Presumed victims of Holocaust, brother and sister meet again

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seattle (ap) | George Gordon spent most of his life thinking he had lost his entire family in the Holocaust.

He was 14 when he was sent to a forced labor camp, then immigrated to the United States in 1951. He went on with his life. He found work at a meatpacking plant in Seattle, got married, had children.

But he couldn’t shake a lingering sense of uncertainty — or the haunting dreams.

“I’d see my mother and sister in my sleep and wake up thinking, ‘No, I can’t believe they are dead,’ ” the 77-year-old Polish immigrant told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last week. “It stays with you, if you don’t know for sure. You can’t let it go.’

Born Jerzy Budzynski, Gordon has told friends stories about how he fought Nazis as a teenager during the Warsaw uprising, and the day his father and younger brother were shot dead by SS soldiers. He recalls the long trip on a boxcar to Buchenwald, where Gordon spent the rest of the war.

He didn’t know what happened to his mother and sister. He never expected to find out.

Then a volunteer for the American Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Service stepped in.

Tammy Kaiser got involved with the service after learning about it at the 2002 Jewish Film Festival in Seattle. Since 1990, when it was established to handle millions of war records released after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, teams of researchers have looked into some 40,000 cases initiated by Americans.

Before long, Kaiser, who had lost some of her own family during the war, was handling every Holocaust tracing case initiated in King and Kitsap counties. Some days, there are 35 files on her desk.

At first, Gordon’s looked like all the rest. But something about it gripped Kaiser.

“I could just picture this older guy writing this letter,’ Kaiser said. “He was looking for graves. He never was looking for living people. The only reason he even began searching was just to find out where they were buried so that one day he could visit and pay his respects.’

Kaiser began by contacting the tracing center, based in Baltimore, which forwarded her request to the agency’s International Tracing Service in Arrolsen, Germany. The Polish Red Cross got involved, and Kaiser, on her own trip to Poland with a Jewish student group, made a detour to Gordon’s former hometown, Wroclaw, searching for his family graves. She found nothing.

After 18 months, Polish researchers finally discovered a simple newspaper obituary. It described Gordon’s mother, Janina. It was dated 1979, and it mentioned only one survivor, a daughter, Krystyna.

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard,’ Kaiser said.

Even now, she struggles to describe that moment. “There are just no words,’ she said, shaking her head. “I cried for like 10 minutes. Then we called George.’

Gordon has seen men shot, tortured and burned in crematoria. He recounts shoah horrors matter-of-factly. Only when speaking of the night he heard his sister’s voice for the first time in 59 years does his voice waver.

“Krystyna, this is Jerik,’ he said, using his childhood nickname in a phone call to Poland. There was a long silence. Neither knew quite what to say.

On Sept. 26, they were reunited in the lobby of the Hotel Monopol in Wroclaw, where Hitler had once shouted speeches from the balcony.

“These two women walked in, my sister and her daughter,’ Gordon said, gazing at the diary he kept during his time at Buchenwald. “I wouldn’t have recognized her if we’d passed each other on the street — to me she was always a 12-year-old girl — but when I heard her voice, I knew it was her.’

For Kaiser, the discovery of Gordon’s sister will be a lifetime memory. Most of her work tracing victims focuses on the dead.

“A lot of times, all I can do is come up with a transport number for the trip to Auschwitz,’ she said.

“I called a woman the other day and said, ‘I know the train your whole family was taken on.’ You’d think this would be a terrible conversation, but it was really a cause for celebration. Now she can mourn. She can say, ‘Now I know when they died. I can light a candle.”