As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, Rick DeSouza had more than 25 first cousins. So naturally, he always wondered why he never met any of his mother Ida’s cousins.
When DeSouza asked her, she told him they had “perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II,” he recalled. Ida died in 2005 believing this to her grave.
Yet it turned out she was wrong.
In February of 2021, Paula Diamond, the widow of Ida’s brother, Harry Diamond, received a letter from a Frenchman named Jacques Wawer. He said he was trying to find his “long-lost Diamond cousins from Philadelphia.”
Wawer, his brother Louis and his sister Helene were Ida and Harry’s first cousins — the children of a brother of Ida and Harry’s mother Bertha Diamond, he explained. They had survived the Holocaust. After their father, Abraham Wawer, was taken to Auschwitz, the siblings pretended to be Christian and hid out in the home of a Christian family near Paris.
Upon receiving Jacques Wawer’s letter, Paula Diamond spread the word to her extended family members and started a correspondence. Then, one winter afternoon in 2021, Rick, Paula and several extended family members got on a Zoom call with Jacques, Louis and Helene, and they listened to their story of survival. On July 21, the French cousins will arrive in the Philadelphia suburbs to meet their “long-lost Diamond cousins” in person for the first time.
DeSouza, a Jewish Realtor who lives in a 55 and over community in Warwick, wrote about the saga in his community’s monthly newsletter.
“When we all got together one late afternoon last winter, it was quite a moment,” he wrote.
“We learned that their dad was caught in the roundup in Paris and sent to Auschwitz, never to be seen again,” he continued.
“Needless to say, all of the cousins on this side of the pond, are counting the days until they arrive,” he concluded.
DeSouza, his aunt Paula Diamond and his cousins Debbie Wogalter, Lisa Kirkpatrick, Nancy Wagner and Lisa Watkins were all on the Zoom call. They had never known that these cousins existed before that 2021 letter. Yet they all felt like they needed to be there.
“I just think that it’s so important for us to connect to these cousins we never knew about, and to hear their story,” DeSouza said. “I think it’s my obligation, for my parents.”
DeSouza’s mother Ida grew up in an Orthodox home, then raised her children “basically Conservative,” as the son described it. But she always instilled in them an understanding of the past and an appreciation for their relative safety in the United States.
Ida’s motto, which she repeated to her son over and over, was, “Never, ever forget.” Today, the son doesn’t. The 69-year-old does not attend synagogue, but he does light Shabbat candles every Friday night.
Wogalter, the daughter of Henry Diamond, who is a sibling of Ida and Harry and a son of Bertha’s, also grew up in a household that moved away from Orthodox Judaism. But she did attend six years of Hebrew school, have a bat mitzvah and go to synagogue on the High Holidays. She continued going to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into adulthood but stopped about eight years ago.
Her Jewish identity, though, never left her. So, like her cousin Rick, she feels that it’s important to remember.
“It keeps the Holocaust alive,” Wogalter said. “Every American and everybody in the world should know about the Holocaust.”
Jacques, Louis and Helene must have felt the same thing. They found their American family members because Jacques hired a genealogist out of Poland. Wogalter believes he hired the genealogist because he knew “something about Philly.”
That something might have been Bertha Diamond’s backstory. In 1913, at age 18 and with her name still Bertha Wawer, she left her brother Abraham and their family behind in Poland to come to the U.S. She wanted to find a husband and a better life than the oppression Jews faced in her native land, according to DeSouza.
Bertha found that husband, Rubin Diamond, and that better life, having 11 children including Ida, Harry and Henry. They raised their children Orthodox and, when news of the Holocaust reached them, “we always had deep-rooted feelings about it,” said DeSouza, who saw those feelings later on in his mother who grew up in that house.
“That it was just impossible that people would kill you over your religion,” he recalled.
Through Bertha’s journey across the Atlantic Ocean and her realization of her American dream, her family never realized that its story was also continuing across the ocean. They just knew that, sometime after Jacques found that genealogist, a letter reached Paula Diamond in the U.S.
“And the next thing you know, it just all unrolled,” Wogalter said.
Henry Diamond is 90 and the last surviving child of Bertha and Rubin Diamond. Last August after the letter, Debbie took him to France to meet Jacques, Louis and Helene, his first cousins, for the first time.
They visited the Louvre, Versailles and other French landmarks. At one point, Henry and Helene walked across the street holding hands and Debbie snapped a picture.
“It really hit home,” she said.
One story from the Zoom meeting also stood out. As DeSouza explained in his reflection in his community newsletter, one day during the war, Jacques got into a fight with a child of his host family. The father yelled at the Jewish boy and was ready to report the siblings to the police and turn them over. So he did, but when the officer arrived, he asked the French patriarch if his taxes were up to date.
The cop informed the man that if they weren’t, he would have to arrest him, too. The Wawer children got to stay.
“Hearing that, all of the American cousins let out a big sigh of relief!” Rick wrote.
When the Wawers are in the Philadelphia area, the family plans to visit Mount Sharon Cemetery in Springfield. Bertha and Abraham’s mother Eva Rebecca, who moved to the United States to help her daughter raise 11 kids, is buried there.
The family is also going to visit some Philadelphia sites, including the area that Ida, Harry, Henry and their siblings grew up in. Perhaps more importantly than anything else, though, they are all just going to keep talking.
DeSouza wants to hear more stories about their father, their mother and his other relatives whom he never knew about. He also wants to learn more about how they made it through.
“I can’t imagine how that was. We’re so lucky to be here in the United States,” he said. “It really does bring everything home. Especially because we’re all Jews.” JE