One of the Nazis’ crimes, when murdering half of the Jewish people in the Holocaust, was that they robbed us of our history. Most of us do not know where we came from, who our great-great parents were, what life they lived, or who our extended family is. It doesn’t help that the first generation after the Holocaust wanted to forget the horrors and did not share a lot of information with us. Now we are fighting back. Winning is defined as building back our family history, one person at a time.
In 2011 I created a family tree on GENI (the internet-based genealogy and social networking website www.geni.com) and then forgot about it. I did it mostly as a reference for future generations. Truly, I got bored with it pretty quickly. Eventually I forgot all about it.
For that reason, my first reaction was to dismiss a request, when reading an e–mail sent to me by a person I didn’t know, asking me to make an addition to my grandfather’s profile on my family tree. I was certain that he was a hacker. But when the same person, Roderick, sent me another e–mail the following day, asking me about a conflict between information he had and what I had written about my great-great aunt Margot, with specific knowledge about my family history, I realized that he knew of Margot, and that he knew of me. I didn’t know how.
It took me a while to remember how to log in to GENI, after five years of not visiting the site. To my surprise, the site still existed. I looked at the conflicting information; Roderick wanted to place my great-great aunt Margot in a different place on the family tree. It was confusing; I had to contact my mother in Israel to get to the bottom of it. As it turned out, Roderick was correct.
When I responded to Roderick, I noticed that there were several other GENI user names copied on the email, so I replied to all of them. What followed was an amazing journey into history with specific details about my family. Information I wouldn’t have known if Roderick wasn’t persistent in his attempt to connect with me. Roderick is a relative and so are the rest of the people who were copied on the email.
As I learned in the following weeks, the relatives belong to different branches of my extended family. They had been working on the family tree for about a year before I was contacted. They met each other through individual DNA () and genealogical (, ,
) websites as they searched for relatives. As their individual branches coincided, they merged them together into a bigger and stronger tree. This was often difficult, due to different languages and spellings, as some of the names had been hand down through word of mouth, and were even translated into Hebrew and then back again. Eventually one of the growing branches found and connected to my grandfather Shlomo and my great-great aunt Margot.
I was contacted by Roderick after an unexpected “treasure” was found. It led to the connection with my family tree. The treasure was a box full of original documents and photos of family members including my great uncles Erwin and Rudi and their families who perished in the Holocaust. For the first time we saw pictures of these close family members we had previously only known by their names but they were never forgotten. Through the pictures they seemed to come back to life. With the discovery of the documents we also learned what happened to them, confirming details submitted by various relatives to the website http://www.yadvashem.org/. We found a letter from Rudi who was trapped with his family in Berlin, sent to his cousin (and brother-in-law) Erwin who had escaped to Yugoslavia. In this letter, which seemed innocent, there are hidden clues of an upcoming attempt to escape.
The story of how the documents and photos were found is miracle in itself: my great uncle Erwin, who grew up in Germany, and at one point in the 1930’s emigrated to Israel, returned to Europe for health reasons. Rudi, a solicitor, also was in Israel in 1939, but returned to Germany to be with his wife and children and to support his community, for he was an active member of the Jewish Community in Berlin and felt it his duty to be there for them. Since living conditions for Jews in Nazi Germany were impossible, Erwin stayed in Yugoslavia where he joined Annemarie, who fled Germany on skis by night after being arrested by the Gestapo in Berlin in 1933 and 1937. She fled with about 20 mostly orphaned children, mostly Jews. The children were either left behind when their parents were taken to concentration camps, or when their parents fled Germany. During the war, Erwin and Annemarie lived together in Yugoslavia and raised the children. Annemarie had a daughter. Her name was Ursula. Eventually the Nazis captured them and they were sent to concentration camps.(Erwin was taken to the concentration camp Danica Koprivnica in 1940 and died there presumably in December 1940. Annemarie was arrested by the ustascha in summer 1944 in Zagreb and was taken to the concentration camp Jasenovac. There she was murdered in spring 1945. Ursula was by chance not at home, when the police came to arrest her mother and survived the last months of the war hidden by friends). Ursula survived the war and remained in Yugoslavia by herself. She was fifteen years old with no family. She finished college and studied music and dance in Zagreb. Ursula kept Erwin’s collection of family documents, his CV, letters and photos, including of his family’s graves. She brought the documents from Yugoslavia back to Germany. In 1959 (when she married Ernst-Ludwig Heuss, who had assisted Annemarie 12 years earlier to escape Germany, and was the single son Theodor Heuss, the first democratic president of Germany after the war), and, after she married, eventually to Switzerland. She kept letters and photos of Erwin and Annmarie her whole life. A few years before Ursula died in 2009, she began organizing the documents. Her son Ludwig was one of the Geni users contacted. He opened the box full of documents and more than 100 photos only few weeks ago and shared these with the group.
