Michalya Schonwald Moss

Tu BiShvat and Family Trees

A few months into Covid, I reached out to my friend *Che, my go-to person for WWII-related queries, and asked if he had been experiencing any Holocaust-themed dreams or disturbances since the world turned pandemic.

I was clearly looking for some outside validation, worried that I might be the only third-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors being asphyxiated by panic attacks under my mask in the supermarket.

While Che did not recall any Holocaust-related Covid moments,  he did share that he had dreamt of his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who had recently passed away,  “I wish I could remember more details but it disappeared, sorry”.  Luckily for Che, he had enjoyed a close relationship with her and his dream had brought him comfort.

This Wuhan-bat virus had clearly triggered all of my inherited trauma, flooding me with cortisol and whatever the opposite of dopamine was. I was devastated.  I had faithfully dedicated my life to the pursuit of social justice and other righteous causes that I believed could circumvent the next apocalypse/tsunami/ alt-right takeover. The world had really let me down.

In true Covid-19 solidarity, my sister, Eliana, reassured me that we would be ok, especially since we felt like we had both been subconsciously preparing for a dystopian doomsday scenario to unfold in our lifetime, given that history loves to repeat itself. Aside from our genetically inherited survival instincts, all I had to protect my husband and children from impending doom was half a dozen bottles of coveted hand sanitizers and a generous supply of copper-infused masks imported from Israel.

Then, while in hide-from-the-world mode inside of our fortified Johannesburg abode, with the ghosts of my ancestral trauma knocking, I decided to start digging. The excavation process was akin to peeling back multiple layers of infinite onions in a hermetically sealed room, tears gushing, forgetting to breathe. Some information was available online, but then I hit a wall.

What I knew before I started to dig was that many of our family members had perished during the Holocaust. My father’s maternal line was decimated, but those who survived chose to tell their stories and gave themselves permission to mourn. What I realized during Covid was that I didn’t know as much about my father’s paternal line. That branch curiously stuck out like it had been hit by lightning.

I had accumulated more questions than answers and I found myself deep in a rabbit hole.  I realized that I needed guidance and direction to lead me to the answers that I was seeking. I reached out to an experienced and kindred genealogist in Slovakia who agreed to help navigate the national archives for me, and one trip to the Slovakian Embassy in South Africa later, he had the power of attorney to act on my behalf.

A week later, he discovered that aside from a handful of survivors, the entirety of both my grandfather’s maternal and paternal line had been murdered in the Holocaust. My grandfather, Moshe, never spoke about his wartime experiences and we never knew why. “There was an elephant in the room, and that elephant was death” my uncle David shared with me when I told him about all of those who had once lived.

Perhaps if my grandfather had lived long enough to see the era when Holocaust survivors began to speak and tell their stories it might have been different? Sadly his life was cut short and he passed away when he was only 58 years old. And with him, these broken and disregarded branches.

The more we dug, the more populated our family tree became. It blossomed. We discovered that our great-grandmother Jolan had had two sisters and one brother. That one of her sisters had left her baby girl on a bench at the train station when her parents were deported and that this child had miraculously survived. That Jolan’s father, Adolph Abraham, died before the war and his tombstone had been pushed over. That Moshe’s father, My great grandfather Miklosh, had been dashingly handsome, was an accomplished horseman, and loved his wife Jolan so dearly, that when she didn’t return from Auschwitz, he died shortly after from heartbreak. We also discovered that there was one other survivor from this branch of our tree, and they had a living descendant. And then we had a family Zoom reunion. But this is a story for another time.

Our newly grafted branches are full of names, pictures, birth and death certificates, marriage records, tombstones. This Tu BiShvat, I celebrate having had the extraordinary opportunity to repair our family tree. I am grateful for having the courage it took to start digging and for the support I received from my family and the rest of the team to keep going. In doing so we have reclaimed our broken branches and we have been re-member-ed.

About the Author
Michalya Schonwald Moss is a social impact & innovation consultant and co-founder of SpekTech, a digital platform that accelerates climate impact beyond the carbon market in Africa. Originally from the U.S and Israel, Michalya has lived in Johannesburg, South Africa since 2009.
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