On familial ground

Sandi Harte stood before the gates of the old Jewish cemetery, shivering in the cold.

She and her husband, Dick, had driven for hours across Hungary’s snowy northern plains to reach the town of Nyirbator. Imre Gulyash, the cemetery keeper, greeted the couple. Bundled in a thick woolen coat, he then lit a candle to warm the lock before turning the key.

To Harte, it was like a scene from a Bela Lugosi movie.

“The men’s cemetery was on the left, and on the right the women’s,” she says of that bleak landscape. “I was told to look for the stone that was pink granite. It was the only stone still standing straight up.”

And there it was, pushing its way defiantly out of the frozen ground — the headstone of Chana Eidel, Harte’s great-grandmother and namesake. Harte had at last made the connection to a family long gone.

“My husband stepped aside,” recalls the Menlo Park resident. “I said Kaddish. It was a very solemn moment for me. To see my name on that stone was an extraordinary moment.”

Harte, 66, is one of many diaspora Jews eager to explore their Eastern European roots. In most cases, there’s not much left to find over there: crumbling headstones in a field of weeds; squat, unmarked edifices in humdrum villages; dilapidated synagogues, long quiet and locked up tight.

Still, for Jewish sojourners, these relics resonate with history, spirituality and, most important, family.

While genealogy usually involves searching the Internet or sifting through yellowing paper records, these days the best ticket to the past just may be an airline ticket. More amateur genealogists are returning to their ancestral homelands, looking for signs of once-thriving Jewish communities.

Roy Ogus is one of those amateur genealogists, though by now he’s awfully good at climbing family trees. A 13-year member of the Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society, the Palo Alto resident crowned his research with a trip to Lithuania.

He had investigated beforehand the origins of the Ogus name (a rare one, which is found only among Litvak Jews). And he had narrowed down to four cities the likely hometowns of his Lithuanian forebears. But many gaps in the family narrative remained.

“I always wondered where the name came from,” says Ogus, a native of South Africa. “My grandparents came from Lithuania, but they never talked about it. On my father’s side there was a whole family I never knew existed.”

Ogus joined a 2001 genealogy tour, which not only took in the sights in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, but also sent participants out on personal quests. Ogus’ tour took him to towns such as Paberze and Ukmerge.

“I like to do more than names, dates and trees,” he adds. “I like to find the texture, and going to these places is the way to do that. I didn’t think it would be emotional, but when I got there it was totally the opposite. It was so emotional I couldn’t believe it.”

One highlight for Ogus came, as it did for Harte, in a neglected Jewish cemetery, a plot of land he describes as a “miserable field that obviously hadn’t been maintained since before the war.” It was there he came upon a headstone with the name Ogus inscribed on it in Hebrew and Cyrillic script. It was the grave of a distant ancestor who died in 1895.

“When I saw that stone, it was like an omen,” he says. “It was one of the only ones still standing. A few years later the stone had finally fallen. It was as if it was waiting for me to come.”

Ogus also found a weathered sign hanging in front of an Ukmerge apartment building. It read (translated into English): “General Store: Ch. Galaite-Oguziene.” It suggested that a former proprietor — Jewish, no doubt — went by the Ogus name (Lithuanianized, of course).

“Part of the satisfaction is I enjoy the search,” Ogus adds. “It’s a detective process. Even though I’m an engineer, there’s a little historian inside me. It’s made me feel a very strong connection to the Jewish people.”

Louis Fried, 77, felt that connection even while growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch country. The son of Hungarian-speaking Jewish immigrants, he had heard stories about ancestors hailing from Transylvania (now part of Romania). But it wasn’t until his children were adults that he tried to learn more about the past.

Fried’s first step: He recorded oral histories from aging relatives in Israel. From them he learned of forebears likely descended from the Khazars, a lost Turkic tribe of converted Jews who settled in the Caucasus Mountains.

Then the Palo Alto information technology consultant hired a consultant of his own, a researcher at a Transylvanian university. Fried asked him to dig into the family history.

Among the startling revelations: Fried’s great-grandmother Juliana grew up in a family of Jews who, like Spain’s Conversos, had converted to Christianity, then later converted back to Judaism.

“They kept a hidden Torah,” Fried says. “They were secret Jews for 300 years. I found out that later in the 1850s there was a decree you had to be Christian, Jewish or Muslim, so they registered as Jews and then intermarried with Jews.”

