Sunday, April 26, 2020

Day 45 of Nat'l Emergency: Family Mystery Half Solved

The mystery began for me in the middle of the night. Early Friday morning.

I couldn’t fall back asleep after a nocturnal awakening. I opened Facebook on my iPhone. Laura, a cousin in France, had posted an appeal. She asked for help in translating a short note in Yiddish she had found on the first page of her deceased maternal grandfather’s prayer book, his siddur. She included a picture of the note.

I don’t speak or read Yiddish but the letters resemble Hebrew. Perhaps I could make out some words. I was thwarted in my attempt to read the note. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it until I turned the picture upside down. I remained stymied for a while until I figured out the one word third line was the family name of her grandfather.

I also deciphered the year of the note. It was written according to the Jewish calendar using letters with specific numerical values. To calibrate it I got out of bed and searched for my 1962 8th grade graduation yearbook from Yeshiva Rambam, hoping it would contain a Hebrew calendar date I could use as a reference. It did. The year of the note was 1959.

Unable to translate more text I sent the note to friends and relatives seeking help. On her side of the Atlantic Laura was similarly engaged.

About the same time, with outside help, we independently configured the puzzle. Here’s the text:

“As a testament to my appreciation to the Borensztejn family,
From Golda Meir
11 Iyar 5719” (May 19, 1959)

Laura believes he received the siddur during a trip to Israel. “He never mentioned that he had met her (Golda Meir) during this trip … If it IS her writing and signature, why ? What did my grandfather do? Or another member of the family?,” Laura wonders. “I am EXCITED but I don’t get it!”

We solved the mystery of what the note said but a larger mystery remained. What did Laura’s grandfather do to merit this personalized, handwritten note from the then Israeli foreign minister and future prime minister?

We may never know.

Foreign Affairs: This is not the first bit of international intrigue involving Laura’s maternal grandfather. Along with his wife and some extended members of their family he emigrated from Poland to Lens in northeastern France, in the 1930s. Before Nazi Germany invaded, Laura’s grandfather urged his relatives to move south. Only his immediate family went with him to Lyons. But they weren’t safe there, either. 

Warned they might be picked up in a roundup of Jews, her grandparents fled with their two daughters to the border with Switzerland. Because Bonnie, Laura’s mother, was a baby, the Swiss allowed the family to enter, but placed them in three separate refugee camps, one for the father, one for seven-year-old Miriam, and the third for Bonnie and her mother. 

For three years they remained in internment. Miriam was able to see her mother and sister from time to time but her father could not see any of his family. After the war ended the family re-united. They returned to Lyons. 

Their family in Lens was killed. The Nazis rounded up the Jews from Lens on September 11th, 1942. It was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Among them were Laura’s grandmother’s elder sister, Rosalie, and her daughter Betty. They were sent to Belgium, to a place called Kazerne Dossin (now a memorial, museum and documentation center on Holocaust and Human Rights in Mechelen, Flanders). They waited there two days before being shipped out on Transport X, arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau on September 17. 

There is no archival record of how or when Rosalie died, but official papers show Betty was selected as a forced laborer. She died of unknown circumstances on October 20, 1942. Portraits of Rosalie Fursetzer and her daughter Betty Mohr are part of the memorial and the Memorial Wall at the barracks of Kazerne Dossin.

According to Kazerne Dossin, “X Transport included 1,048 deportees, including 229 children less than 15 years … The youngest was Josef Jozefowicz, aged one month and a half.”  Only 17 survived the war.