Erwin was related to my grandfather Shlomo in two ways: Shlomo was married to Erwin’s younger sister Tova. Erwin was also the brother-in-law of Rudi (Shlomo’s brother), who was married to Erwin’s older sister Hertha. My great-great aunt Margot was married to Herbert, Erwin’s older brother.
When I first saw pictures of my great uncles Erwin and Rudi, and of my grandmother Tova as a teenager, and pictures of other family members in pre-Nazi Germany, I forwarded them to my mother in Israel. This was the first time she had seen photos of her mother as a teenager living a comfortable life on a large estate in Germany. My mother finally learned what happened to her uncles in Europe. There are no words to describe how important it was for her and the closure that solving this mystery brought to her.
Another interesting point was that we finally have pictures of family members of my mother on both sides; my grandfather’s and my grandmother’s sides. Through the family tree we knew that the two families married among themselves for generations (cousins married cousins). The pictures showed how much the two sides of the family looked alike, which supported the accuracy of the tree.
I joined the group. At the present time, our small group has representatives from England, Sweden, Israel, Switzerland, and the US. I’m certain that with time we’ll discover family members all across the globe. Through the group’s discoveries, I also learned how antisemitism affected my ancestors. My great-great uncle Julius had a successful large farm in Germany, which he was forced to sell in 1936. Great-uncle Herbert’ family also had a successful clothing business, which they had to operate in disguise, using a non-Jewish person as a front man. The family was forced to sell this business too, apparently at gunpoint, after refusing to manufacture Nazi uniforms.
In 1933 there were about 15 million Jews in the world. They lived in concentrated areas and married within the faith. After WW2, in 1945, there were 11 million Jews in the world. They also lived in concentrated areas and married within the faith. Relatively, this is a small group of people that could fit in one metropolitan area of a large city like New York, Miami, Paris, or London. For that reason, it is not surprising that once a Jewish family tree is merged, it is easy to see how most of us are related through marriage. My journey into the past is just one of many. In the past few weeks I learned that GENI is a growing site where more names and more family connections are made daily.
The list below shows my family connections through my mother. I know almost nothing about my father’s side of the family. It is still a mystery. All I have is one document from the Nazi archive serving as a testimony that he was in a concentration camp. He survived the camp, immigrated to Israel, and married my mother. He died when I was five years old, before I had a chance to learn about his family.
The more connections, the more we know about our families. Our growing knowledge of our past is our victory over the Nazis.
Through the group and GENI, I learned that I’m related through marriage to many famous people including the following:
Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Richard Feynman, Victor Weisskopf, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Lise Meitner, Eugene Wigner, Max Born, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Otto Frisch, Leó Szilárd, Jacques Hadamard, Emmy Noether, Jonas Salk, Marvin Minsky, Ilan Ramon, Arnold Schoenberg, Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler, Johannes Brahms, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Irving Berlin, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Naomi Shemer, Arik Einstein, Benny Goodman, David Lee Roth, Geddy Lee, Beck, Amy Winehouse, Lenny Kravitz, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Drake, Maria Altmann, Bobby Fischer, Joseph Bloomingdale, Simon Wiesenthal, Rashi, Yehuda ben Betzalel Loew, Baruch Spinoza, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Alan Ginsberg, Vincent Willem van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Sandy Koufax, Voltaire, Aldous Huxley, Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, R. L. Stine, Lion Feuchtwanger, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Harry Houdini, Larry King, Wolf Blitzer, Katie Couric, Howard Stern, Jerry Springer, Ron Jeremy, Rube Goldberg, Fritz Freleng, Matt Stone, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jerry Stiller, Larry David, David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Harrison Ford, Natalie Portman, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Gal Gadot, Barbra Streisand, Bette Middler, Dustin Hoffman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Billy Crystal, Rick Moranis, Amanda Bynes, Helen Hunt, Hank Azaria, David Duchovny, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Carrie Fisher, Elizabeth Taylor, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Paul Newman, Bob Saget, Tori Spelling, Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel Radcliffe, Fred Savage, Adam Sandler, Jesse Eisenberg, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeff Goldblum, Chris Kattan, Winona Ryder, Jake Gyllenhaal, Amanda Peet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Downey, Jr., Madonna, Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, J. J. Abrams, Mel Brooks, Levi Strauss, Ralph Lauren, Estée Lauder, Marie Antoinette, Napoléon I, Princess Diana, Winston Curchill, Benjamin Disraeli, Mayer Carl de Rothschild, Bernard Baruch, George Soros, Judah P. Benjamin, Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan, John F. Kennedy, Monica Lewinsky, Michael Bloomberg, Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Judge Judy, Merrick Garland, Alan Dershowitz, Alan Greenspan, Milton Friedman, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump
In this picture, Rudi (left) Shlomo (right) as young officers in the German army in WW1
Tova and Erwin