Sunday, September 4, 2011

Meeting Sephardic Cousins


For privacy’s sake no names will be mentioned in this post.

Having grown up in America I never felt any connection to the Holocaust. By this I mean I never felt like it really affected me, as a little kid it just seemed like something that had happened in the past which I learned about in school. As I grew older I realized more and more the impact it had on me but I still didn’t feel like my family was affected, my ancestors had all immigrated to America before the First World War. By the time I was in High School I knew that by being Jewish I had to have some family connection to the war and became curious about my genealogy.

                I poked around my ancestry for a few years but it wasn’t until the summer before my senior year in college that I truly began my genealogy research. I really began tracing my ancestry by using the information I found on websites and putting the trees together into my own tree, which is where I found the first names of my relatives murdered in the Holocaust. I was astounded by how quickly it went from finding just a few individuals to finding whole branches of my tree seemingly wiped out, spending hours putting name after name of cousins who didn’t make it through the war. Some of these cousins being as close as 2nd cousins twice removed. I soon learned this is common in almost every Jewish person’s tree. 

Then I made one of my most astounding discoveries, I found cousins whose ancestors survived the war. After I emailed them they explained to me that my email was like being contacted from the dead. They thought that they were the only part of the family left, having never known any family but their own. Our relation was slightly distant, 5th cousins once removed, but the similarities were uncanny. I then began a quest to enter as many relatives into my digital tree as possible, in the hopes that I could connect to more relatives who had survived the war.
 Now I am not only in contact with thousands of relatives of mine throughout the world I have also helped dozens of families find their ancestry and connection to my tree. Some having tried for years and years to find their ancestry which was lost in the war and often kept secret by the few survivors who were stained by their experiences, some even hiding that they were once Jewish.

What could be the next best step in my research? Meet them! I mentioned the idea to almost every relative I had contacted. But being stuck at school I spent my time connecting other relatives with each other to meet. My sister stayed with 5th cousins of ours in England and a 4th cousin once removed of mine visited some of our shared 4th cousins while staying in Israel. I was able to visit some of my close relatives I had never met before (although I did meet some as a baby); two 1st cousins twice removed, one of their wives and a 2nd cousin once removed. 
I was then contacted again by the cousins who I had found whose family had survived through the war. They were visiting the states from Amsterdam for two weeks and would be traveling around the coast. Now that they were in contact with cousins they were hoping to meet some. Their itinerary showed they would be in the capitol, which is only 5 hours away. I had to go. 

My sister, my brother-in-law, and I met our cousins at the National Mall. I was the first to meet them.  There was a father, a mother, and three brothers. The father looked strikingly similar to my uncle in build and facial features. He looked me in the eyes and told me he knew my eyes, they were the same as his fathers. As I introduced myself to the brothers I was dumbfounded by how odd it felt to look them each in the eye. Then I realized it’s because I knew their eyes as well. Then they met my sister and the similarities just kept showing themselves. We then headed to dinner and everyone was quickly captivated in conversation.
They had brought photographs and documents to share. As well, I explained our relation in more detail and spoke of what I knew about our family. They shared the knowledge they had learned from their travels throughout Europe, coming across people and places which could hold clues to tracing our shared ancestry generations further back in time. They also shared stories about how their grandparents had survived the war, sometimes by luck and other times through wit and cunning. After a few hours we decided it was time for bed but our meeting was not done and we would see each other for breakfast. The next day we spent hours once again held in conversations about everything: family, life at home, music, history, hobbies, food, and travel. The topics were endless. 

Of course plans are now in the works for future visits with them. I also hope to travel and meet my relatives around the world, learning the story of my family’s diaspora throughout the world.