.  Upon his return to Michelstadt he resumed his post of rabbi there.

I had gotten closer in my ancestor search. The archivist promised he would continue it. Perhaps we would find the connection someday.

The old Jewish cemetery was too far from town. I wanted to stay in Michelstadt a little longer to meditate at the grave of Rabbi Wormser, but my time ran out. I did not make it to his last resting place and to the new gravestone which replaced the desecrated monument of the Nazi period.

However, a final touching experience awaited me during my last hour in town: I was given  a tour through the Baal Shem’s synagogue. Like most German synagogues the original tiny structure, built in 1791, was torched by the Nazis. Only its exterior shell remained.

One Jewish family still lived in Michelstadt in 1969 when members of a few remaining Jewish communities in the state of Hesse met and decided to restore the former synagogue as a museum.

It was named the Lichtigfeld Museum in honor of Dr. I.E. Lichtigfeld, a postwar rabbi of Hesse, who tried to revive Jewish life in the area. The Lichtigfeld Museum primarily memorializes Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser, the Baal Shem of Michelstadt, whose love for humanity once brightened this town.

Ritual objects, books and mementos filled the showcases along the walls of the modest ex-sanctuary. Among them were two new additions I had brought from America: the English translation of  “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt” and a copy of my own biography of Elie Wiesel, “Witness for Life.” Having them in this place is an honor I cherish.

The site of the original Almemor had been preserved. I stood near the spot where the holy man once prayed and I reflected on the tremendous faith he inspired.

What was the real nature of the Rebbe’s “miracles?” Were the stories his deeds generated just that–exaggerated accounts of local happenings, blown out of proportion by his simple fellow country–Jews who needed someone or something to believe in?

The hatred-bearers did extinguish the spark of life here and they succeeded in wiping out the  decency and healing which once existed. But they could not erase the memory of the Jewish spirit that long ago filled this building and this town.

And who knows? Perhaps the special memory may be the most lasting of this Baal Shem’s many miracles.

Born in Germany, Ellen Norman Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel.  Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.


Filed under Family history, German Jewry, Jewish identity

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

Searching for Melvin

by Patty Baumann (Hillsdale, NJ)

I never met my cousin Melvin.  The first I heard of him was when I was little, maybe 4 or 5, playing in the Bronx apartment of my great-aunt, Lena, and her husband, Morris, back in the 1950’s.  I can picture the adults socializing; my parents, my grandmother, her three sisters plus their husbands.  The room smells of coffee and cakes.  My brother and I are keeping busy as we are the only children present.  Perhaps we’re playing tag, or cards, or a board game.

The buzz of the conversation is background noise to what my brother and I are doing.  Yet a fragment of conversation makes its way into my head, unnoticed.  It clings tightly, as if it is so important the child that I am would want to remember it years later as an adult.  Above and beyond the din of chit chat and European accents come the words “He fell out of the window.”  I don’t remember who said it or in what context or what came before or after it.  And I continued playing on the living room floor.

A few years later, the sentence came to me.  “Mom, who fell out of a window?” I asked one day.  “Aunt Anna had a son,” she said.  “It was a terrible accident.  His name was Melvin.”  And then, perhaps sensing that I could fear that happening to us, she added, “he was very little.”

Melvin’s parents, Aunt Anna and Uncle Joe, lived in the Bronx, not far from Aunt Lena and Uncle Morris, on the Grand Concourse. What made them so adorable was that she was big and he was short and stocky. My only problem with Uncle Joe was that I could hardly understand a word he said. He had a gravelly voice that only adults could decipher. Melvin had been their only child.  After his death they had only each other.  Aunt Anna was expressive and warm with her love for us and for all the children of her nieces and nephews.  She had a lot of love to give, and no child of her own to dote on.

When I was fourteen, Aunt Anna died suddenly. A few days earlier, she had broken her hip. She had been in a Long Island hospital where her nephew worked as a doctor, so he could check in on her.  That day, suddenly, a blood clot finished her off.

