Melvin Goldman, my father, was a Holocaust survivor, born in Lodz, Poland. He spent over four years in the Lodz Ghetto, and many months in concentration camps, including Auschwitz, where he lost most of his family. In the five years following the war, he was a patient at medical facilities throughout Germany recovering from numerous injuries and illnesses, at one point being declared over 70 percent disabled.
In late 1950, Melvin immigrated to the United States and immediately settled in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where he eventually met my mother, Mildred. He learned English and worked numerous jobs while establishing himself as a new American citizen. Later, he entered the jewelry trade, using skills he developed as a child working in the family metal business in Poland. In about 1970, he and my mother opened a jewelry store at the corner of Darlington Road and Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill.
At some point during the late 1970s, my father recorded a series of tapes to tell the story of his life — his childhood, his struggle, his survival, his loss, his immigration and his new life in Pittsburgh. The tapes, about 15 hours of recorded recollections, sat in a box until decades after his death in 1996.
In the spring of 2015, my son was preparing for a summer graduate school program in Berlin. My husband and I decided this would be a good opportunity to visit sites of family genealogical importance, and I pulled out the tapes. On one recording, my father indicated his hope that his story would be used in a book — which I then decided to write.
My book project has been ongoing for nearly four years, and I am close to the end. One unending task has been looking into the family tree, with numerous research challenges: language barriers, records requests, limited information from my father and a lack of living relatives to ask for guidance. Every time I felt like I might be making progress, I found myself running into a wall.
It was important for me to connect the dots. I was able to put some pieces together, with the help of a few genealogy resources, including MyHeritage, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and an in-person visit to the Polish government archives in Lodz.
I found information on my paternal grandmother’s relatives, which I could trace back to the 1700s. This included names, birthdates, death dates and birth locations. Things gradually came together. Eventually, I found my great-grandmother’s name on MyHeritage, and I found other people who were related to her. This led me to Lili and Fanny.
I was able to establish contact with Lili and Fanny, two cousins who were born and raised in Sweden. This development was quite shocking, since none of us knew about each other before. I was so excited to find other family members whose parents also survived the Holocaust. I only wish my father was alive to share in this remarkable happening.
Lili’s father, Fanny’s father and my father were cousins. While my father came to the United States after the war, their fathers made it to Sweden to start over. In an unforgettable turn of events, we were able to make arrangements to meet these cousins for the first time last November while on a family trip to Europe. We spent time with one cousin and her husband in Amsterdam, while the other cousin invited us to join her and her husband at their home in Gothenburg, Sweden.
We all had information to share with each other, exchanging seven decades of lost family history and genealogical information. I have now learned of additional relatives in Sweden, Israel and here at home in the United States.
My husband, son and I are grateful to have had this unusual opportunity. Most people don’t find relatives and then get the chance to connect with them, and for descendants of Holocaust survivors, it’s even more unusual. In the years following the war, there were many resources to help survivors find family members. Organizations operated in DP (displaced persons) camps to help spread information about survivors and their families. But decades later, the world is a different place. Seventy-four years after World War II, such stories of family members connecting are few and far between.
For other people looking to learn more about their family history, online resources can help fill in the gaps. There will be challenges, no doubt, but it could be possible to find relatives who were scattered after the Holocaust. It takes some detective work and being able to put many puzzle pieces together. In my case, as a middle-aged person, I think it is becoming more rare — because of our ages. Offline, foreign countries’ archives may be able to help; however, you may need translation assistance, as I did.
Be prepared to hit a few snags along the way. Don’t give up. Doing any type of genealogy is a tedious process, but you can have success. PJC
Lee Goldman Kikel is a Squirrel Hill native and now lives in Hampton Township. Her forthcoming book, “Perseverance: One Holocaust Survivor’s Journey from Poland to America,” will be available this summer.