Chapter 6. How to find family
This chapter includes three stories, each one describing some unusual way of finding lost family members.
* * *In July 1950 I came to Israel as an immigrant from Poland. We arrived together, as one family: my aunt Stella and Gabriel with their two sons, and I. Survivors of the Holocaust, we came from a different world and, as most new immigrants at that time, without any means. The government took responsibility over us, but during the huge wave of immigration in the early 1950s, recovering from a prolonged and costly war, it gave us only what it could. So we were given some subhuman living quarters at the camp for new immigrants in Bat Galim, three meals a day, and the right to start planning our new life.
One of the most pressing issues, at least from my point of view, was the question of medical studies. I had completed the first year of Medicine at the University of Wrocław, and wanted to continue my studies in Israel. But I had no idea how to go about it. The information at hand was totally inadequate. There was supposed to be a medical faculty at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but no one could tell me anything about it. Finally, with Stella and Gabriel, we concluded that reliable information could be obtained only at the offices of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We had been in Israel just two weeks, it was still July, and studies at the university were supposed to begin in October. There was no much time left.
Although as a Holocaust survivor I had plenty of life experience and in addition one year of university studies behind me, for Stella I was still a little child, and she would not let me go alone. She insisted on accompanying me, to make sure that the 20-year old "boy” would not get lost on the way. In Jerusalem we went to the Hebrew University offices located temporarily in the Terra Sancta building at Keren Hayesod Street. The senior clerk who interviewed us, Mr. S. Birnbaum, explained that at the moment, only the clinical years (the final two years of medical studies) had been opened and were functioning. The opening of the lower classes was planned for some unknown future time. He advised me to enroll as a student of bacteriology, with the possibility of transfer to medicine at a later date. I accepted his advice. From his office we went to the Students Association, where I registered as a member and applied for a room in the Students Dormitory.
For one day in Jerusalem we had accomplished quite a lot. However, as we did not have enough money for the bus, all this was done on foot. The day was very hot, and we both did not drink enough water. At the time we were ready to return to Haifa and were on our way to the bus station, Stella, exhausted from the physical effort, fainted and fell on the sidewalk. We were at the corner of King George and Ben Yehuda streets, in the center of town. A circle of people surrounded us, some trying to help, others just out of curiosity. Someone sprinkled water over Stella’s face, and she woke up. We both did not know Hebrew, but using a mixture of Polish and German, somebody advised us to go to a nearby clinic of the Kupat Holim (the Labor Federation health insurance clinics). People helped us to get there, and told one of the nurses that Stella had just fainted and should be examined by a Doctor. We did not have any health insurance, but in 1950 this was easily overlooked. The nurse brought us to the waiting room of an internist, Dr. Margalit. While waiting to be examined, Stella complained that we were wasting our time, and were going to miss our bus to Haifa. But this time I did not give in. I insisted that we wait for the Doctor as long as necessary. Naturally, we conversed in Polish.
A man, around 60, was sitting opposite us, also waiting for the Doctor. He listened to our conversation, and eventually asked where we were from, and Stella’s name. Within minutes it became clear, that he knew Stella’s husband in his youth, when they both attended the same high school in Tarnopol. Then he asked, pointing at me: "Is this your son?” When Stella explained our relation, he wanted to know my name and my father’s place of birth. The moment he heard my father’s and my grandfather’s first names, and their town, Probużna, he became excited, told me that in the 1890s, he and my father had attended the same "Heder” (an elementary Jewish rabbinical school) in Probużna. Then he asked me whether I had already contacted my father’s cousin, Ze’ev, in Haifa. I answered that I did not have any relatives in Israel. "You are mistaken,” he said. "If you are the son of Israel Weissberg and the grandson of Berl Weissberg from Probużna, then you do have relatives in Israel.” According to him, my father’s cousin, Ze’ev Weissberg had attended the same "Heder” in Probużna at the same time. They had studied together. He gave me Ze’ev Weissberg’s address in Haifa.
There was no doubt in my mind that Mr. Weissbrot had a mistake. Had I had any relatives living in Israel, I would have surely known it.