Uncle Joe naturally took care of the funeral arrangements, and I remember Aunt Lena and Grandma being upset that Joe was not including them in the plans or giving them any of her property.  Both rightly felt that their Anna had mementos that were meaningful to her sisters.  But they were apparently not consulted.  I don’t think Joe had any contact with his sisters-in-law after the funeral.  He suddenly was out of the picture. Our lives moved on.

In the last few years I’ve attempted to piece together my family tree.  It has become a booming industry on the internet, and the amount of information available at the touch of a few key strokes is staggering.  As I remembered details stored in the recesses of my mind, one sentence leaped out at me: “He fell out the window.” It took its rightful place front and center, having waited quietly all these years for me to notice it.  But my mom, my aunt, and their cousins were dead.  My dad, if he ever did know, had long ago forgotten the information I wanted.  So the tidbits I had stored away tumbled out, as needed.

It pained me that someone, anyone, could have lived, been loved and lost, never to be thought of again as the few who cared about him left this world.  It would be virtually impossible to find anything about my distant cousin, the boy who fell from a window.  But I wanted to try.

Naturally, I needed a name.  First name, Melvin.  But last name?  For the life of me, I could not remember Anna and Joe’s last name.  Instead, I searched the vast New York Times archive of articles, pairing “Melvin” with “fatal,” “fall,” “windows,” etc.  Nothing.  Yes, lots of children fell out of windows, but apparently none were named Melvin.

On a whim, I leafed through page after page of last names on a genealogy website, hoping one of them would ring a bell.  When I got to the “P”s, the bell rang.  I settled on Pollack and it sounded right.

Quickly back to the New York Times archives, I entered “Melvin Pollack” into the search site and…. nothing.  No other New York papers had an extensive online archive; the Times had been my only hope.  Could I be at the end of the road so soon?

Call it fate, call it compassion from long ago and far away, or call it a heavenly kindness.  And maybe just coincidence.  My dad asked me to come over to his apartment and help him get rid of an enormous amount of junk; a lifetime accumulation of every day stuff that was part of our daily lives for so many years.

He and I came upon a box of photos, mostly from my parents’ wedding and early years together.  Both came from very large families, and their wedding featured dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws.  But, surprisingly, in this box was just one greeting card celebrating their upcoming wedding.

“Congratulations on your Engagement” it read on the outside with colorful but faded streamers decorating the border.  The inside continued the sentiment, and was signed, “Aunt Anna and Uncle David Paulian.”  I stared at the signature, then looked at my dad.  “Who was Uncle David?”  Dad shrugged.  He had no idea.  He too looked at the card.  Still, he didn’t know who Uncle David Paulian was.

Apparently Aunt Anna had been married twice.  More importantly, I realized that little cousin Melvin’s real last name was Paulian, not Pollack.  What a treasure trove this small box of mementos had been.

I returned to the on-line archives of the New York Times.  This time, I confidently typed “Melvin Paulian” and hit “search.”  And… zero.  “What does one have to do to get into the New York Times?” I wondered.  I decided to search just the last name.  Of the few hits that I got, one was “David Paulian.”  It was an announcement of his funeral less than a year after my parents’ marriage.  It gave his address in the Bronx but did not name his survivors.

Some of my relatives had been buried in Queens, and a number of cemeteries out there had websites.  In a matter of minutes, I found his grave.  Then I entered Melvin’s name.  And his gravesite, near his dad, appeared as well.  The sadness consumed me.  His date of burial, July 21, 1933, was fifteen years before his father’s.  How painful those years must have been for Aunt Anna and Uncle David.  A search of the 1930 New York City Census revealed their little family of three living in the Bronx.  Melvin was just a few months old.

