Sunday, April 19, 2020

"God gathered the scattered of Israel"


Today would have been my father’s 84th birthday.

My father and me
He and my mother parted ways before I turned three… and I never saw him again – until last year.
I did research over the years, hoping to meet him. I found his social security number, his mother’s maiden name, his US army record… eventually, I found out that he had died at the too-young age of 53. My information pretty much stalled out there for several years.
Then a miracle of modern science presented itself. I signed onto Ancestry.com and did the DNA test in hopes of finding out more about my father’s side of the family. I found a few links to family tree builders on my mother’s side, but nothing about my father. Then Ancestry.com offered its annual half-price sale for full access for six months. With a certain amount of trepidation (because it was costly, even at half-price), I asked the Dearly Beloved if I could indulge. Of course, being the Dearly Beloved, he said yes. I signed up, and spent the night in self-recriminating dreams, wondering what was in my mind, spending all that money for perhaps a clue or two... or maybe nothing. And then it became morning…

The photo that started it all
I logged onto the site and found a photo of my father I’d never seen before. I wrote to the woman who had posted the photo.
  
Hi, Jeanne. My name is Ruth Eastman, and I am Norbert Winston's daughter. I was delighted to find a photo of him I'd never seen in your file! Can you give me any other information? Are we related, or was he in some way a family friend? At 62 years of age, finding even a glimmer of my past is fascinating and inspiring. I look forward to hearing from you. Regards, Ruth (Ruti) Eastman

Jeanne  the wife of a half-brother I never knew I had  was quick to answer, and we began a lovely correspondence, sharing pictures, memories, small bits of information about Daves and my father, about his and my dear mothers, and about our children.

My brother Dave and my sister-in-law and new best friend Jeanne

A few days later, I awoke to a very special message:

Dear Ruti, I have a link to something you may be quite surprised and happy to see. Several years ago I found a video record of your Dad speaking of his Holocaust survival. It is quite amazing and was particularly interesting to see how much he looked and gestured like my husband Dave. It is under his nickname Kip Winston and the site is United States Holocaust Memorial. I think you will be fascinated. Looking forward to future correspondence. All the best, Jeanne

Jeanne was right. I was and remain fascinated. One Generation After, a Boston-based oral history project conducted by the children of survivors, had interviewed my father. Thanks to Janet Seckel who conducted the interview and the videographer, Wolf Krakowski, I spent an hour and a half with my father, recorded almost exactly a year before he died, listening to him tell his story. 
My father was three years old when the war began, and six when he arrived in the States; so most of his impressions of the war are made up of feelings: terror, panic, confusion. But a few memories are clear.
Norosz and his cousin Yanusz were playing in the yard with a pony. Yanusz was a year or two older than Norosz. Suddenly, bombs were being dropped from planes. The mother of Yanusz, Bronya, called out to the boys in a panic to come inside... Norosz ran toward the house, but Yanusz was slow to respond. A bomb landed on his head and and blew him up... all over little Norosz.
My fathers memories of those years included bad smells and bodies and looks of hatred on the faces of Poles... There was a lot of death in the ghetto. I dont remember a day towards the end, walking outside, when I didnt see bodies. Then all of a sudden, we started hearing of people being taken away...
It was January of 1941. Little Norosz and his parents were on a train in a cattle car with about 200 other people, destined for Treblinka. My father was now four years old, and the war, too, was young. When the train tipped over in the snow and Jews began to stream out into the woods, the German soldiers were perplexed. Were they expected to deliver live Jews, or would dead Jews be acceptable? No one wanted to bring down the wrath of the Reich with a bad decision. So they faltered for a few moments before they made the choice and began shooting. Those few moments allowed a brave and decisive man  my grandfather, Samuel Fienjstien  to grab his wife Rita by the arm and his small son Norosz by the hair and save their lives. 
We ran and ran and ran into the woods... it seemed like hours! We marched around for days. I dont remember how we ate or slept or where, sometimes in barns. We were more afraid of the Poles than of the Germans. The days and hours became weeks... At some point, we found a hunters shack... In order to keep people away, my father put out a sign on the shack that said cholera. That kept people away. My father was a very clever man,” he smiled proudly. 

My father remembering his father
One day a man came to the door  Dr. Braun  who said that perhaps he could help us.” Dr. Braun, a Polish Jew, stayed with the family in the cabin for several days, sharing their food. My father remembered a very significant moment during those few days. In an eerie reprise of the experience he had as a small boy at the beginning of the war, he was playing outside near the cabin when a German plane decided to use me for target practice. Dr. Braun heard the airplane, saw what was going on, ran out and jumped on top of me and got hit, he caught about four of these slugs in him...  they didnt kill him, but that was the end of our staying in the cabin. Sam persuaded a farmer to take Dr. Braun to a doctor. They knew this was dangerous, but they knew he would die of his wounds if he didnt get care. 
There is more to the story of my familys survival and eventual emigration to the United States. But this and one followup story resonate for me, a few days before we observe Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day.
Twenty years after he was almost strafed by a German war plane, my father ran into Dr. Braun in a Tel Aviv cafe. They renewed their acquaintance, and my grandfather flew from America just to meet the man who had saved his sons life.

Dave has often wondered where you were and if you are healthy and happy.  

Thanks in part to you, lovely lady  my sister!  I am indeed very happy; and thank God, we are healthy.
We are all living through this horrible COVID-19 plague, and I dont know when we will finally meet in person. But I am so grateful to you for filling a big empty space in my personal history. And I am grateful to God for the friendship with you and my brother and your dear family. May our friendship grow for long, healthy, happy years!

