Finding this humble box has turned out to be a remarkable find for me in terms of the history of searching for my family.
It certainly would have made my search a lot easier had my father shown it to me years ago.
But then again, I would not have done the extensive research had it simply been handed to me. I guess there is a reason for everything.
After this mammoth discovery, I spent about 2 weeks filing and archiving the hundreds of extraordinary documents and letters within it.
Documents that explain the history of what happened to my grandparents and my father during the Shoah. Sure, I knew the stories but there were holes, big gaps that I could not figure out.
But now…. well now, I have it all documented. It filled 6 huge folders.
Within the “Golden Book” found in this box was a vast array of letters.
Letters to and from my grandfather and my grandmother, father, fathers siblings, my grandfathers brothers and friends.
What has been critical for me, is seeing documents that finally dispel myths surrounding my grandfathers survival. I have not translated even a quarter of the archive yet.
Every thursday I spend a few hours with a family friend Joachim Schneeweiss, who patiently translates the letters. During the course of translating the letters, mostly written in German but has the occasional Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew within them, he can also enlighten me on the history of certain events for he too is a Survivor and an extremely clever and knowledgeable man.
He knew my grandfather quite well. My grandfather Isidor was a guest, for many-a-Shabbos lunch in the Schneeweiss home, for Isidor was a religious Jewish Man, without a family. The Schneeweiss’ opened their home on Shabbat to those who needed to eat a Kosher Meal. There were a number of men who after being interned in Tatura and Hay in Melbourne (after being deported to Australia on the infamous “Dunera”) who fit into this category.
Joachim and I painstakingly translate, dissect and discuss each letter in detail, trying to piece together the details of events during the war. There are new names of family for me to try and discover.
It is no easy task.
It takes patience.
Amongst the letters I have found reference to family on my grandmothers side. They managed to escape. Once found, I then try and research the family, where they went, where they finished up.
It is not an easy thing writing to people or cold calling and saying Hi, my name is Judy Wilkenfeld and I am your cousin. This is how we are related. Can you enlighten me on your story and do you remember anything about my family…
This is how I made contact with Erika Kahn. She has been an amazing source of information for me. Now in her late 80’s, I am excited to say that after my trip to Lithuania in a few weeks I will get to meet Erika in Los Angeles - put a face to a name on my tree - delve into her escape story and simply enjoy meeting a cousin that the war did not afford me to know before.
And then there was this:
One of the numerous letters between my grandfather and his brother David.
It took months to finally reach Isidor after all the Censors.
See his name: David Israel Wilkenfeld
That was not his name.
His name was David Wilkenfeld but In August 1938, German authorities decreed that by January 1, 1939, Jewish men and women bearing first names of “non-Jewish” origin (Like David is such a non-Jewish name!) had to add “Israel” and “Sara,” respectively, to their given names.
It was not long after this letter was posted that David (Z”L) was sent to and exterminated in Auschwitz.
Interestingly, in this and many other prior letters, David mentions what has been happening to the family of a lady named Chana Hendel. Amazingly on the letter below, Chana Hendel wrote to Isidor too. She spoke of the whereabouts of part of her family. Together with Dr Michael Abrams Sprod (See previous posts) we poured over this letter. Some of the words were coded and only later did I figure it out - to a degree.
I had to know who this Chana Hendel was.
Why was she living in the same Juden House as my great uncle?
Why was she and David mentioning where her sons were and offering assistance for my father?
I immediately went to the Yad Vadshem Database - typed in her full name and discovered she was born in Zolynia, the same Shtetl as the one where the Wilkenfelds were from.
I discovered she was also sent to Auschwitz shortly after writing on this letter.
She was clearly agitated by how she was writing. Michael A Sprod found in unnerving and disturbing to read this letter - there was an intensity about it. There was distress in the handwriting itself.
I discovered Chana Hendel (Z’L) was killed with four of her young daughters.
I had to find out more because in working on our tree there is a link to Chana’s maiden name and our Wilkenfelds.
Were we related?
Two of the testimonies were submitted in 1999 by her son Henry. He gave his address but no phone number.
I didn’t know if he would even be alive by now.
But I hoped and prayed.
It took me a couple of weeks but I traced a phone number for him.
Again, it took a lot of courage to finally make the call.
Courage because these people do not know me. It really is quite a bizarre thing to do, ring up after all this time.
It is a bit strange to cold call someone and say and re-tell the story of what I have been doing, who I am and how I found, what was probably the last letter, Henry’s mother may have written before her untimely death.
But that is what I had to do.
A lady answered the phone, it was Henry’s wife and in the scramble to try and explain myself, I think I had to repeat the story about 2 or 3 times in order for Anne to comprehend what was going on. Understand because this sort of call is so out of the blue. Can you imagine? They are not young. Henry is hard of hearing. If you have ever rung elderly people you know it can be hard for them to hear and get your message across. Imagine doing this and those on the other end are Holocaust Survivors - so the utmost sensitivity is required in any event.
Finally we traded emails and I am excited to say that I will be meeting Anne and Henry in Los Angeles a day before I get to meet Erika.
Maybe we will be able to untangle a bit more of the story and relationship.
I would never have been able achieve this without todays technology.
It is really quite amazing that after 65 years I can connect with people who knew and or had a relationship with my grandparents all those years ago.
And thank goodness for the humble Brown Box I unearthed in my fathers study. A box he never showed me, even though he knew I was working and researching so hard on our family’s history for so long.