Descendants of two branches of the Belzycki family, separated by more than seven decades and over 4,500 miles, reconnected early this spring thanks to improved Internet-based genealogy tools.
Brothers Abram and Chaim Belzycki saw each other for the last time in 1939, when Abram was 23 and Chaim 21. Along with their parents, other relatives, and 25,000 other Jews, they were imprisoned in the Piotrkow Trybunalski ghetto, which was created just 38 days after the Nazis invaded Poland.
Chaim was able to escape and crossed the border into Russia, where he was taken into the Red Army and fought against the Germans, said Jessica Katz of Freehold, 25, Abram’s granddaughter.
“As the eldest son, my grandfather felt obligated to stay with the family, and he and one cousin, Yaacov, who now is in Israel, were the only ones to survive,” Katz told NJJN via e-mail.
Katz lives with her parents, Michelle and Harry, and three sisters.
In the beginning, Chaim sent letters and packages from Russia, but communication stopped after a while, and within a few years the Nazis transported almost everyone from the ghetto to the death camps, including Treblinka, Mauthausen, and Auschwitz.
“My grandpa didn’t like speaking about his wartime experiences with me, but I always knew, from the time I was a very little girl, that his family was murdered in the Holocaust,” said Katz.
“I also knew Americans freed him from Mauthausen, and he lived in a displaced persons’ camp in Italy for five years before coming to America in 1950. While in Italy, he learned tailoring skills and later worked as a tailor in the United States,” Katz said.
Abram started his new life in Minnesota, where he was sponsored by a Jewish family, but soon went to Denver, where, despite having a “nice job,” Katz said, he confessed to feeling isolated.
His next move was to Brooklyn, where he belonged to a society from his hometown of Piotrkow. “He attended many meetings and celebrations with them,” said Katz. “He loved America and really appreciated the life he had here.”
Her grandparents met in 1959, got married in 1960, and relocated from Brooklyn to the Freehold/Howell area in 1994, Katz said. “My grandma’s name was Marilyn and she was American, but her parents were from Europe and spoke Yiddish. Her family had moved to America before the war.”
But Abram never forgot that he had a brother who might still be alive. “He loved Chaim and spent his lifetime searching for him,” Katz said. “Together with my mom, he contacted every place he could think of — HIAS, Yad Vashem, the International Red Cross in Germany. He even placed ads in U.S., Russian, and Israeli newspapers. My mother said their biggest success was obtaining a copy of Chaim’s birth certificate from Poland.”
Jessica Katz said she joined the search effort during a recent two-week vacation from work. “I looked into Jewishgen.org, contacting Russian genealogists, using Jewish genealogy Facebook groups and Russian Jewish genealogy forums.”
Through her research, she said, “I found a woman in Israel who saw one of my posts and messaged my cousin on a Russian social media site called Classmates.”
Katz then unearthed a link, in Russian, to documents stating that Chaim was in the Red Army in 1942. The documents showed the year Chaim was born, the town he came from in Poland, and his father’s name. “I shared these documents on social media, where it was seen by one of Chaim’s sons, and he responded — as happy to find us as we were to find him,” Katz said.
Unfortunately, the discovery came too late for the brothers. Abram died in 2011 at age 95. Chaim died of a brain tumor in 1970 at age 51.
“In the past few weeks, we’ve had numerous conversations with our ‘new’ relatives, thanks to Skype and the help of a translator,” Katz said. “We learned that Chaim married about a year after the war ended and had four children — a daughter who died young, and three sons: Slava, who died in 1997; Evgeny, now 64 and living in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Sakhalin Island in the North Pacific Ocean; and Anatoly, 62, who lives in Khabarovsk, located fewer than 20 miles from the Chinese border.”
Both of Chaim’s surviving sons have families of their own: each has a wife and daughter, and Anatoly has a grandson.
“There are many parallels between the Russian and American branches of the family,” said Katz. “Chaim and my grandfather were both tailors. They also both married women eight years younger than they were. Chaim’s son Anatoly is a professor, and I want to be a professor. Chaim’s other son, Evgeny, is a journalist, and he didn’t know that his great-grandfather (my grandpa’s father) was also an editor in Poland for a Jewish newspaper.”
Katz continued: “Evgeny’s daughter, Yulia, is an accountant, and my father is an accountant. Yulia’s daughter Anna sings; I also sing, as does my younger sister Emily. Anatoly’s daughter Elena is an artist; my grandfather was also an artist and so are my sisters Sara, Melanie, and Emily.”
Katz also said that Evgeny looks like her Uncle Eddie, her mother’s brother, while Anatoly resembles Abram, the uncle he never knew.
Expressing hope that some of the Russians may come to New Jersey for a visit this summer, Katz added, “We are so blessed. We now have an extended family whom we love very much and whom we hope to remain close to for many generations to come.”