Family Secret

By Bill Schechter | November 29, 2004

The Boston Globe

On Nov. 3, Brookline residents Bill Schechter, 58, a high school history teacher, and his father, Jerry Schechter, 86, left Logan Airport for Nuremberg, Germany, to reunite with family members long thought to have died in the Holocaust and/or World War II. Their Russian cousins had been ''found" the previous May, and the e-mails and phone calls that ensued were their first contact since 1935, when Stalin and then Hitler got in the way. This is a story full of secrets, improbabilities, and serendipitous events. For 15 years, the Schechters had been researching the facts of their family history but were not searching for relatives whom they believed had perished. To their amazement, they found many of the facts -- and their relatives, as well.

This story almost certainly begins on a Monday in the mid-1950s, because Monday was when illness would always strike, just in time for the beginning of the school week. My father would tell me to gargle with hot water and go to school, but I'd wait for him to leave before pleading my case with my mother. More often than not, she would pack me up for the six-floor elevator ride to my grandparents' apartment in the Amalgamated, a cooperative housing project in the Bronx, where my family lived in a tight-knit community of Jewish garment workers and union activists.

Needless to say, my Monday-itis malady was special for my grandparents as well. My grandfather, Max Schechter, had been a business agent for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and my grandmother, Bessie Schechter, had worked as a seamstress. They were retired now, and they looked forward to taking care of the ''kranke kinde" (sick child), plying me with food and sitting with me as we watched some of my favorite daytime shows on their small black-and-white TV set.

Now and again, I'd take to exploring their apartment, and they'd allow me to rummage through the top drawer of their dresser, where they kept mementos and souvenirs. Somewhere in the drawer, I came upon a bag of old letters, all yellow and brown with age. I'm sure I would have recognized that some of them were written in Yiddish, as this was the familiar alphabet that was lit up in neon in the front window of our neighborhood butcher store. The Russian letters puzzled me, because I remember asking my grandmother about them.

I still remember her response. ''They are from my family," she said.

''What family, Grandma?" I asked. ''Tell me about them."

To which she replied, in her old-world accent: ''Nu, why do you want to talk such foolishness?" And with that, she ushered me over to the TV, where I sank into the utter bliss of ''Queen for a Day."

These were the 1950s, and oral history was not yet considered an unambiguously wonderful thing, particularly for an immigrant generation that had left another world behind. But I was a kid, and the only ghosts I knew were in the Sunday morning cartoons.

The 1960s
I went away to college and found the '60s. There was a war and there were protests, and I was present at many of them. But I also found myself studying Russian history, with a special focus on Russian Jews. Already I was searching for something.

The '70s and '80s
I started teaching history at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, where I still work. Every year, I share with my students a favorite quotation about history: ''The past is never dead. It's not even past." The words belong to William Faulkner. Little did I know what personal meaning this quotation would come to have for me. But during this period, my wife and I had two young sons, and there was little time to think about any history other than the material I was teaching.

The '90s
In 1989 my mother died, and three years later my father moved to Brookline to be near us. In preparation for the move, his home in New York was cleaned out from basement to attic. In the midst of it all, an old plastic bag floated to the surface.

It was the letters, and they arrived right on time.

With my children growing up, I now had more time to ponder my family's history, which was, after all, their legacy. Besides, my father wasn't getting any younger, and if my family's story was to be gathered, this was the time. My father and I decided we had to have the letters translated.

I asked a teacher of Russian language at my school if she would help with the translation, thinking that the project might take only a few weeks of intermittent work. Being a Russian Jew herself, and a recent immigrant, she was also curious about the contents and agreed to take up the challenge. Her jaw dropped when she saw the bag: Inside was a formidable jumble of more than 100 letters, some beautifully written in a tiny script, others in a large but illegible hand. The Russian letters were mixed up with the Yiddish ones, while letters from 1929 lay atop those from 1914. It was a mess. She drew in a deep breath and said she would just reach in, pull a random letter out, and begin.

As it turned out, the letter she chose was the very first one my Grandma Bessie had received from her family in 1913, the year of her emigration from Belorussia to America. The last letter would be dated 1935. The correspondence then abruptly stopped.

The ''intermittent" translation work took nine years to complete. A colleague at Lincoln-Sudbury and later a Russian exchange student handled the bulk of the Russian letters, but the Yiddish letters presented a unique problem. While there are many people in the Boston area who can read Yiddish, it isn't easy to find someone who can read Yiddish handwriting. We almost gave up. But something drove us forward. In several of the Russian letters, there was a reference to a terrible event that had occurred, in which everything had been stolen, ''even our underwear." For no rational reason, I felt that the answer would be found in the Yiddish letters (perhaps better to disguise the story from prying government eyes). We continued our search for a Yiddish translator, and we finally found her. It was a good thing we did.

