Reflections: Reuniting With the Past and Lost Family

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A local Jewish communal professional shares the story of her mother's reunion with a half-sister she had always wondered about. 

For years when my mother, Lynn, said her evening prayers, she would include a prayer for the half-sister she never knew: If my sister is living, I pray that she is well. If my sister is not living, I pray that people remember her fondly.
 
Growing up, I thought my mother was an only child. I grew up as the middle of three, and Mom reminded us that we were lucky to have each other.
 
When I was a teenager, my mother shared a complicated part of her family’s story. She explained that my grandfather, Georg Auerbach, who had died when I was 6, had been married when he lived in Europe — and had a daughter with his first wife. Mom didn’t know anything else — not her half-sister’s name or where she lived. But she sometimes imagined meeting her.
 
Pop-Pop Georg was calm and kind. He took me on long walks where he’d point out birds or flowers and listen to me with total attention. He wore a mezuzah every day. I felt safe when I was with him.
 
His own life had been tumultuous. His father had died when he was 10. As a teenager in Dortmund, Germany, he watched the rise of the Nazi party and warned his family about the danger he sensed. 
 
Like many assimilated German-Jewish families, they rationalized what was happening. Georg ran off with his girlfriend, Ilse, whom he married in London in 1933. Two years later, in Amsterdam, their daughter, Shirley, was born. Ilse’s strict father never liked Georg and demanded that she leave him, which she did.
 
He arrived in the United States in 1938, and met my grandmother working at a summer camp. They had a passionate romance that led to marriage. At the time they were married, he was still in touch with his mother.
 
But over the next few years, her letters from Holland — where the family had gone to escape — stopped coming.
 
He rarely talked about his life before the war. Separating himself from his past was part of his survival. If a newspaper arrived on the front porch with a story about the Holocaust, he took it outside and burned it.
 
My mother first learned about her half-sister when she was 20. My grandmother told her and asked her to never tell her father that she knew. My grandmother wasn’t certain whether Georg was in touch with his ex-wife. As close as they were, he occasionally took trips to New York that she imagined involved seeing his ex-wife.
 
We know now that he did see Ilse at least once. After re-marrying in 1937, she and her new husband took Shirley to Brussels where they baptized her Catholic. That plan for protection didn’t work — Ilse and Shirley were sent to a concentration camp.
 
After relatives managed to get them out, they secured passage to South America. Shirley has been living in Buenos Aires since she was 5. Like Mom, Shirley grew up with secrets — her mother told her about her birth father when she was 12 and she always wondered about her sister.
 
Shirley had only one piece of information about her father — the address where he lived in Easton, Pa.
 
When Shirley met her companion, Danny Schmoller, 18 years ago, he was better equipped to use the Internet and became determined to help her find her family. 
 
Through the Internet and the help of friends, they located my mom’s name and phone number. Danny made the first call. It was a surreal experience for Mom to hear a man on the phone asking about Georg Auerbach. After several conversations and email exchanges, the sisters first met via a Skype video call.
 
That was a year ago. On April 30, Shirley and Danny arrived here. I had the joy of being present while Mom and Shirley embraced.
 
Shirley unpacked gifts from Argentina, and Mom gave her an album of photos of their father. She wore a specially designed necklace of the infinity sign and gave a matching one to the sister she never imagined she would find.
 
Aunt Shirley and Mom are getting to know each other, piecing together stories of their father’s past. “It is never too late for happiness,” Shirley, who will be 80 in October, said as she played mini-golf for the first time with my daughter and niece.
 
Knowing my aunt renews my connection to Pop-Pop. This is a story that we can share openly, with no secrets, no shame. 
 
As I share more of my grandfather’s complicated history with my children, the third generation removed from the Holocaust, I am able to make an abstract story more concrete. My daughter, June, and son, George, named for my grandfather, love their new great-aunt and uncle — and in that, there is healing.
 
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a writer and educator. She directs “Whole Community Inclusion” at Jewish Learning Venture. Visit her blog about food and family at: kitchenclassroom4kids.com.

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