Having pursued genealogy for years, and not getting any younger, Fried decided to make a trip, and in 2006 he and his wife set off for his grandfather’s home region in the heart of Dracula country.

He visited Dracula’s Castle, a tourist trap in the town of Bran (Vlad the Impaler — the real-life inspiration for everyone’s favorite vampire — never lived there). Soon after, Fried’s casual sightseeing ended, and his personal pilgrimage began.

The town of Campia Turzii (formerly Aranyosgyeres, as it was called in Hungarian) lies along the Aranyos River. Fried’s father was born there, and the building that housed the family home and bakery still stands on Sadoveanu Street. Fried found the address easily, but he could not have prepared himself for what came next.

“A woman came up to us holding a shopping basket,” he recalls. “She asked what we were looking for. I explained, and she said, ‘Would you like to go inside?'”

She called out to the resident inside, and after a moment an old woman opened the front door. Speaking Hungarian with a German accent, she revealed she was the German-born widow of a Nazi soldier stationed in Romania during the war. The couple liked the area and never left.

“It was pretty emotional going through the house and seeing it filled with furniture she had brought from Germany,” Fried adds. “She was courteous and happy to show us the place. But I couldn’t imagine that a German from the Second World War would be occupying my grandfather’s home. This had been a Jewish area. All were wiped out.”

For Harte, saying Kaddish at the grave of her great-grandmother was a beshert moment. “As you get older, you start revering the past,” she explains. “I realized nobody says Kaddish for these people, so I’m stepping up. I’m still hanging in there with my memories.”

Memories and gravestones. So often the genealogy trips amount to tributes to the dead. Valid as that may be in light of the Shoah, what about the living? In the wake of pogroms, immigration, the Holocaust and the march of time, is there ever any family to come home to?

For Steve Cohen, the answer is an overwhelming yes.

Cohen, 63, has come far since his modest Milwaukee upbringing. Today he is a San Francisco tax attorney, active in the Jewish community and reveling in the California good life. It’s hard to believe he’s only a generation removed from the shtetl life depicted in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

In fact, his ancestors come closer to that shopworn comparison than most people do. Cohen’s maternal grandparents hailed from Periaslav, Ukraine, the same town Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem called home. Periaslav very likely served as the model for Anatevka, the fictional shtetl in “Fiddler.”

Unlike some immigrants who spoke little of the Old World they left behind, Cohen’s parents told their son much about the family. Cohen knew that his grandparents left Ukraine for Milwaukee, where his mother was born in 1908, and that, inexplicably, they moved back to Periaslav two years later.

“They must have been having difficulty with jobs,” Cohen theorizes. “My mother of all the children was the only one born in the United States. She had citizenship papers. But then they were back in the pogroms. Then comes World War I and famine. Then the Russian revolution. Their town was not spared.”

Life was hard. His grandfather died at the hand of anti-communist thugs in 1919. One great-uncle starved to death. Ultimately, relatives in Milwaukee offered to take in Cohen’s mother in an effort to save someone — anyone — in the family. In 1925, at age 17, all alone she crossed the Atlantic again. As a U.S. citizen, she breezed past customs and hopped a train to Wisconsin.

She never saw anyone from her family again.

According to Cohen family lore, every family member left in Ukraine died in 1941 at Babi Yar, the infamous Nazi killing field.

For many years, Cohen had contemplated taking a trip with his mother back to Ukraine. His mother always felt uneasy about it, but Cohen never lost his desire to go.

“After perestroika,” he says, “I got the feeling it would be easier to go there and find out what happened to this family that made this dumb mistake of moving back to the Ukraine.”

In 2002, after attending a business meeting in Oslo, Norway, Cohen took a detour. He flew to Moscow and then caught a plane to Kiev. The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee arranged a car, driver and translator for him, and a day later, they were off to Periaslav.

“It was like Appalachia, 1875,” Cohen recalls. “Black-robed women along the road with bushels of fruit. The countryside was lush and beautiful.”

He toured the local Jewish museum, the walls of which were lined with pictures of Jewish families from before the war. On a whim, Cohen asked if anyone in town remembered the Kernos family (the old family name).

One of the old-timers there remembered a wounded Jewish war veteran named Motya Kernos. Cohen’s mother had a brother by that name. But wasn’t he killed at Babi Yar?

