Therapist uncovers family secrets, finds Shoah tragedy

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Some people know a lot about their family history. Others know almost nothing.

For the first 43 years of her life, Mani Feniger never even knew the names of her maternal grandparents.

"I felt like my life was a tragedy, but I didn't know why," the El Cerrito resident said recently.

Feniger now knows why: Her maternal grandmother, already despondent over losing her husband to a heart attack several months earlier, killed herself in early 1933 by jumping out of a window in Germany. She had just found out that she was going to have to sign her house in Leipzig to a non-Jewish family under Aryanization laws.

Not only that, but Feniger also found out that much of her mother's family perished in the Holocaust.

Having uncovered that information, Feniger is trying desperately to research her family history, but she doesn't have much to go on.

When she was growing up in Queens, N.Y., her father died when she was 7 and her mother, Alice, never talked about the past. When her mother died in 1988 at the age of 74, Feniger had no knowledge of her family's tragedy.

"Unfortunately, my mother didn't tell these stories. Her life was locked away like a closed book," she said. "Until I began to explore it, I wouldn't have even thought of my parents as Holocaust survivors. I thought I was born in America and the Holocaust had nothing to do with me."

Feniger, 55, is now working on what she defines as "a long-term book project" to bring her family history into focus. She envisions the book as a cross between a "really personal, nonfiction memoir" and historical fiction.

A hypnotherapist and author, Feninger wrote the 1997 book "Journey from Anxiety to Freedom: Moving Beyond Panic and Phobias and Learning to Trust Yourself." Her own expedition of self-realization was at the book's core.

"My mother's whole life previous to my birth was kept a secret, and this secret has caused me a lot of anxiety," she said.

But why didn't Feniger, once she reached adulthood, simply probe her mother? She said her mother's philosophies — forget the past, don't express feelings, stifle grief and anger — caused her to develop "this feeling that I didn't want to know, that I didn't want any part of" the family history.

"My mother's training was the training of silence."

Feniger began her quest to "break the silence" several years ago, when she spotted the name of her maternal grandfather, Max Lewin, on the list of people who had held Swiss bank accounts before World War II.

Although it turned out to be another Max Lewin, Feniger felt compelled to go further. "I had gotten a taste of my family history, and now I wanted the full picture."

However, the full picture is proving to be very difficult to construct.

Although she has collected a small amount of documents, photos, mementos and oral histories over the past three years, Feniger claims she has "run into a blank wall."

In fact, she is seeking anyone born in Leipzig or familiar with pre-war Germany in that region to phone her at (510) 528-1130 or e-mail her at [email protected].

"I just want a sense of the times," she said. "People who would tell me about their childhood and their lives. I want to ask questions that I never had a chance to ask my parents, and I never had any grandparents."

Her main sources of information so far have been one of her mother's second cousins, now in her 70s, and an old friend of her mother's in her 80s.

She also stumbled onto a few morsels of information in her own birth book from 1945: a rough genealogy, including the names of her maternal grandparents, Max and Nellie Lewin.

She has been told that Max was a famous dentist in Germany who brought a Western style of dentistry to that country.

"I never even knew their names when my mother was alive," she said. "All of this is recent."

Max and Nellie died in the early 1930s, their two daughters, Alice and Erika, left Germany at age 17 and 19, respectively.

"They apparently went to Palestine first and then came to New York, but I don't know much more than that," said Feniger, who has come up with a photocopy of Erika's passport in her research. "What happened between 1933 and 1936 is a mystery."

Feniger isn't tracking down her father's family history as vigorously; she lived with many of his relatives in Queens and remembers now — but didn't realize then — that all of them had German accents.

"That was the best part of my childhood, the sense of community and family," she said. "I remember doing Passover with the relatives upstairs, Aunt Pearl and Uncle Natan. I remember Aunt Pearl making me a cup of Lipton tea and giving me a cookie."

A few years ago, the dark past offered a ray of sunshine. The property in Leipzig on which Max and Nellie's house stood was sold, and Feniger inherited the rights to share in the profits.

She used the money to make a down payment on a house in El Cerrito, the first house she has ever owned.

"The house that my mother grew up in, it didn't exist anymore," Feniger said. "I was told it was bombed during the war. But who could imagine that 50 years later that property would allow me to put a down payment on my own house?"

Still, she doesn't view that money as her inheritance.

"My inheritance is to break the silence. My inheritance is to tell the story that was never told."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.