My mission now was to find any information available.  My ultimate goal, with luck, would be a picture of him. I wrote to the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office for their reports on Melvin’s death.  A few weeks later the documents arrived.  They spoke of an average, four year old boy, well nourished, with brown hair and brown eyes, who had suffered a fractured skull when he fell from his apartment window on Washington Avenue to the courtyard below.  He died an hour later at nearby Bronx Hospital now called Bronx-Lebanon.

My eyes filled with tears.  I could picture my distraught Aunt Anna as she paced the hospital halls, surrounded by her family, praying for a miracle that would not come.  She had been an “older” mom in her mid-thirties when she had this baby.  Now, there would be no more children.

On a hunch, I searched the archives for what the weather was like on that terrible day.  I learned that it had been the second hottest day of the summer.  With no air-conditioning, apartment windows were wide open.  It explained why, in my initial archival search for Melvin, I found so many children who had fallen out of windows.  It was, sadly, a regular occurrence many decades before window guards were required.

I needed some sort of closure.  Certainly, any of Aunt Anna’s memorabilia was long gone, left to the machinations of her second husband, Joe.  Again, the box of mementos from my Dad came to the rescue.  In it I found a laminated newspaper announcement of my parents’ engagement published in a newspaper called The Bronx Home News.  If the Home News had reported on the accident, it would mean that for one day in his brief life, Melvin would have been known. Perhaps there would be a picture.

Through a series of e-mails, I learned that The Bronx Home News was on microfilm at Lehman College in the Bronx.  I was willing to go there, but first I wanted to make sure the particular issue existed.  I sent an e-mail to one of the library administrators.  Generously, she wrote back that she would have her assistant double-check.  Then, incredibly, she wrote again.  While checking for that issue, her assistant had spotted the article on Melvin.  She was mailing it to me.

Days later the envelope arrived.  The page of the Home News had separate stories of two children who fell from windows and died.  The story of Melvin’s fall appeared in the middle of the page, but referred to him as Marvin and his mother as Bertha.  It reported that his mother had left him playing with his toys on the living room floor, and he had fallen from their third floor apartment to the rear courtyard below.  There was no picture of this little boy, loved and lost like hundreds of other children left alone for a moment or two on hot summer days.

It so pained me to think of Aunt Anna.  As a child, I had no notion of how much she had suffered; I was small and she, despite her tragedy, was not a sad woman.

I felt the need to explore one more avenue.  My parents’ wedding at the majestic Concourse Plaza Hotel in the Bronx had been filmed by my uncle, and about 90 seconds of jumpy, dark film had been transferred to a DVD.  I loaded it into my computer and gazed at the familiar faces of my long gone family having the time of their lives.  When the camera focused on the table where Lena and Anna were sitting, I immediately recognized them and Uncle Morris.  But the man seated next to Aunt Anna, whom I always just assumed was some unnamed relative, was my Uncle Dave. No longer a stranger, he was now part of my family history.

There was one more obligation I felt compelled to complete.  On a beautiful fall day my husband and I traveled to Queens to the cemetery where my cousin Melvin had been laid to rest, eventually to be joined by his grief-stricken dad and mom.  We walked the rows of the well-kept cemetery, following a map given to me by the office.  And there, in front of me, stood the headstone of my cousin Melvin. Ironically, there was a space on the stone which once held a picture of him as was the custom back then.  But now it was gone.

I do not know when someone last visited it. If I had to guess, it would have been more than forty years ago.  But I was here now.  I placed a small stone from my own yard on the headstone.  My husband and I said the Mourners Kaddish.

A symbol on the headstone captured his story eloquently.  It was of the trunk of a tree with the upper part hacked and tilting off, as if the tree had been cut before it had a chance to grow.

Patty Bauman worked as a producer and researcher for Good Morning, America for over twenty years.  She has spent the past five years tracing her family roots, and is currently working on a book about her mother, herself, and medical malpractice. She lives with her husband and their 16 year old daughter in northern New Jersey.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history