Yom Hashoah—In Search of a Nameless Aunt

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Today on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’m thinking of a photograph that my father’s parents received in 1937 from the small Galician city of Buchach, Poland, now in Ukraine. “To my dear aunt and uncle,” it was inscribed, and it depicted my grandfather’s sister, her husband and two grown daughters. I still have it. Their faces are somber, and I sometimes wonder if it’s because they had a sense of the horrible deaths awaiting them two years later. Most likely it is because people didn’t smile for photographs in those days. Either way, the arrival of the photograph was an important enough event in my father’s life that he, a scientist who rarely dwelled on things past, mentioned it to me when I was a girl. He speculated that it might have been a plea for help. Even as a kid, it was clear to me that he felt uneasy that the plea—if it had been a plea—had gone unanswered.

What were their names? I asked. He didn’t know. He knew his grandfather was Abraham David and had a photograph of him, but the women of his family were nameless—and faceless. He didn’t even know the name of his father’s mother, his grandmother. She was simply “grandma,” a mostly forgotten ghost from the Old World. Many years later, as self-appointed family historian, and inheritor of “familial loneliness syndrome,” I decided to find their names. I scoured records, interviewed survivors, visited Buchach and through DNA testing, cast about for relatives. I am still not sure of the names of the four people in the photograph, but I have learned my great grandmother’s name (Lena Freidberg) and found another family related to her.

Even after all these years, I find it soul wrenching that so many people, with names known and unknown, perished in the great withering of humanity known as the Shoah. As the survivor generation dies off, the need for the rest of us to step up and tell each of their stories is more compelling than ever. Moment is part of this endless task. The magazine itself is a legacy, named for Der Moment, a popular independent Yiddish daily published in Warsaw from 1910 to 1939, when it—and eventually its editors—were extinguished by the Nazis. Thirty-four years later—and 45 years ago this month—Moment was cofounded by a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the late Elie Wiesel. Through his books, including Night, his speeches and actions, Elie became a conscience of the world. As it should, the Holocaust haunts the Moment archives and informs present-day Moment.

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