Cousins reunion ignites hope, Holocaust memories

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

For Eddy Wynschenk, the word "cousin" is awkward.

It seems to cleave his tongue to the roof of his mouth, stopping the endless, eloquent, painful stream of stories that hasn't stopped since he began discussing the Holocaust more than 20 years ago.

When he was liberated at age 17, Wynschenk found that all of his relatives — three sisters, one brother, his parents, a niece and more than 50 other relatives — had been murdered. He was the only Wynschenk left. No aunts. No uncles. No relatives to speak of.

But last month, 51 years to the day after his liberation from Nordhausen, Wynschenk met a long-lost first cousin who also survived and now lives in a Detroit suburb.

"The whole situation was and is very strange for me, because I don't remember what it is to have a cousin," says Wynschenk, 68, who lives in San Bruno and talks to school groups about the war.

In early October, his daughter-in-law discovered the cousin, 74-year-old Sophia Wynschenk Monas, while scrolling the computerized registry of survivors at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. After months of phone calls and saving money for airline tickets, the two met at the home of Wynschenk's son Michael and daughter-in-law Cathy outside Boston.

Monas, who like Eddy Wynschenk survived several concentration camps including Bergen-Belsen, thought miracle reunion stories were about luckier people.

"I said to my husband, `That will never happen to me.' I still cannot believe it. I still cannot believe I have a real cousin," says Monas.

The two cousins had only hazy memories of each other. But for Wynschenk, Monas is a symbol of the extended family he lost.

The first time he set eyes on her, he saw her father, Arie, a favorite uncle who sold fruit. He saw her mother, Marie, recalling the aroma of her freshly baked cookies. He saw Sophia's sister Kitty, her brother Jacob.

For years, they clung to those memories and a few faded photographs. "It was like we were strangers and not strangers," said Wynschenk, `like we always knew each other."

Talking about Monas' husband, the retired insurance salesman stumbles on the phrase "cousin by marriage." It is still alien.

"I've never had the opportunity to say that before in my life, because I never had it," Wynschenk adds.

After keeping silent about the war until the 1970s, he spills over with stories now. He talks about his murdered family and his life before the war — playing soccer in his Amsterdam neighborhood at a time when, like most teens, he never imagined his entire family would disappear before he ever had the chance to say goodbye.

When he first spoke out about the war, "the pain, anger, sadness, experiences from hell, loss of family, came jumping out," he says.

Plagued by chronic nightmares, Wynschenk also remembers the war with every step he takes on his severely swollen feet.

After he had endured a forced trek from Auschwitz, a nurse amputated all ten of Wynschenk's gangrene-infected toes with a scissors. Despite the lack of anesthetic, he says he felt numb when the nurse threw his severed toes into the fire. Today, he wears $400 orthopedic shoes and elevates his feet constantly, but a deeper numbness can't be so easily treated.

Finding his cousin proved to be a rare balm. When they met, Wynschenk's numbness gradually melted into a glow he will never forget.

"I looked to the sky. Whenever I talk about the Holocaust I look to the sky, because that's where the 6 million went. I thought, if her family and my family would know what's taking place right now, they would smile."

Throughout the three-day visit, Wynschenk, his children, and his grandchildren — Andrew, 6, and Alexa, 3 — got to know their first extended family member. Also at the reunion was Wynschenk's wife, Maryanne, who spent several years in a Japanese concentration camp in Dutch Indonesia.

As youngsters who were six years apart, Wynschenk and his cousin had little in common before the war. As Holocaust survivors, their ties transform the familial.

"We both have tremendous fears in common," says Wynschenk. "We both have a hard time trusting people. We just clicked right away."

Now home, he says the first image that comes to his mind every morning is that of his cousin's face. "It hits me hard."

After hours of torment, her face appears as a vision of solace at the end of a dark night.

But for Wynschenk, experiencing joy is not a simple matter. With every gift comes the fear of loss. "I was very overprotective of my children. I have a terrible fear of losing again. I can't afford to lose. Now, I have to push that away, because my fear is extended. You hold on to the few [relatives] you have."

Wynschenk is trying to deal with his fears, hoping his cousin will live a long and healthy life, hoping she will be around to witness milestones in his grandchildren's lives. His message to schoolchildren about the importance of family is even more forceful now.

"I always say people should tell their families, `I love you,' even if they are angry. You don't know if it will be the last time."

For once, it wasn't the last time for Wynschenk. After more than 50 years, he is getting used to the word "cousin" again, and to the new feeling that he isn't the only survivor.