“The hairs went up on the back of my head,” Cohen says. “My mother was wrong. A member of her family survived the war. It turned out Motya died in 1998. I was told he had married a non-Jewish woman, my aunt by marriage, who was still alive.”

Cohen and his driver raced to the woman’s village, only to learn she had died three months before. But, said the villagers, she had a sister. “So we drive down a dirt road asking people if anyone knew this sister. This young guy starts talking away and pointing. We go up and over a hill in the wilderness. There’s a chicken coop and three humongous Ukrainian women, barefoot with the shawls on their heads.”

When Cohen explained his mission, one of the women started to cry. She was late Uncle Motya’s sister-in-law. “You’re too late,” she sobbed. But the woman had kept many pictures of Cohen’s long-lost uncle and his family.

Family, as in first cousins.

A few miraculous phone calls later, Cohen arranged to have dinner the next evening with four cousins he never knew existed.

“The next day we take a taxi,” he recounts. “There’s 15 or 20 people on a street corner, and [my driver] says, ‘That’s your family.’ The door opens, and an enormous woman takes me into her chest. I’m gasping for air. We went into this apartment, and they had a spread with borscht, caviar and vodka.”

Overwhelmed with emotion, Cohen rose to offer a toast: “I’m here on behalf of my mother, to connect with the family after 60 years of separation. I drink a glass to you.”

Cohen learned that in 1941, his grandmother received word that the German army had crossed the border. She took her children east with the Russian army. Not one family member died at Babi Yar.

None of Cohen’s relatives identify as Jewish. Though some progress has been made, Ukrainian society remains distrustful of Jews, even hostile in some quarters. The cousins told Cohen that if you want to be upwardly mobile in Ukraine, it’s not easy if you’re Jewish.

Cohen learned that another aunt found her way to Israel. She and her children had since died, but her grandchildren — Cohen’s first cousins once removed– still live there. That’s another trip for another time.

For Louis Fried, the trip to Lithuania energized him enough to write a book about the family history. It’s not for sale in Barnes & Noble, but rather was intended for a more select, more important readership.

“It means I can give something to my grandchildren,” he says. “I hope some day they will pick up the book and say, ‘Look where we came from.'”

Sandi Harte has not been back to Hungary, but she persuaded an aging aunt to visit the grave of Chana Eidel, the family matriarch. The pink granite headstone still stands in Nyirbator’s Jewish cemetery.

And for all the vodka and caviar with his living cousins, Cohen, too, took the time to pay his respects to the dead.

It was on a second trip to Ukraine a few years later, this time with his older sister. Cohen stood before the grave of his grandmother, the one who sent her youngest daughter on a boat to America, never to see her again; the one who sensed the coming storm and herded her remaining family to the east, to Russia, to safety.

And Cohen said aloud, “You did us a big favor. Now the children of your daughter are coming back to close the circle after 77 years and to bring love from your daughter.”

Bay Area genealogical group connects people to the past

As Jewish genealogy societies grow in membership, more intrepid Jews have begun taking a long look back to their ancestral past.

But why now? Experts say modern search technology, coupled with an awareness that aging shtetl-era Jews are rapidly dying out, has kindled intense interest in the field.

“The Web has changed the landscape,” says Jeremy Frankel, president of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society. “You can email someone in Eastern Europe and make an instant family connection.”

A chapter of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, Frankel’s group boasts a membership of 250. They meet at least 15 times a year and often attend national conferences.

Among the society’s aims: to encourage family historical research, to share search techniques and to help preserve current materials that may help future genealogists.

Meeting agendas cover the gamut, from determining the age of a photo by the clothing worn to tips on how to conduct an oral history interview. “There are new databases, new books, all the time,” says the London-born Frankel, who now lives in Oakland. “You’re always playing catch-up.”

The art and science of genealogy goes far beyond recording dates of births, deaths and marriages. “You have to learn everything,” Frankel adds. “Politics, sociology, religion, languages, diseases. All this comes into play.”

Jewish genealogy, Frankel admits, has its distinctions: “We’re looking for needles in haystacks because there are so few of us. On the other hand, we tend to have a much higher hit rate.”

For more information on the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society, call (510) 525-4052 or visit www.jewishgen.org/sfbajgs.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.