So that's the story of the letters, but it's not the story the letters told.

We learned that my grandmother died with a great secret, part of the ''foolishness" she chose not to share with her grandson or even with her own two sons.

The secret was that when she came to America she had left nine brothers and sisters behind in the old country.

We read the translations with open mouths. Suddenly, Neeson entered our lives. Then Mikhail, then Chaim. Hanna, Sonya, Bayla, Yanka, and Michela soon followed. The story of a Russian Jewish family began to unroll before us, and, in a way, the story of all Russian Jews.

We read of hardships so routine that they were as often assumed in the letters as described. In disbelief, we learned of famines, the words on the page resonating eerily with my grandmother's constant importuning of us to ''ess, ess a bissel" (eat, eat a little). In letter No. 66, we read with horror the account of a pogrom, in which the terrorized Jewish residents of our hometown fled along a road for 10 miles, leaving behind scores of dead and, as it turned out, a dozen people hidden in the basement of our family's house. There were also accounts of happier times, when members of a scattered family returned to their tiny Belorussian village of Kholmech, on the Dnepr River, for Passover.

The letters conveyed the complex emotional relationship between the emigrant and those who remained behind, a topic largely ignored in the extensive literature on immigration. For along with love, there were subtle expressions of envy and resentment. After all, one sister now lived in shining America while the others continued to scratch out a life in a tiny backwater shtetl, unsentimentally described by one despairing sister as ''the back-of-the beyond." And while America was also a place of crumbling tenements, evictions, sweatshops, and unemployment, this reality was often lost on those who stayed in the old country.

The translated letters were put on the Internet, on the large site, which is dedicated to re-creating -- virtually -- the many Jewish communities destroyed during World War II. Later, we added a list we had acquired of Kholmech Jews who had been massacred by the Nazis. We were relieved that the names of our family members were not on the list -- but then where were they? The sense of mystery deepened.

Soon after, I received an e-mail from a professor of history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He had acquired a slightly different list and asked if I would be amenable to merging mine with his. Of course I agreed. But unfortunately his list also did not answer the question of what had happened to my family, the Rapoports of Kholmech.

With the Web publication of this list, my father and I had now completed our exploration of family history. We had learned what we could. We had finished the project. What we didn't know was that it wasn't quite finished with us.

May 2004
In May, when the demands of school and the organizing of an alumni gathering had sent me spinning, an e-mail arrived from Albert Kagnovich, the Israeli professor who had collaborated with me three years earlier. In the course of conducting research and interviews regarding a neighboring town of Kholmech, he had found my family -- in Germany.

It happened this way: My cousin Tsilya had volunteered to be interviewed by professor Kagnovich after hearing about his research. When he finished, he wanted to check the spelling of names. However, he confused Tsilya's mother's married name for her maiden name. She corrected him: Her mother's maiden name was Rapoport. Professor Kagnovich then said, ''Oh, so she must have come from Kholmech." My cousin was stunned, as she hadn't mentioned the name of this little village. How did the professor know this, she asked? Oh, he said, an American had created a website about the Rapoports of Kholmech. And so the connection was made.

E-mails flew between Brookline and Nuremberg. Then the great day arrived when I picked up the phone believing I was a member of a very small family and hung up a half-hour later realizing I was now a member of a very large one. Yes, the family we had researched but had never thought to look for was alive and well.

Nov. 3, 2004
My father and I arrived at Logan Airport for the six-hour flight to Nuremberg. We were excited but had no idea what to expect. Surely, some questions would be answered. How did they survive? Where did they go? Did they ever think about us? How would they wish to relate to us?

We flew through the night to Frankfurt and on to Nuremberg, journeying back to our history and forward to a future we could only imagine.

Nov. 4, 2004
We landed at the Nuremberg airport. It was 8:45 a.m., and we would soon learn that only a few moments before, a cousin from Belarus had also touched down. The circle was closing.

We walked out into the waiting area, with an old photograph of my grandmother pinned to our lapels. Suddenly we saw a group lined up before us. Eyes met. Would there be polite words of hello, in one of three languages? Would there be handshakes? No, there would be neither. We were embraced and swept up in a crush of Russian endearments, and the tears flowed. In what Russian I can remember from my college days, I said: ''Cousins! Hello! Greetings, with love, from America." More tears.

