It was a sunny morning in April 2018, and conversations in our household were focused on the upcoming Yom HA Atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) and how we were going to celebrate this year. The discussions shifted towards the roots of our family, and how far it could be traced – both geographically and historically. My family’s history begins in the Ashkenazi heartland. Rooted within the hills of Moldova and the woods of Poland, my family’s origins sound familiar. While I had heard the names of places like Orhei, Kishinev, Lodz, and Riga before, I had never delved deeply into exploring my family’s history. However, that sunny April morning, my dad encouraged me to take a closer look.
Despite my attempts to connect our last names with specific places in Eastern Europe, I was unable to find any meaningful results. Most of the information I found was either related to recent events associated with my family or to my grandpa’s cousin Yirmiyahu (Herman) Branover – a renowned physicist and Chabad Lubavitch scholar. While interesting, it didn’t answer my desired questions. I wanted to see myself through a new lens. After discussing it with my dad, we decided to try accessing more focused databases that could potentially narrow down the search results. We tried several organizations and databases with little success. It seemed as though my search was headed towards a dead end. However, by a stroke of sheer luck, I came across the restitution database of the Hashava organization.
The Hebrew word Hashava means “return” or “restitution,” and the organization tracks assets, bonds, and other investments made by thousands of Jews across Europe into the pre-state Land of Israel. These people were investing in bonds or acquiring real estate to support what would eventually become the miraculous rebirth of the Jewish national home. Most of these people died long before World War II and never saw their investment come to fruition. However, it was their undying faith through years of prosecution that kept them hopeful for an eventual return for their great-great grandkids.
As I searched through the database, I was captivated by what I found. The results included names, asset numbers, countries, and towns associated with my family’s history. “Dad, take a look,” I said, “do you recognize any of these people?” My dad was puzzled, looking through the list of people with the same last name and originating from the same small town of Orgiev (Orhei în Romanian). He immediately called my grandfather to tell him about the discovery, and my grandfather demanded that he read out some of the names on the screen. “Schoel Branover,” my dad said. “Have you ever heard of this name?” “Schoel…” my grandfather sighed on the other side of the cell line. “Of course,” he continued in a quiet and slightly trembling voice. “He was my grandfather. He was one of the leaders of the Orhei Jewish community and passed away in the early 1930s. He was buried in the Orhei Jewish cemetery.” The line went quiet as my dad and grandfather processed what had just been discovered. I was jubilant, feeling that my effort had helped to re-establish a seemingly non-existent link to the distant past of my family. “But wait,” my dad said, “who are the other Branovers on this list?” We nervously pronounced the partly distorted yet still recognizable names from the database search, feeling how it revived my grandfather’s distant memories and the stories passed down from generation to generation. “Baruch Branover,” my grandfather said. “Of course, he was Schoel’s brother.” My grandfather’s voice shivered as he told us the story of Baruch’s successful beef cattle business, known throughout Bessarabia. “My father Joseph, your grandfather,” he pointedly stared at my dad, “used to work for him in his youth.” Unfortunately, Baruch’s business was heavily hit by the Great Depression. He went bankrupt and committed suicide under the unbearable burden of financial ruin. “The most tragic twist is that a few months later, his business recovered, but Baruch was not alive to see it…” my grandpa muttered. Next on the list was Eliasar Branover, after whom my grandpa (Eliezer) was named. “All we know about him is that he passed away during the First World War,” my grandpa continued. Eliasar’s only daughter, Anya, joined the Russian army and served in the nurse corps. “This was a time of devastation and pandemics… Anya contracted typhoid fever and did not survive,” concluded grandpa, his voice soaked with sorrow. Finally, we reached Abraham Branover, the youngest of all the brothers. “I vividly remember him, although it was more than 80 years ago” … grandpa’s voice trembled. Abraham moved to Kishinev (Chisinau) in 1941 and remained in the town when Nazi forces invaded Bessarabia. All we know is that Abraham and his daughter were rounded up and sent to one of the concentration camps in Transnistria. They perished between late 1941 and early 1942, and we were unable to trace any further whereabouts. The last name on the screen was Heisel Branover. Seeing this name was stunning even for my grandpa, as he was trying to digest and convince himself that this was not a mistake. “Heisel is the oldest Branover as long as my memories or family story can be traced back,” grandpa continued after processing what had seemed incredulous to him just a few minutes ago. “He is my great grandfather… Schoel’s father. All we know about him are family stories.” Grandpa told us that Heisel was the owner of a small store in Orhei. The family narrative was that in the early 20th century, he had to deal with revolutionary spirits that spread across Bessarabia. The Marxist movement had started dominating the minds of some of his workers who presented a set of demands limiting their extra hours. The annals of our family say that Heisel had worked out and issued an “instruction of labor” declaration by tying the working hours with regulating an otherwise quite unlimited breaks during the work hours augmented by a very arbitrary start of the working shift. Family chronicles even reflected a somewhat heavily accented mix of the Russian-Yiddish slang Heisel used to announce the “instruction of labor” policy.
The terse numbers of the assets in the Hashava search database had little meaning to me. However, inspired by the story unfolding in front of my eyes, I looked further and learned that Hashava located about 60,000 assets, 6 of which are associated with my paternal family. My great-great grandfather, his three brothers, and their father had advanced the well-being of the people living in this ancient land for tens of years before the rebirth of the modern State of Israel. Even in the most uncertain, financially troubled, and turbulent years, they had found ways to invest in the JCT (Jewish Colonial Trust) founded in 1899 by Theodore Herzl for the Zionist movement. I had discovered a link with past generations of the Branover family that spanned more than 150 years. The Hashava organization and its search engine, which my dad encouraged me to try, had magically opened to me a previously unseen history of my family, starting from the end of the 19th century and up to the Second World War.
The assets listed in the Hashava search database were connected to the different members of the Branover family. Asset A22186 was associated with Heisel, A2223 with Baruch, 22238 with Eliezer, A2233 with the great-great-grandfather Shoel, and Abraham invested in two assets, A22236 and A22185. The Hashava organization has provided a bridge between generations of the Branover family that would have otherwise been nonexistent. Spanning from 19th century Bessarabia to present-day Boston, a deep connection was born through small donations and a large amount of faith. The author expresses profound gratitude for the opportunity to relive her family story and intends to pass it on to future generations.