By Deborah Fineblum/JNS.org
When Fania Bilkay and her son Evgeni stepped up to her desk, Sima Velkovich, a staffer in the archives division of Yad Vashem - The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, was winding down what appeared to be an ordinary work shift. But suddenly, she was pulled into the center of a complex family drama that reached its climax this week.
During a recent tour of Poland intended to help her explore her roots, Bilkay had visited a Warsaw synagogue where she discovered a form on Yad Vashem's Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names that counted her father and his family among those killed by the Nazis.
“Why is he listed as murdered?” she asked regarding her father Nisan Band, who survived the Holocaust and died of natural causes in 1983, although he did lose three children during the war. Nisan had always told Bilkay and her brother Gennadi that their five aunts as well as their entire families were wiped out in the Holocaust.
What Bilkay didn’t know that day in Warsaw was that by disputing the recorded evidence of the “murder” of her father, she was about to be begin a journey that would unite her with relatives she had never known existed. The family reunion took place in Jerusalem Dec. 13.
Connecting the dots
As it turns out, the document that falsely reported Nisan Band’s death had been completed in the 1950s, soon after Yad Vashem opened its doors. The document was signed by Symcha Borenstein, the husband of Nisan’s sister, Jenta. Symcha registered his brother-in-law, plus Nisan’s family, as among the murdered—something he had every reason to believe was true.
Although siblings Jenta and Nisan both died after Holocaust believing that they were the only remaining members of their immediate family, each have surviving children who are now united thanks to some clever sleuthing by Yad Vashem researchers.
In a tear-filled scene Dec. 13 at Yad Vashem, sisters Henia Borenstein Moskowitz and Ryvka Borenstein Patchnik were introduced to their first cousins, Gennadi Band, Fania Bilkay, and Fania’s son Evgeni.
“It is difficult to describe how I feel,” said Fania 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.”
Henia Borenstein Moskowitz, the late Jenta’s daughter, had also grown up believing “that we had no family, that everyone was murdered in Poland.” But that belief changed with a single phone call from Yad Vashem.
“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 and [that] my family has grown overnight,” said Henia Borenstein Moskowitz. “Thanks to Yad Vashem, we discovered that we are not alone.”
Such a reunion is perhaps Hitler’s final defeat, 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 search goes on
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 though,” 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 Dec. 13 reunion, they politely declined because their newfound cousin Evgeni Bilkay 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.”