Holocaust scatters family in 30s, reunion gathers it back together

As a student and for many years a teacher in Oakland, the question "What did you do last summer?" was integral to the opening of the new school year each September. This year, I had an exciting and wonderful answer. I attended the first reunion of my late father's family, which had been dispersed by the Holocaust.

A bulk of the family had not been together since the 1930s, but we made up for that in July. We chose Chicago as a central location and selected the date to coincide with a cousin's 70th birthday.

What an event!

It was the first time in 63 years so many family members were in one place. Cousins arrived from various parts of the United States, England and South America. All 10 first cousins were together for the first time. Of the 26 second cousins, 17 attended along with six third cousins. Fifty-two people attended the Saturday night dinner. The dining room throbbed with excitement, anticipation and emotion. The group exuded warmth and enthusiasm.

My father, his three brothers and four sisters were born in Ruelzheim, Germany. For many years family members were friendly with their non-Jewish neighbors as they conducted their cattle business in the area. By the early 1930s, my father's parents had passed away. All of his siblings had married and moved to larger towns where they started their own families and businesses.

My father stayed in the family home and continued the cattle business. My mother lived there after she and my father were married, and I lived there for most of the first year of my life.

By 1935, Hitler's hatred of the Jews became quite evident. For my parents and the rest of my father's family, it was becoming increasingly difficult to earn a living. Lifelong acquaintances shunned them. The family realized that life in Germany would soon be unbearable and within a few years, each of the eight siblings and their families managed to leave. Most had endured hardships and indignities including incarceration for some.

They relocated to countries where they could obtain visas. Two sisters, their husbands and two children, a brother, his wife and daughter immigrated to South America. One sister and her husband moved to England. Their daughter was with another sister and her daughter in France until after the war. Two of the brothers, their wives and a daughter, as well as my parents and I immigrated to Oakland.

All of the family members struggled to learn the language of their new countries while working at menial jobs to support themselves. All had the determination and fortitude to succeed in their adopted countries.

Although some siblings were separated by continents, they corresponded regularly and maintained their strong family bond. Two of the brothers died in their 40s, but after the war most of the other brothers and sisters saw each other again in Europe or the United States. Each meeting was too short and always very emotional. My father, the last of the siblings, passed away in 1982.

Over the years, and on different continents, cousins were born. Many met each other. However, due to great distances and work obligations, the bulk of the family had not been together since Hitler came to power.

When we finally met this summer, there were many powerful moments: We noted similar family features as cousins from different countries chatted. We observed the expressions of awakening on the faces of the younger generation as they listened to elders speak about their wartime experiences. We listened to my 87-year-old mother flawlessly deliver a poem she had written about our journey to the United States.

Other highlights included seeing my 10-year-old niece find her niche in the group; hearing English, the common language, spoken with German, Spanish and British accents; seeing on each table the four colorful flags representing countries where family members live, as well as the fantastic family trees a cousin brought for each reunion attendee.

After the reunion, I loved receiving notes from relatives, such as one from my 87-year-old aunt telling me she was too emotional to speak at the event, and one from a cousin who stated, "The reunion was so emotional, but worth every tear."

After the reunion weekend, family members returned to their respective homes. They resumed their daily lives with greater awareness of how one cruel dictator had affected the lives of so many. They also returned home with a stronger, more caring sense of family. One 30-year-old cousin wrote, "The reunion was the highlight of my summer. It made me realize that I will never be alone in the world with all of that family."

My father's family endured its personal diaspora. But it survived, a fact many descendants celebrated during a glorious weekend in the summer of 1998.