Cousins Torn Apart by the Holocaust Meet for the First Time at Yad Vashem
JNS.org — When Fania Bilkay and her son, Evgeni, stepped up to her desk, Sima Velkovich was winding down an ordinary work day in the archives division of Yad Vashem-The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. She was then suddenly pulled into the center of a complex family drama that reached its climax last week.
During a recent tour of Poland to explore her roots, Bilkay had visited a Warsaw synagogue, where she discovered a document from Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names that counted her father, Nisan Band, and his family among those killed by the Nazis.
“Why is he listed as murdered?” she asked, confused — given that her father survived the Holocaust and died of natural causes in 1983, though he lost three children during the war and had always told Bilkay and her brother, Gennadi, that their entire extended family had been wiped out.
The document that erroneously reported Nisan’s death had been completed in the 1950s by Symcha Borenstein, husband of Nisan’s sister, Jenta. By disputing the record of her father’s death, Bilkay spurred Yad Vashem researchers to discover that Jenta and Nisan both survived the Holocaust, and both spent their lives thinking they were the sole remaining members of their immediate family.
In a tear-filled scene at the Jerusalem museum on December 13, Fania and Gennadi were united with their first cousins, sisters Henia Borenstein Moskowitz and Ryvka Borenstein Patchnik.
“It is difficult to describe how I feel,” said Bilkay. “My father always searched for members of his family and dreamed of finding them. He was alone. But in this meeting today, his dream has finally come true.”
Jenta’s daughters had also grown up believing “that we had no family, that everyone was murdered in Poland,” Henia said.
“If someone on the phone told you that you have first cousins who want to meet you, you could be suspicious,” said Lital Beer, director of Yad Vashem’s Reference and Information Services. “But the sisters — Henia and Ryvka — were very open and excited. Their meeting was so moving. They brought family photos to share and discovered, to their amazement, that they’ve all been living all these years near Tel Aviv.”
“I felt a connection at first sight. My family has grown overnight,” said Henia. “Thanks to Yad Vashem, we discovered that we are not alone.”
Such a reunion is perhaps the ultimate defeat of Hitler, said Dr. Thomas Kuehne, director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
“The Nazis wanted to kill the Jews but also to erase the memory of them,” he told JNS.org. “If they had been completely successful, not only would the Jews be gone, but there would be no trace of them. This kind of reunion proves that they failed.”
The Band/Borenstein family mystery, however, is not completely solved. The two Borenstein sisters know that their brothers Avram and Hercz-Lejb survived the war, but they lost track of them decades ago. “We haven’t given up,” said Yad Vashem spokesman Simmy Allen. “The brothers are what our researchers are working on now.”
To date, Yad Vashem has identified more than two-thirds — 4.6 million — of the Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust, recorded in the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. It’s an ongoing task that Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Avner Shalev calls “a mission to uncover the names of those who have no one to remember them.”
Holocaust survivor Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel and current chair of the Yad Vashem Council, said, “Our obligation, above all, is to complete the database of names of our 6 million victims. The candle is about to be extinguished. With the number of people with their Auschwitz numbers tattooed on their arms growing ever smaller, it’s very important and necessary that all this information be concentrated in one single database with 6 million names.”
The simple act of adding a relative’s name to Yad Vashem’s database can also prove therapeutic for families, noted Myra Giberovitch, author of the 2014 book “Recovering from Genocidal Trauma.”
“Submitting this information enables family members to find some peace by knowing they have fulfilled their holy mission to bear witness,” Giberovitch said.
Family members’ names can be added to the database of Holocaust victims by contacting the Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project at firstname.lastname@example.org. The names are ultimately added to the Pages of Testimony in Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names. The pages, said Giberovitch, “are a paper cemetery that provides a final resting place for their loves ones, thereby preserving their memory for future generations. In the words of one survivor: ‘It lessens my pain.’”
But for the Band and Borenstein families, this week is less about pain and more about celebrating. When Yad Vashem staffers offered the Borenstein sisters a ride home after the reunion, they politely declined because their newfound cousins insisted on driving them.
“The five of them squeezed into the car together,” said Yad Vashem’s Beer. “After all these years, they are family.”