We were ushered into a car and sped off to a house in Nuremberg, the home of one of the four children of my grandmother's youngest sister, Bayla, who died in 1997. In Nuremberg live the sisters Tsilya and Sofiya, with their families. From Belarus came Yakov, representing his family and that of his brother Michael. Soon other cousins, Evgeney from Berlin and Stanislav from Stuttgart, would arrive. For the first time in his life, my father would spend time with his first cousins.

What transpired was far different from what we had or could have imagined. We came for a closure of sorts, to get the final details of a story that had eluded us for more than a decade. Yes, of course, we had also come to meet our ''family," but what that meant, we weren't sure. By the second day, we got the story. Yes, several members of my grandmother's family were killed in the war, including her sister Hanna. Her brother Chaim was killed in a war-related accident. Her brother Neeson starved to death in Kazakhstan in 1942. But how did those we were now visiting in Nuremberg survive? More serendipity, more miracles.

They didn't perish because in August 1941 they were able to board the last evacuation train from their region in southeastern Belorussia. Originally their father did not believe the Soviet warning to evacuate. Only when he heard German music on the radio did he understand the imminence of the danger. The family raced to the train station in a horse-drawn cart and arrived with only minutes to spare. The train was bombed a short time later, just after all the passengers had run into the woods. Tsilya, a young child at the time, remembers hearing a loud explosion and turning to see a large hole where she had been hiding a moment before. But finally the train did manage to carry them to the relative safety of the Stalingrad area.

So this was the story, and these were the facts, but the reunion soon moved all of us far beyond the academic. We were not being embraced as historians in Nuremberg but as family. The story, it turned out, was all of us, ''Together Again" -- as the inscription read on my father's gift to his cousins.

The first night set the pattern for the rest. We sat around a large table at Tsilya's house. My 18-year-old cousin Sasha did the translating, though within a day's time my father had just about everyone speaking the Yiddish that neither he nor they had spoken for 40 years. Even my younger German cousins seemed to understand this related language. Elaborate toasts were made and beautiful words were said. The table groaned under the weight of Russian delicacies. All of a sudden, my cousin Sofiya would burst into song, and the Yiddish melodies that filled the room swept us back to another table long ago in Kholmech, as we all joined in. No, this was not a story we had found. Rather, we had found a family, and we were part of it. The bonding just happened, between the chopped liver and the whitefish, between stories and songs, between laughter and tears, between the Americans, Jerry and Bill, and the Russians, Tsilya, Sofiya, Yakov, Martin, Raisa, Evgeney, Stanislav, and children Sasha, Anatoli, and Anna.

Though sometimes speaking different languages, we found the words to say the same thing: how joyful we were to have found one another, a sentiment punctuated by our shared disbelief that this great day had somehow arrived. But the most important things were not communicated with words, but with hugs and kisses.

Going home
When we left Nuremberg four days later, it was as cousins leaving members of family behind. Like my grandmother nearly a century before, we would cross the ocean to America. But there was no Stalin now to stop the mail, and there was an Internet that could leap over all national borders. This is one family that can never be separated again.

Early in the morning, we set off to the Nuremberg airport for our return flight. We were driven in a car equipped with a global-positioning system. As we stared into the surrounding darkness, musing on all that had transpired, we would suddenly hear a pleasant computer-chip voice instructing us (in English, no less) to ''prepare to take a slight right turn in 700 meters." I thought: How different would my family's history have been had we always had such a device to tell us which way to turn, whether right, left, or straight ahead. Perhaps Neeson would not then have starved in Kazakhstan. Oh, perhaps, perhaps. But we did the best we could, and many of us did survive.

My family has wandered far from the days when we lived in Kholmech, that little Russian shtetl where the patriarch Aaron Moishe Rapoport tended his large, always struggling family, and where Bubik, the family dog, lay stretched out by a cozy hearth.

Ours was a journey set against the backdrop of dramatic events -- revolution, famine, immigration, sweatshops, Holocaust, world wars. For 70 years, a ''meshugenah" (crazy) world drove us apart. But whether through good fortune, the Internet, miracles, destiny, divine intervention, or just plain dumb luck -- or all of the above -- family members found not only their history but one another. In a grim world, a golden light flickered in Nuremberg for a few days while a family embraced.

And if this tale should inspire others to search out and to celebrate their family bonds and to recall the power of love, yearning, and remembrance -- well, if this should happen, I feel we can say that my great-grandfather Aaron Moishe Rapoport accomplished a great deal, a century ago, on the banks of the Dnepr River.

Bill Schechter lives in Brookline and teaches history at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School.

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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