The Doctor examined Stella, told her that she had just been exhausted and dehydrated, and advised her to have some rest. We had missed the last bus to Haifa on that day, so we went to a camp for new immigrants (another Beit Olim) in Jerusalem, where they let us stay overnight.
Back in Bat Galim Stella would not let me forget about the whole incident. She insisted that Mr. Weissbrot may have been right, and I should not discount so easily the possibility that I have a living family on my father’s side. She nearly forced me to go and look up those Weissbergs in Haifa. So, upon her insistence, the next day I went to Haifa (a good one-hour march from Bat Galim for someone who does not have money for the bus fare), and found the house no. 12 on Gideon Street.
A surprise expected me already on the ground floor: the name plate on the door carried the name Weissberg. My first reaction to it was: "Well, so that Mr. Weissbrot from Jerusalem knows these Weissbergs, and he thinks (mistakenly, of course) that they are my relatives.” Anyway, I knocked on the door.
A girl, about 12, opened the door. Barely two weeks in Israel, I still did not know any Hebrew. So I asked her in Polish: "May I speak Polish?” In heavily Hebrew-accented Polish, the girl answered that she understands. "Is your father at home? I would like to talk to him.” The girl turned around and yelled something in Hebrew, which I did not understand. From a room emerged a man around 60, not tall, rather thin, balding, his skin complexion swarthy, like my father’s and my own. He could be described as a "typical” Weissberg. I introduced myself: "My name is Bronisław Weissberg, I am the son of Israel and Dora Weissberg from Lwów, my mother was born in Husiatyn, my father in Probużna. I came to Israel two weeks ago. Yesterday, in Jerusalem, I met one Shlomo Weissbrot, who told me that we are related. I know nothing about it.”
Ze’ev Weissberg face has changed. Five years had passed since the end of the war, and there was no sign of life from any relative in Poland. By now he was sure that every one of his relatives had perished. He was right. All his relatives except me had indeed perished, and I, the only one still alive, had not known anything about our family relationship and did not try to make contact.
Ze’ev invited me in and, with his wife Judith, listened for a long time to my story. They, and their son Ephraim, five years my senior and at that time a student at the Israel Institute of Technology ("Technion”), all remembered our family well, and knew who I was. Only the daughter Ziva (the girl who opened the door) needed some explanation.
It bothered me, and it still does, that while they remembered me, I did not remember them. My young age at the time when they left Poland in the 1930s, and the many events that occurred during the intervening years may well explain this remarkable lapse in my memory.
* * *The second story begins in the 1930s. At that time my father was the owner of a large textile business in Lwów. He employed 15 people, among them two accountants and a secretary who happened to be his cousin, Ziuta Rapaport. Ziuta had two sisters: Tosia, married to Bronisław Rappaport who studied medicine in Italy, and Gina, who studied pharmacy, also in Italy, at the University of Genoa. In 1939, in view of the situation in Europe, and particularly in Poland, Tosia with her husband and Gina had decided to emigrate to Australia, which they did in August 1939 (Fig. 21).
World War II started in September 1939. In June 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union. The German army was approaching Lwów rapidly. Just before they came in, one of my father’s accountants, Bernard Kutyn, was drafted into the Soviet Army, and spent the rest of the war in Russia, fighting the Germans. During the Holocaust, all my father’s employees, save him, were exterminated by the Nazis.
Fig. 21. My father’s family, 1930. From left: My paternal grandmother Feiga Weissberg. Next to her are my father, father’s aunt Liza Rapaport, unknown woman, my mother, father’s sister Lola, Lena Jurand, Mina Weissberg (Izak’s wife). Sitting in the front row: my father’s brother Izak flanked by Tosia and Ziuta.
On 19 April 1948, the fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Ghetto Heroes monument was uncovered in Warsaw. The ceremony was attended by virtually every Jew who still lived in Poland. Naturally, Stella with her family and I would not miss it. While in Warsaw, we were approached on the street by a man who turned to Stella, asking: "Mrs. Stella?” The moment I saw him, I asked: "Bernard Kutyn?” This was, indeed, my father’s accountant, who had not changed much, and returned to Poland, after having survived the war in the Soviet Army.
