I learned about the Search Bureau for Missing Relatives’ broadcasts on Israeli radio from David Grossman’s novella Momik. Survivors gathered around a radio, listening for details of the family that they had been separated from during the horrors of the Holocaust. Refugees who had endured indescribable pain, arriving in Israel nearly penniless, bereft of those they loved and cared for, were yearning to find relatives that had survived. The image left a deep impression on me but I didn’t identify with the story on any personal level. There were no survivors of the ghettos or camps among my family. All four of my grandparents left Europe for America well before the Nazi rise to power.
My mother did tell me that my late grandfather who arrived in America alone, had parents and siblings who perished in the holocaust. As far as we knew all his family had been murdered. While this knowledge engendered a faint sadness, I didn’t feel connected to my nameless, faceless, anonymous aunts, uncles, and cousins. But recently all that has changed.
A few years ago, my mother added one detail about her father’s family. At some point her father had told her about a sister who had immigrated to Palestine and died in childbirth. I asked my Mom if the baby survived but she didn’t know. I asked her if this aunt had any other children previously. She didn’t know that either; the details were very vague.
The idea that I might have blood relatives in Israel besides my nuclear family was intriguing. In one sense, we already have family in Israel. Two couples that we were close with in the states and who had kids the same age as ours made Aliya some time before us. The three families share holidays, smachot, and hard times as well. At our son’s Bar Mitzvah, someone told us how sweet all the cousins were together. He just presumed that these kids singing to and laughing with our Bar Mitzvah boy in English were his cousins… It stuck. Since then we call each other cousins, and indeed we are family. And yet, I was captivated by the idea there might be family that shared my ancestry here in this country where in some ways I still feel like an outsider.
I went in search of the descendants of my great aunt that might or might not exist. I didn’t find them but I found other family. And while I can’t really compare myself to the refugee olim (immigrants) gathered around the radio listening intently for the names of their loved ones, I ended up getting a small sense of the emotion that I imagine accompanied their reunions. For those fortunate enough to find surviving family, their yearning was for something they had and lost and regained in the reunion. For me, the reunion produced that longing for something I never fully realized was missing.
I recently made two videos, a Hebrew version and an English one, documenting my search and its moving results. Beneath the videos you can find the text of the narration of the English video.
In 1922, Rosh Hashanah fell on September 23. That day, my grandfather, David Klirsfeld, arrived on the shores of the United States. He came from Monastrishtsh, which was then part of Poland. He came on his own – the rest of his family remained in Europe.
My grandfather died in 1968, a few months after I was born. I didn’t know him, but I heard a lot about him from my mother and siblings. They called him Poppy.
My mother told me that Poppy would transfer money to his family in Europe. He received receipts confirming that the money had indeed arrived. When the war broke out, he stopped receiving them but continued to transfer funds in the hopes that they were somehow reaching their destination.
When the magnitude of the destruction in Europe became clear, and Poppy hadn’t heard from anyone, he assumed that none of his family had survived.
That’s what I had heard until a few years ago my mother added one detail. She told me that Poppy had told her he had a sister who immigrated to Palestine – where she died in childbirth. I asked my Mom if the baby survived but she didn’t know. I asked if Poppy’s sister had any other children before she died. She didn’t know that either; the details were very vague.
A few months ago, I decided to do some research and see if I could find relatives here in Israel.
I opened Yad Vashem’s website. I typed in the database Poppy’s last name and his home town.
On the screen, the name Shmuel Klirsfeld from Monastrishtsh appeared. I quickly opened the passenger list of the ship that Poppy took to New York that I had found a few years ago on the internet. It included a listing for his father. It read S. Klirsfeld.
Going back to the Yad Vashem database of victims’ names, I clicked on Shmuel Klirsfeld and a page of testimony, documenting his particulars and the circumstances of his murder came up.
I immediately called my mom and asked her if she knew the name of her grandfather that she’d never met. “Of course,” she said, “his name was Shmuel”. I asked her if she remembered her grandmother’s name. She told me that my sister Gale was named for her. Her name was Gitel. I was staring at the page of testimony that recorded the name of the wife of Shmuel Klirsfeld from Monastrishtsh – it said Gitel.
With a shiver down my spine and a quiver in my voice I told my mother that I was staring at a record that documented her grandfather’s murder. Even over the phone I could tell she was as taken aback as I was.
The page of testimony included the details of the one who filled it out. Her name was Bronia Cahana. Her address was Shikun Amami 3, Derech Hashalom 8, Tel Aviv. The page was filled out on June 5, 1956. It said that she was the cousin of Shmuel Klirsfeld. More searches on the Yad Vashem database uncovered more and more family who had perished in the Holocaust and Bronia documented them one after the other. I pulled out a pen and a piece of paper and started to sketch a family tree. Shmuel Klirsfeld’s father was named Joseph. Joseph had a brother, Israel Klirsfeld. Bronia Cahana was the daughter of Israel Klirsfeld. Indeed Bronia and my great grandfather were cousins.
I wondered if Bronia could still be alive. What about her descendants? I started looking for her and her family on the web. Before long I discovered that Bronia had passed away in the 1980s.
With the aid of google and MyHeritage.com, I found a family tree that listed Bronia’s children and grandchildren. I was able to track down and contact her grandson Arik. Arik told me that Bronia had two sons and a daughter. Those three had in turn produced Bronia’s grandchildren and great grandchildren. They were a big family spread throughout Israel but very close at heart.
Arik and I arranged a meeting with his father Meir and some other members of the family at Meir’s apartment in Tel Aviv. The meeting was quite moving. In the middle, I decided to call my mom so she could participate in the family reunion. I told her that I was sitting next to Meir whose mother Bronia, wrote out the page of testimony preserving her grandfather’s memory at Yad Vashem. The Cahana family interrupted me to correct me. The handwriting on Shmuel Klirsfeld’s page of testimony was Meir’s. At his mother’s side and at her instruction, Meir himself filled out the pages. With a lump in my throat, I corrected myself and told my Mom that I was sitting next to Meir, who recorded the page of testimony. We all heard my mother’s choked up response though my speakerphone.
Through Bronia and Meir’s documentation, I discovered that Joseph and Israel Klirsfeld had dozens of relatives in Europe. From Israel’s side, only his daughter Bronia had escaped. From Joseph’s side only his grandson David was left. Bronia built her life in Israel and David in the United States. For more than seventy years Bronia and her descendants did not know about their cousin’s in America. For more than seventy years, David Klirsfeld and his descendants didn’t know about Bronia and her family in Israel… until a group of them met in a moving reunion in a Tel Aviv apartment. A bigger meeting was scheduled to take place on Mt. Gilboa on the holiday of Passover last week. The Corona virus canceled the extended reunion but we hope that with God’s help we will strengthen and expand our connection very soon.