When my mother in law died, the job of cleaning out her home fell to me and my husband. Cleaning out 40 years worth of accumulation. Clothes, dishes, books, boxes of photos and papers galore. We found every birthday card and letter my husband had sent her from the time he was 14 and had gone away to school.
Among the papers was a guest list from my husband’s Bar Mitzvah. It contained names of family members, some we recognized, others we had heard of but had no idea how they were related or what happened to them. So my journey into genealogy began. I asked our Aunt & Uncle, who the people behind many of the names were, some they remembered while others they found familiar but had no idea how we were related. I got on the internet and started hunting around, sending away for death certificates, the social security application my husband’s grandfather had filed, which contained his mother’s maiden name. The family tree began to grow. I was dreaming about the small shtetl (village) where my husband’s great grandparents were from. A town called Niebylec, in what was then Galicia Poland.
My husband’s great grandparents
I found many first cousins had married, (including my husband’s grandparents) I also learned how entire branches of the family were decimated by the Nazis. My head was swirling with dates and names and who was related to who. I found someone who turned out to be my husband’s 3rd cousin who lived in England, who told me of a relative who might have information. He was 96, but he might have answers. So I called him. We figured out he was a 1st cousin to my husband’s grandfather. And he remembered EVERYTHING. Names, dates, places, who was related and how they were related. It was amazing. Our tree took on new life, the branches grew, pages of connecting family. We spoke everyday, and I came to call this man Uncle Yakob. His father & my husband’s great grandmother (the lady in the picture above) were brother & sister. He actually remembered her. More amazement. I wrote about him here.
I received an email from someone who found me through a genealogy website. She was in Israel, she said her mother’s maiden name was the same as a name in our family. It was not unusual to get emails like this, trying to make connections within families that share the same names. I had never had luck finding any real connections, just a lot of maybes. I emailed her back asking for more details. When I received the details a chill ran down my spine. This woman’s mother (Yaffa) was a first cousin to my mother in law. Yaffa had become estranged from her family before the war when she left for Israel, and after the war had no luck finding anyone and thought they had all perished. Yaffa’s children were raised always being told they had no one but each other. This fact weighed heavily on Yaffa throughout her life her daughter told me, a part of her identity unknown, the generations to come lost to the Nazis. The truth was that many relatives had survived also coming to Israel after the war, and some to America. Yaffa had cousins living not far from her in Israel. And Uncle Yakob was her Uncle. Really her uncle. When I called to tell him, he kept saying,”You are telling me my niece is alive?” And so Yaffa, who had never left the Kibbutz she had lived on for 60 years, came to America to meet her very much alive cousins, and her Uncle Yakob.
So the papers in the box led to giving the last few years of Yaffa’s life a renewed vigor and zest- as she visited and got to know the cousins that lived near her. Her daughter told me it changed her attitude, she was “lighter” and happier. It is important to know we have these connections. I am glad I had looked through those old papers in the box, they turned out to be life changing, connecting not just names to names, but people to people.
Yaffa with some new found relatives in Israel
Yaffa (center) & her first cousin, my Aunt, meeting for the first time in our home