Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Red Cross Holocaust Tracing Team Helps Fill in Pieces of a Family Puzzle

Holocaust survivors Lea Rubinstein & Murray Berliner
May 7, 1947, New York.
Imagine not knowing the answers to many of the family identity questions most of us take for granted: What were my parents’ childhoods like? Who are my aunts and uncles? Do I have any cousins?

Growing up as the daughter of two Holocaust survivors who met and married in the United States, these are questions Hannah Berliner Fischthal struggled with—and she is still seeking answers.

An English professor in New York City, Berliner Fischthal wanted to write a book about her family’s history, but as she began the project, she realized that she knew little about the paternal side of her family. “I didn’t even have names,” she said.

Berliner Fischthal’s mother, Lea, was more forthcoming than her father, so she knew a bit of her story: Lea had grown up in Belgium along with her parents and brother. They had managed to escape being sent to a concentration camp by fleeing to southern France and living there as Catholics for the duration of the war.

Berliner Fischthal’s late father, Murray Berliner, had been sent to two different forced labor camps in Germany, but he was unwilling to talk about his experiences before and during the Holocaust. As far as he was concerned, he was “born” in 1946 on the day he entered America; he wouldn’t talk about the life (or family) he’d had before that day.

In 1994, Berliner Fischthal started looking for answers about her father’s holocaust experiences, as well as those of his family. “I was very cynical,” she said. “I didn’t think I was ever going to get information from Germany. When I first started writing letters almost 20 years ago, I got no information at all.”

Berliner Fischthal enlisted the help of every organization here in the United States and abroad that offered tracing services. She sent requests to Jewish Records Indexing–Poland and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. As part of the latter’s response, they recommended that she contact the Red Cross.

At first, she was told by Red Cross there wasn’t anything to be found about her family. But over time, she received nuggets of information, and those would lead her to other information.

It has taken years, but with the help of the Red Cross, Berliner Fischthal has learned more of her father’s story. He was born in Poland in 1912 and grew up with six brothers and three sisters. He was married and had a child. He, his brothers, sisters, wife and child were all rounded up and sent to different concentration camps. Berliner Fischthal’s father, three of his siblings and a niece survived; his other siblings and his wife and child did not.

Once Berliner Fischthal learned about her father’s nine brothers and sisters, she was able to make additional inquiries and find the names of their spouses and some of their children.

The family tree that had been pruned by tragedy was getting filled out. Relatives she didn’t even know existed now had names and birthdays. She was subsequently able to find out which concentration camps they’d been taken to.

Most recently, the Red Cross was able to provide Berliner Fischthal with the Polish birth certificate for her Aunt Esther.

“I’ve always had the feeling that the Red Cross was genuinely trying to help and wouldn’t give up,” Berliner Fischthal said. “Sometimes it took many months, maybe a year, before information came through on a particular person. But I didn’t feel alone in the process, or that I was asking questions that were never going to be answered.”

There are still pieces missing in Berliner Fischthal’s knowledge of her family, but thanks in large part to the Red Cross she now has a much fuller picture.

“Receiving factual information from the Red Cross became an increasingly important way of filling in some of the tremendous gaps in my knowledge about my family that was murdered in the Holocaust,” she said. “I am very grateful for the real help the Red Cross provided.”

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