The meeting was quite emotional, each one telling his story of survival. Then Kutyn asked me: "Have you contacted your family in Australia?” Of course, having worked for years with Ziuta in the same room in my father’s business, he was well acquainted with Ziuta’s family, and had known and remembered her sisters well. He remembered that they had emigrated to Australia. In fact, he thus pointed out my great neglect in not having tried earlier to locate and contact my father’s close family. He dismissed my arguments about the difficulties to locate relatives whose addresses I didn’t know, and advised me to contact the Medical Association of Australia.
Back at home we discussed the remote possibility of finding the family. My foreign languages in Poland were German and Russian. I never studied English before, and was unable to write a letter in English. Nor could Stella do it. Eventually I wrote a letter in Polish, asking the Medical Association of Australia for help to find Dr. Bronisław Rappaport, born in Poland, who had studied medicine in Italy, and emigrated to Australia in 1939. Without knowing better, I addressed the letter "Medical Association of Australia, Australia.” While mailing it, I was sure that the entire enterprise was a waste of the postage stamp. With a letter in Polish addressed to "Australia,” it was obvious that I will never get a response. I had mailed it only because of Stella’s insistence.
To my great surprise, the response came after less than a month. It was in Polish. And it was not from the Medical Association, but from Dr. Bernard (changed from Bronisław) Rappaport in Brisbane, Australia. Bronek Rappaport, Tosia’s husband and my parents’ close friend, suggested that I come to Australia and stay with them. However, by then, the independent State of Israel was already in existence, and I had other plans, that eventually culminated in settling in Israel.
The contact with my Australian family has been kept all those years, and continues through the following generations. We have met several times, both in Israel and in Australia. At the time of writing this chapter, Gina, the great-grandmother who studied pharmacy in Italy, is 94 years old and well.
* * *
My relations with the Wieczorek family in Częstochowa have been described in Chapter 5.
In 1950 I left Poland for Israel. During my first return visit in Poland in 1989 I went to Częstochowa and tried to locate that remarkable family. Unfortunately, the difficulties were too great. The name Wieczorek is extremely common in Częstochowa, many streets had been renamed, and 45 years had passed between the time I spent in Częstochowa in 1944 and my current visit, so by then any chance of having the family located seemed lost.
Nevertheless, as the Wieczoreks had helped save my life while taking great risks, and did so without any compensation on my side, I applied to the Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority) to recognize them as ”Righteous Among the Nations.” Before approving and granting this title, the Yad Vashem conducts a thorough search, and witnesses are sought, so I needed plenty of patience, while they were trying to locate any descendants of that family.
One day in July 2008 a phone rang at my home. It was a representative of the Yad Vashem. It seemed that they had managed to locate the granddaughter of "my” Wieczoreks. This was Mrs. Danuta Włodarczyk living in Sosnowiec. Of course, there were some doubts, such as Mrs. Wieczorek’s first name. While I always thought of her as Maria, Mrs. Włodarczyk insisted that her grandmother’s first name was Stanisława. However, through Mrs. Włodarczyk I reached her mother, the Wieczorek’s youngest daughter Stasia. On the telephone I introduced myself as Józek Balicki (the name I used while posing as a Polish-Christian), which caused an immediate burst of joy. Despite the 64 years interruption of contact, Stasia remembered many specific details from the days I spent at their home.
Two months later, in early September, my wife Milka and I went to Poland to meet Stasia for a nostalgic recollection of our friendship, when I was 15 and she 17. Stasia has been a widow for a long time. Her daughter Danuta came from Sosnowiec to Częstochowa especially to meet me. The meeting was loaded with emotional recollections and love. They took us to the house where the family lived in 1944 and to the cemetery, where I lighted memorial candles at the graves of Stanisława and Józef.
Unfortunately, barely three months after our meeting, Stasia’s daughter phoned to tell me that her mother died from a brain hemorrhage, 81 years old. A sad conversation. But before her death, she submitted in Yad Vashem her witness statement, in which she described the events in 1944, when I lived at their home. Short time later the title Righteous Among the Nations was bestowed by Yad Vashem upon Stanisława Wieczorek, and the medal and certificate were handed to her granddaughter, Mrs. Danuta Włodarczyk.
My daughter Limor believes that Stasia had waited with her departure from this world, in order to enable us just one personal meeting. Couldn’t she be right?
* * *