San Franciscans quest to Poland turns up relatives &mdash living and dead

Debbie Findling has fulfilled her quest to discover her family history. But her task is not finished.

“I feel a responsibility to my father and uncles and aunts and to my daughter. But mostly I feel a responsibility to my grandparents. If I don’t keep this alive, no one will ever remember David and Ella Findling,” she said of her grandparents.

The 40-year-old Findling, a program officer at San Francisco’s Goldman Fund and a longtime Jewish educator, has included many of her family stories in a textbook she recently co-authored instructing teachers on how to incorporate the Holocaust into school curriculum.

But it was as a group leader with the March of the Living program — which takes Jewish teens to concentration camp sites before a visit to Israel — when Findling decided it was time to answer some of the questions her father, Fred, either couldn’t or wouldn’t. So in 1992, a decade before Jonathan Safran Foer penned “Everything Is Illuminated,” she hired a local translator and driver and set off into the Polish countryside, searching for information about the grandfather she never knew.

David Findling had a shock of fiery red hair and a hot temper to match.

The Polish-born laborer had a habit of scrapping with his bosses and getting fired from jobs — never more spectacularly than when an argument with a German baker led to Findling liberally revealing “secret recipes” to anyone who would listen before being escorted off the premises.

It was not the last time Findling would be asked to leave. When Nazi Germany expelled all Polish-born heads of households shortly after Krystallnacht, he said goodbye to his young sons Fred, Joe and Martin, hopped a train and was never seen again.

Half a century later, Debbie Findling would discover things about her grandfather she had always yearned to know — and much more. “I can remember clearly as a child wanting to know about my dad’s parents, watching my friends go to visit their grandparents in Florida or spend time with their grandparents, and I yearned for that.”

The journey to Frystak was a lengthy one, and the town so small that even locals referred to it as “Frystak near Jaslo.” But that was David Findling’s last known address and the first place Debbie would look. She would be the first Jew to set foot in Frystak in 50 years.

When the Eastern European car finally put-putted into the remote hamlet, Findling didn’t really have a game plan. So, she began knocking on doors. Luckily, she was quickly directed to the rundown shack of Roman Gauthiec, the oldest man in Frystak and her first, last and only hope of getting any questions answered.

When he was told the woman he was speaking to was Jewish, he didn’t react the way Findling expected. He laughed, smiled and began to address her in Yiddish.

“The irony is, an 82-year-old Polish non-Jew knew more Yiddish than I did,” said a laughing Findling.

But Gauthiec had a memorable Yiddish teacher — his old best friend, David Findling. You know, red-headed fellow with the hot temper. Heard of him?

Debbie Findling was floored. She begged her translator to ask what happened to her grandfather.

The ancient Pole led Findling to an overgrown clearing on the outskirts of town the locals called Dwarchese. A good 20 years of detritus littered the ground.

Gauthiec’s story was a grim one. Sometime in 1941, the Germans swept through Frystak, pulling all of the Jews into the town’s main square. They were marched to this site, forced to dig a huge pit and executed on the spot.

David Findling was somewhere below, forever interred with his fellow Jews.

In the early 1970s, a plaque was left on the ground in memory of the town’s lost Jews, but no one had bothered to pluck so much as a single weed since then. It was anybody’s guess where the plaque was now.

Findling dropped to her knees and began rifling through the garbage, weeds and stones. Miraculously, she found the plaque. “The moment I uncovered that stone and lit the yahrzeit candle, I realized I had an incredible gift to give my father. I found a missing piece of his childhood.”

Gauthiec watched as Findling wept onto her grandfather’s grave before he led her back home. Then he revealed his secret.

She was sitting in her grandfather’s old house. He’d been living in it for 50 years.

“I was of two minds at that point. It was incredibly chilling if I might be sitting in my grandfather’s house. But the other part of me didn’t believe him and still doesn’t believe him,” she says.

“There’s a piece of me that thinks he wanted to please me for his own desire to make me happy, or maybe he thought I would even send him money. I want to believe it’s true, but I’m just not sure.”

That night at the hotel, Findling called her father. When she told him what had happened that day he cried for the first, last and only time she can recall.

Two years later, Findling would return to Poland. Her father declined to come — too painful. So her uncle, Joe Findling, decided to make the trip instead.

The Findlings found Gauthiec in a much-diminished state. But Joe Findling and the 84-year-old Pole had a tearful discussion in Yiddish, as Debbie’s uncle thanked him repeatedly for sharing his story. Gauthiec would die a month later.

The Findlings went to the clearing, alone this time. They brought grave markers and yahrzeit candles, and Joe Findling finally said Kaddish for his father.

They found, however, that they were not the only Findlings to have discovered this spot. A man named Max Findling had left a headstone for his slain sister, Gitel.

Joe fell to his knees and cried. “We found family, we found family,” he shouted.

Debbie tracked Max Findling back to Brooklyn, where he is a retired taxi driver. Are they really blood relatives? Max is convinced, though Debbie isn’t sure.

Still, “they’re my new family,” she says proudly. Debbie and Max Findling keep in touch, and in June, all of Debbie’s family visited him in New York.

Meanwhile, at home, “the only picture I have of [my grandparents] is framed on the wall,” says Debbie Findling. “The first thing I did when I brought my daughter, Sarah Gitel, home from the hospital was introduce her to her great-grandparents.

“I feel like I owe it to them."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.