Sent hurtling toward different destinies by the Shoa, a Jewish survivor and her Muslim niece were united last month in a meeting that bridged the chasm of time but also brought up painful memories.
On Dec. 24, Marlene Stevens of Short Hills and Gulnora Jurajeva of Uzbekistan embraced at John F. Kennedy Airport, almost two years after Stevens’ son Robert initiated a search for his mother’s long-lost sister.
As described in earlier articles in NJ Jewish News, Rob Stevens, of Union County, was able to fulfill his mother’s lifelong desire to discover the fate of her sister Frima during the Holocaust. Although Frima died in 1984, her daughter Gulnora was living in Uzbekistan and had undertaken her own search for her mother’s lost relatives.
The two branches of the family linked up in 2010, with help from the producers of a Russian reality television program that reunites people. And, after a long battle to get Jurajeva a visa, she is now in the United States on a three-week visit.
Five days after their initial emotional reunion at Kennedy Airport, sitting around Marlene’s dining room table in Short Hills, the family continues to display intense feelings.
“It’s hard to believe this is actually happening,” Marlene said, reaching across to her 52-year-old niece, who wore an embroidered black kaftan. The resemblance between them, with their dark eyes and high cheekbones, is unmistakable.
Marlene’s son Harris, of Short Hills, beaming at his cousin, said, “Even though we’ve only just met Gulnara and even though it’s so hard to communicate, there’s this absolute sense of connection between us.”
She smiled back at him.
Marlene’s sister Ruth Waldman arrived from Toms River with her son Steven, of Marlboro, and daughter Carol, of Brick, for their first encounter with their Uzbeki cousin. Jurajeva kept patting Ruth’s hair and gesturing to her picture of her mother. The likeness is uncanny. There are hugs and exclamations and tears. Over and over again they exchanged speechless looks of joyful disbelief.
Jurajeva sat silent and stoical as the voices swirled around her. She had already had much to absorb in the United States — from learning about the Shoa on a visit to the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City, to the indoor plumbing that she doesn’t have at home, to the trees and hills, so different from the flat, brown landscape she comes from.
Jurajeva, who is divorced, has a daughter and two grandchildren. Rob said they have learned she keeps some farm animals.
“She has to save for one year to buy a cow, which is like one million som — Uzbekistan’s currency — which is $550 U.S. dollars,” he said. “It’s a very different life.”
Jurajeva has an Uzbek/English phrase book, which she had used to tell Rob, “My most sincere thanks to you.” But even with the aid of Google translation on cellphones, communicating was tough. Hand gestures and written numbers helped, but not much.
Finally a phone connection brings a translator into the conversation. Jurajeva lights up, able at last to convey her feeling about this extraordinary situation.
“She says she is very excited and very grateful,” said translator Oksana Tsiselska, who lives in Carteret. Tears filled Jurajeva’s dark eyes. “She is so sad that her mother never had a chance to experience this, but she is very happy to be with her family.”
A hidden past
In 1941, Marlene was two or three, and Ruthie about four when, on a train trip to a forced-labor camp in Russia, their nine-year-old brother Chaim and 16-year-old sister Frima were separated from the family. Chaim had gone in search of food and Frima went to find him. The train left without them.
Marlene and Ruthie were too little to remember the trauma, but they grew up with the family’s endless search — in Russia and Europe and later after they had immigrated to the United States in 1948. Their father, whose children from an earlier marriage were all killed in the war, died in 1949. Their mother, though she had five other surviving daughters and later many grandchildren, never got over losing Chaim and Frima.
“All I ever wanted was to help my mother, to give her what she wanted,” said Marlene, now 72. For all her joy at finding her niece, it pains her that this came too late for her mother and the three sisters who have already passed away.
Since 2010, Rob has come to know Jurajeva better than the others. With Tsiselska’s help, they have talked on the phone almost weekly. Now, in person, they have pieced together some background.
After being separated from her family, Frima would eventually marry a Muslim man and bring up her five children as Muslims. But Jurajeva remembers her mother talking behind closed doors with one particular friend in a language she didn’t understand — probably Yiddish. Frima did tell her children about how she lost her family, but only at the end of her life did she tell them about her Jewish background.
Jurajeva, who publicly identifies as Muslim, did tell her cousin Rob that “she knows in her heart that she is really Jewish,” he said.
Jurajeva said her mother was told the train the family was on was shelled and everyone died, but she wasn’t convinced. She always said if she ever found her family, she would take Gulnora and her other four children and leave her husband.
With the translator’s help, Jurajeva said she wanted to tell other people, “Never lose your hope. Always keep searching right to the end.”
Emboldened by his success in finding Jurajeva, Rob is pursuing every lead he can in hopes of locating Chaim. His uncle, who would be in his early 80s, could be anywhere, he said.
Rob has also created a website, iamalink.com, to commemorate victims of the Holocaust and help reunite other families.
“Don’t you know a way we could reach Oprah Winfrey or Diane Sawyer or Steven Spielberg?” Marlene asked a visitor. “Please can you help us get our story out — so maybe we can find someone somewhere who knows him?”