Ties that bind: Holocaust descendants make remarkable connections

Ties that bind: Holocaust descendants make remarkable connections

A family together, from left: Idit Kronberger, Oscar Hartstein, Yehuda Fixler and wife Ruth Fixler, Sara Sagiv, Eva Prince-Por, Judy Feig Berkowitz, Dr. Edit Hartstein-Feinstein and Marta Hartstein. (Photo provided by Judy Berkowitz)
A family together, from left: Idit Kronberger, Oscar Hartstein, Yehuda Fixler and wife Ruth Fixler, Sara Sagiv, Eva Prince-Por, Judy Feig Berkowitz, Dr. Edit Hartstein-Feinstein and Marta Hartstein. (Photo provided by Judy Berkowitz)

Judy Berkowitz, a resident of Mt. Lebanon and a child of Holocaust survivors, recounts her longing for grandparents when she was a child. “I always envisioned that, well maybe we just missed each other, they’ll come knocking on the door. That was a childhood dream, you know? That at least one of the four would come and say, ‘I’m alive, I’m alive.’” Though that would never come to pass, Berkowitz’s family has grown in leaps and bounds recently, as she was made aware of several branches of the family formerly thought to have perished during the inferno of the Holocaust.

Berkowitz explains how it all came about: A cousin who had written a book detailing his mother’s experiences in Auschwitz called her up to invite her to the book signing and also to impart an important piece of information: In the midst of researching his book, he had discovered large swaths of family who, he said, would shortly be calling and emailing to introduce themselves.

When one cousin, Ruth Fixler, emailed her from Israel, where Berkowitz had lived until the age of 10, Berkowitz told her that she was just about to come visit and that they should meet up. These cousins, Berkowitz explains, had remained in the former Soviet Union after the close of World War II, and so the family, who’d had no contact with any of them since prior to the war, assumed they had all been killed. How odd for Berkowitz, then, as she recounts sitting at dinner with these cousins who were in the midst of describing her father perfectly, since they had heard lots of family stories while growing up. They too had always believed that all of those family members had perished in the Holocaust, yet here they all sat, together and alive.

While in Israel, the joyous surrealism increased, as Berkowitz describes opening her inbox to an email from Bruce Wolf, in which he introduced himself as not only her cousin, but also a fellow Pittsburgher. When Berkowitz returned to the U.S., she and her husband would have dinner with Bruce and his wife, during which they would swap family tales. Berkowitz laughs and adds that, several weeks later, she and her husband were at the symphony and, during intermission, discovered that they had been sitting two rows behind Bruce and his wife. The two of them had been subscribers to the symphony for years, with seats mere feet apart. The coincidences keep coming: Lonnie and Barbara Wolf also live in Pittsburgh, and Berkowitz says that Barbara has been a patient of her husband’s for years, while another cousin, Paul Wolf, says that they’ve known Lonnie and Barbara’s son for years and that he was even at their daughter’s wedding, but none of them knew they were related.

The family came from the village of Kolochava in the Carpathian Mountains, which was part of Hungary when the Wolfs lived there, but today is located in Ukraine. Bruce Wolf says that almost nothing was known about the family or their time there, aside from the fact that the patriarch of the family, Yankel Wolf, had been shot and killed by someone who owed him money. In 2011, Bruce, along with 10 other family members, made pilgrimage to his family’s old hometown. He recounts being met by the mayor, the town’s historian and a congressman from Kolochava. Bruce says that they were told the Wolf family had an “important presence” in the town, and to prove it, they were taken to the Jewish cemetery, on a hill above the small village. There, three memorial plaques had been erected, engraved with the names of all the Jews who’d been deported from the village. Bruce recounts the congressman beginning to point out names on the stones, each new name accompanied by the congressman proclaiming, “Wolf.” Out of around 300 names on the plaques, 60 or 70 were his family members. Bruce describes this as “a revelation. It was pretty hard to believe we’d seen this.” After the trip to the cemetery, the family was shown around some of the old homes and buildings that had been converted into museums. One building was called The Wolf Bar, and Bruce describes opening a ledger from the 1930s that was full of his family members’ names and seeing their pictures on the walls of the bar. The building next door was called The Wolf Hotel and had a small prayer room full of siddurim, menorahs and other Judaica. To see proof of his family, and how well known they’d been, was “quite amazing.” It was proof too that the family was, and still is, “vast” and “huge.”

On Monday, Aug. 10, some members of that “vast and huge” family met up, some of them for the first time. Ruth Fixler, who joined the reunion from Israel via Skype, says that finding everyone was “a miracle. It’s unbelievable that after the Holocaust, they were so spread all over the world, and now … we are meeting.” Helen Wolf, one of the relatives who had done the most research and who had also visited Kolochava, says that “as I find more and more information, it’s so exciting and it’s just thrilling to be able to see connected family.” Her husband always told her that he had no family, and “we have found now … over 500 relatives” who live all over, from Israel, England and California, to New York, Canada and Pennsylvania. Helen’s husband adds: “I haven’t met one who I haven’t come to love.”

Bonnie Wolf Kodesch says that all of this new family “is the best gift that I could have. This will be a wonderful gift that we can continue growing and talking about in the generations to come.”

Masha Shollar is an intern for The Chronicle. She can be reached at mashas@thejewishchronicle.net.