Some of my family on the Dearly Beloved's 69th birthday -- Photo credit: Micha Paul
Important postscript: There would only be three people in this photo, if our forebears hadnt escaped or otherwise survived the Holocaust. Thank you, God, for the amazing gifts You have given us. Sam and Rita, Norbert and Sandra... I know you are all smiling from your places in Heaven. A lot of courage and blessing built a special family. May we continue to make you all proud.

The title of this post comes from Tehillim 68.

31 comments:

  1. Beautiful story, Ruti, thanks for sharing! I have thought a lot about checking into Ancestry.com or something similar but keep putting it off. You have inspired me to take the leap. Who knows what I might find? Even if it finds nothing for me, I'm happy at least someone was able to find some missing links.

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    1. It is a great adventure, sort of a personal mystery story. I hope you will discover wonderful new stories and people. Thanks for reading and commenting, Chaya!

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    2. Such an amazing story, beautifully written by you, my new lovely sister. I'm looking forward to meeting one blue sky day when all of this horrible mess is behind us. Love to you dear Ruti!

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    4. I look forward to that "blue sky day," too, with a full heart!

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  2. What a beautiful and moving story. I love how new relationships have been formed

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    1. That is my favorite part, Masimba. Thank you for reading and commenting. Your and Khanyi's support has meant a lot over the years... speaking of new relationships forming. :-)

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  3. Wow, what a story! If your father could speak to you from Shamayim I'm sure he would be overflowing with hakoras hatov to you for all the mitzvos you and your family do, have done throughout the years (without knowing it!) and will do in the future to elevate his neshama. May his memory be for a blessing! Much love, Shalomis

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    1. Amen, dear friend. I suspect your mother and my parents sit around in Shemayim sharing some nachas and happiness that we became friends, and that you did such a good job "aunting" the lads. May we share many good stories for long, healthy, happy years.

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  4. This is an absolutely amazing post and story!! All I can say is WOW!! To have the pictures, hear your father speak and meet your "new" brother and sister in law is really such a fantastic gift that HKB"H has given you! ( and I am so glad you included that beautiful picture of your family for Avi's 69th Birthday!!May you be blessed with Yiddishe naches and good health til 120!!
    Love,
    Elka

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    1. AMEN! Brachot to you and your growing family as well, my friend! May we share amazing and joyful stories for many years to come, in good health!

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  5. Ruti, what an amazing story. Resolution on a lifelong mystery! And what fringe benefits. You have found family!

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    1. Indeed! I love a good mystery... as long as there's a solution. There are still plenty of things to learn about my father and his story... but you are right. The very best benefit to come from all of this is family!

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  6. A super extraordinary story. I'm not surprised that you come from heroes.

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    1. What a beautiful thing to say, Batya! Thank you.

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  7. The first thing I noticed about you was your radiant smile. Now I see where it comes from. GRACE really does shine through the generations. Thank you for sharing your story.
    Salome

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    1. What a very special comment, dear lady. Thank you. My Mama, a"h, also had a beautiful smile... but it's very nice to get to tie a smile to my father, too. I think Mama and I would have really liked him in his later years. He worked very hard to "pull himself together" several decades after the devastation of the Shoah.

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  8. I have tears in my eyes dear Ruti! Mazal Tov on finding your new brother and sister!! This is such an amazing heartwarming story and your publicizing it erev Yom Ha'Shoah makes it even more moving! Thank you for sharing your family history with us all! May you always have besorot tovot!

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    1. Thank you, precious friend, for reading and for your very beautiful comments. AMEN to your bracha! To you and yours as well!

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  9. Simply beautiful; you must feel reincarnated. How special to also have these new priceless and cherished photos to bring to life a part of your past that was unknown to you until now. I can see a family resemblance between your father, you and your sons. Wow.

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    1. Thank you, Pearl, for reading and commenting! Yes, there is something rejuvenating about finding pieces of oneself (or in this case, reJEWvenating. :-D) I feel more three-dimensional. I also see my father in my boys! I hope he is proud. :-)

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  10. Ruth, I'm sitting here and tears are rolling. After 24 hours of Shoah movies, what a privilege to actually know you and have a good story to tell out of all the tragedies.I sincerely hope you will get to meet your brother in person someday. With blessings of health and renewal, Love, Yael

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    1. Thank you, my friend. We need so much to hear the hopeful stories of survival, don't we? Thank you. I will take your hope and your blessings. I look forward very much to meeting my "new" family! May we all share joyful stories. Living well, it is said, is the best revenge.

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  11. Ruti, what a remarkable and moving story, and well told. May Hashem continue to bless you and Dearly Beloved, and this great family of hope you are at the heart of.

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    1. Thank you, Rabbi, for your bracha! I can send the same back to you and your very special family. Stay safe and sane, all of you!

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  12. Amazing story, beautifully told. Miss you!!

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  13. What a very beautiful story.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading, and for your encouraging comment!

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  14. Wow! I'm have similar circumstances with my paternal grandfather. He and my grandmother divorced in the late 30s or early 40s, and from that point on he was estranged from the family. Grandpa did not attend my parent's wedding, and died two years before I was born. My dad never spoke about him unless I asked him a direct question. I have never seen a picture of him, so I have no idea what he ever looked like. I'm not sure my mother ever met him.

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    1. I felt a little more "three-dimensional" when I learned this history. I hope one day you find a few more missing pieces of your story.

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