I have been writing stories and essays for my local Jewish paper, the Jewish Leader of Eastern Connecticut, for many years. From time to time someone stops me to say they read my column. On occasion I receive a phone call or an acknowledgement from a fellow minyan attendee that something I wrote made them smile. I like to hear from my readers, to know that something that I put down on paper struck their fancy.
“The Kiddush Cup,” a story I had written for the Leader that was then published in CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism (Spring 2012), is the story of a unique family heirloom. While my father was a British soldier occupying Germany at the conclusion of World War II he had a silversmith cast a kiddush cup from melted German coins. When my father returned to London on leave he brought the cup as a gift for my grandfather. The cup was handed down to me a few years before my father passed away. Imagine my anguish when this treasure fell into my garbage disposal one Shabbat evening after dinner. It took many months to have it restored.
After the story appeared in CJ, well wishers called my mother. Long lost friends called me. A rabbi in Israel decided to use the story in a course about traditions. I was flattered by the attention, but nothing could have prepared me for the call I got one evening from Canada.
“Hello. You don’t know me, but I read your story in CJ magazine,” the caller began. I glanced at the caller ID; we don’t get many telemarketing calls from Ottawa, Canada. “A couple of friends told me to read your story,” he continued. “I really liked it.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that,” I said, flattered.
“I see that your father changed his name from Diener to Dean during the war.”
I listened, happy to discuss anything about my writing. Then he dropped his bombshell. “My name is John Diener. Where was your grandfather born? Mine was born in a little town in Poland named Grzymalow.”
I called to my wife who, organized whiz that she is, brought me a sheath of papers detailing our family tree, a document I had prepared years ago. The breath caught in my throat, and I became aware of my heartbeat. “My grandfather was also from Grzymalow,” I said in a whisper. I had never met another Diener, and was convinced that they all perished in the Holocaust. After the war my father was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany. He tried, to no avail, to find any remnants of his family. He wrote letters to the Central Committee for Liberated Jews in the U.S. Zone. He visited concentration camps. He left Europe believing that all his relatives who remained in Poland were slaughtered by the Nazis.
I continued reading to John from my notes. “My grandfather, Joseph, had three sisters – Frima, Dina and Freida – and his father’s name was Ephraim.” There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. Had I bored my newfound friend? “Hello, are you there?” I asked.
“Ephraim was my grandfather’s brother’s name,” John said. “Artie, I think we’re cousins.”
I looked up at my wife, my vision suddenly clouded.
“What is it?”
“I think I just found part of my family.”
What followed over the next week was a flurry of emails and phone calls that electrified my usually calm household. It turns out that John is 58, exactly my age. His father, Nathan, survived a concentration camp. After the war he was sponsored by relatives in Canada and immigrated to Ottawa. I remember meeting those two relatives as a young boy when they came to visit my grandfather in the Catskill Mountains.
John, a genealogy buff, writes a column on genealogy for the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, which explains why he took the time to find me. He sent me copies of documents that chronicle my father’s history: the 1949 ship’s manifest of the Queen Mary listing my father and his parents as passengers on the trip that brought them to the United States; a letter my father wrote to authorities in Germany hoping to find any surviving members of the family; a U.S. social security application that my grandfather, Joseph Diener, prepared listing Gryzmalow as his town of birth. To my amazement, my new Canadian cousin has been searching for information on my father and grandfather for years, ever since he found a copy of my father’s post-war inquiry in a German archive.
The news is a bit overwhelming. I’m thrilled to think that a branch of my family survived the Holocaust and took root in Canada, but saddened to think that I might have found them sooner if only I knew how to look.
John contacted our mutual relatives in London and Paris, distant cousins who lived near my grandparents in London during the Blitz. We exchanged emails and I sent them pictures of my family. They remember meeting my father and grandparents at a bar mitzvah in London before they left for America. The little hairs on the back of my neck stand on end when I think that the near-destruction of a kiddush cup lead to these revelations. I wish my father were alive so I could share the news.
My wife and I are making plans to visit Ottawa to meet John Diener and his family. A trip to London and Paris to search for my other relations might be next.
Washington Heights, the New York City neighborhood I grew up in, was a melting pot filled with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Many of my oldest friends are first generation Americans who lost their families as I did. While we tried to become all- American kids, embracing stickball and baseball and sports of every kind, we were indelibly marked by our parents’ experiences.
Now that my generation is approaching 60, many of us are researching our pasts. Some travel to Europe to see where their parents were born. Some search for distant relatives hoping for clues to a lost world. Others stay at home and use the internet for genealogical research. I got lucky. Through a series of incredible coincidences my article in CJ allowed my family to find me.
If you’re curious, there are free genealogical websites that might hold surprises.