My parents are first-generation American, my grandparents urban Galicians, fleeing chaos and pogroms in the aftermath of WWI. Their parents; shtetl Jews living in fear of Cossacks. Before that? Likely just ordinary Jewish peasants living as often unwanted guests in lands dominated by others back to time immemorial. Interesting, but why do people like me, comfortable, assimilated, western Jews study our ancestry? For me, is so that when I contemplate who and what I am, I have some historical context. Because in both genes and culture, we are, in many ways, the end result of the lives our ancestors led.
I also research to learn the fates of family members who disappeared, or were never known, in the great calamity of the Shoah. What became of my grandfather’s brother, Elia, last seen crossing the San and joining the Red Army in 1939? What of his wife and children? How can I honor their memory if I don't know their names?
Every Jew alive has some heartbreaking story of loss. Sisters, sons, and parents vanished into the Nazi death machine, entire families, gone. Here on the Przemysl blog, I give special treatment to survivors looking for lost souls, knowing that today, some fifty years after the holocaust, the odd of finding any information is very slim.
The email below arrived last week. It made me realize that their is another important category of searchers – gentiles who discover, through some revelation, that contrary to their upbringing, in complete opposition to everything they have been told, they are, in fact, of Jewish ancestry. To them, the sense of loss must be profound. Not only do they suddenly "inherit" the holocaust, but they simultaneously lose a lifetime of assumptions about where they came from. And above all, why the cloak of silence about the past? Why were they lied to? What horror happened to cause their ancestors to switch faiths?
Its my blog so I'll state my opinion: Those of us who did not live through the horrors of 1939 and on in Nazi Europe are in absolutely no position to judge the actions of those who did. Anyone who thinks that they can imagine how they would react to seeing family members tortured and murdered is simply not being honest with themselves.
Here is the email:
I just ran across the Przemysl blog and wanted to ask your advice. I just discovered (at the age of 61) that I am a Jew, that my parents survived the Holocaust under assumed names, and that I lived in Israel between 1949 and 1951. I am now in the early stages of trying to reconstruct my parents' real history. A summary of my father's reparation file states that he was interred in the Przemysl ghetto in 1942, liberated in Uzhorod in 1944, was in Przemysl and Bytom after the war. I am attaching the summary. I knew him (he died in 1988) as John Thomas Baran, or, in Polish, Jan Tomasz Baran, but his real name appears to have been Jakub Cytryn. His parents, Mojzesz and Masza Cytryn nee Guzik (I grew up referring to them as Boleslaw and Maria Baran) and his sisters Roma, Adela, Franceska and Sabina all perished in the war. I have traced Sabina to her death in Auschwitz in February 1943, not found any of the others. I would appreciate any advice on tracing the Przemysl connection. Thank you very much.
And so started the breathtaking story Roma Baran.
In the following posts, I will reprint (with Roma’s permission) the emails that have been flying ever since she found out about her real family history.
Please feel free to email me if you have any additional information that might be helpful to Roma, or if you simply want to comment.