As far back as I can remember, I always thought of life as bittersweet — that happiness and sadness could simultaneously coexist. I attribute this to being a child of Holocaust survivors, forced to learn how to couple my parents’ sadness about the war with my own youthful optimism.
I was born with a duty to be a living memorial candle — a beacon of light — for those family members lost during the Holocaust. Being a beacon is not as simple as lighting yahrtzeit candles or saying Kaddish for family members one never had the chance to meet; it is also about shining a light to search for missing relatives who were separated from family during the war. Of course, this poses a dilemma, when members of the second generation must ask themselves: When does a fruitless search become an assumption of death? I was at just that point when I received an e-mail in January from a popular TV show in Russia — Wait for Me — informing me they may have found a missing relative.
I grew up in the 1980s, younger than most other children of survivors born in the Shoa’s aftermath. I was a generational anomaly. While my friends spoke about how their parents went to Woodstock or college, the stories I knew were full of heart-wrenching drama about my mother’s siblings who disappeared in Russia, or my dad’s days confronting Nazi horror in the Lodz Ghetto.
As far back as I can remember, I always knew the story about my mother — then Malka Lancman, now Marlene Stevens — and how her brother and sister went missing in Russia while searching for food. Every school field trip I made to Ellis Island or a Holocaust museum was more about whether I could find any information about my aunt and uncle as opposed to the intended educational purpose of the trip.
This is the story: It was 1940. Jews from eastern Poland — under Stalin’s rule — were taken by Russian soldiers and forced into Soviet labor camps. As bleak as the labor camps were, their enslavement was what allowed them to survive; a Soviet camp was far better than a German one.
My mother and her family were aboard a cattle car taking them from one camp to another when the train stopped at the Vologda station. My mother’s only brother, Chaim, watched his mother — my grandmother — struggle while cradling their infant sister, Poyla, who was trying to suckle a breast that was dried out from malnourishment. He promised his mother and father he would return, and jumped off the train to gather food scraps to share with his parents and seven siblings.
When the train sounded its horn signaling its departure, Chaim had not returned. Moments before the train pulled out of the station, my mother’s older sister, Frima, jumped off, telling her parents that she would find Chaim and meet them at the next train stop. Neither Chaim nor Frima was ever seen or heard from again.
When the war ended, my mother’s family luckily remained mostly intact, except for Chaim and Frima, who were still missing, and Poyla, who had died from malnourishment. While stationed in the Fohrenwald Displaced Persons’ Camp in Germany, my grandparents desperately pleaded with different organizations and agencies to find Chaim and Frima, but to no avail. When they arrived in the United States, they wrote to Red Cross officials, agencies, and orphanages all over the world, with no luck. The closest they came was a letter they received from a Russian orphanage where Chaim once stayed before running away.
A message from Russia
Fast-forward to November 2005. Thanks to modern technology and the ability to instantly zip e-mails around the world, I was corresponding with Vologda, Russia, seeking any information about Chaim and Frima. My correspondent recommended I contact a Russian reality-based TV program called Wait for Me, which seeks to reunite missing relatives. It is one of the most popular programs in Russia. I wrote to the show, but did not hear back. Then, almost four years later, in May 2009, the TV program wrote requesting additional information.
Again, a wait. Then, this past January, I received an e-mail from Wait for Me. They had received a letter from a woman in Uzbekistan who was searching for her deceased mother’s family, and the description virtually matched my own search. This woman’s grandparents were Szlomo and Chasia Lancman — the same names as my grandparents. This woman’s mother was one of eight children from Poland; my mother was one of eight children from Poland. This woman’s mother had a sister named Ester; my mother had a sister named Ester. This woman’s mother was separated from her family when she went to look for her younger brother when they were at a train stop in Russia; that, of course, matched, too.
What did not match was that this woman’s mother’s name was Prima, while my mother’s sister was named Frima. This woman’s mother jumped off a train to find her brother named Marat, not Chaim. Nevertheless, when the TV show followed up by sending photos, the resemblance of this woman’s mother to my mother and her sisters was striking.
I now had no doubts that this woman — named Gulnora Jurajeva — was a newly found cousin, and that her mother was my lost aunt who jumped off that train 70 years ago. With the help of a translator, Gulnora and I now talk every week. We have also been mailing photographs and letters back and forth. We realize that a special bond exists between us, and a strong sense of pride in knowing that our search for family — despite the odds — has finally paid off.
I also learned that Gulnora was raised as a Muslim in Uzbekistan and lived that way for years — right up until she learned that her mother, my aunt, was really Jewish. Although she has indentified publicly as a Muslim, she knows in her heart that she is really Jewish.
So, armed with three photographs of my mother’s lost sister, I am currently working on bringing my newfound cousin to the United States so that she can be reunited with my mother and our family. And while I haven’t yet found my mother’s brother, my optimism, like the memorial light I have carried for my relatives, has not dimmed.