“Someone had best pinch me,” Lesley said dreamily. “Never mind. I’ll pinch myself. This is all so unreal.”
I nodded. It’s the kind of statement I might otherwise have thought hyperbolic. Silly even. But at that moment I found it utterly appropriate.
Lesley is my second cousin. We had just met for the very first time at the home of our mutual (also second) cousin Nancy, in Columbus, Ohio. Until only recently, none of us was aware of the others’ existence. Nancy and I were lucky. We knew what had been lost. We had expected to find family members waiting to be discovered. Lesley, on the other hand, had no idea. Having grown up without an extended family, she had no inkling there were relatives of any kind anywhere. Pinching was definitely prescribed.
The preparations for our meeting actually began two years ago. Out of the blue, I heard from Nancy, a shadow from a part of my past I only vaguely remembered. We had a shared history, but it was fleeting, and I had to squint through my memory to recall her.
A month apart in age, Nancy and I played together as small children. We share great-grandparents by way of our mothers, the first cousins. Nancy’s grandfather Joseph was second and my grandmother Rudolfine the last of the ten children born to Chane and Hermann Zwilling between 1883 and 1899. In our early youth, our mothers were in close touch, but over time, distances grew between them, and Nancy and I grew up far apart from one another. Now, as age would have it, our heritage demanded that we reconnect and explore our common roots.
Chane and Hermann Zwilling were a storybook couple.
They were born, met and married in Ukraine during the penultimate decade of the nineteenth century. Unique among their peers, they lived happily ever after. Following the birth of their first child, they moved to Warsaw and from there to Vienna, all the while managing to escape or survive multiple tragedies, the tropes of Jewish History. Each of their ten children slipped past disease and hunger, infection and violence, through infancy into adulthood. All were gifted musicians, artists, thinkers, and their weekly reunions were effervescent celebrations of being alive.
Luckiest of all was that by the time of the Anschluss Österreichs, Chane and Hermann Zwilling had long since begun whiling away eternity in Vienna’s Zentral Friedhof, its largest cemetery. They never had reason to suspect the marauding madness of Nazism.
Their offspring, however, were endangered. All but Nancy’s grandfather, that is.
Joseph had left Vienna in 1910. His adamant support of Socialism and his refusal to serve as a soldier in the Hapsburg army led to a quarrel with Hermann. “The Hapsburgs do nothing but breed like rabbits,” he exclaimed, and with that, he entered self-imposed exile. In New York City.
By 1928, the rest of the tribe had begun gathering the resources needed to get out. Out of Vienna, out of Austria, out of Europe if possible.
My own grandparents actively began their process in 1929 when they moved to Zagreb, then Yugoslavia. Anti-Semitism was still more subtle there, and a Jewish man could earn a decent wage, save and prepare to get his large extended family to safety.
In 1939, a year after the Anschluß, Nancy’s grandfather and grandmother met my grandmother and her family at the docks in New York. It was Joseph who secured the Harlem apartment that was my mother’s first American home. Together, our grandparents continued to work toward helping the rest of the Zwillings to flee as well.
They scattered. Sisters Milka, Ella, and Cilli escaped to Palestine; from there, two traveled to Australia and the other to Canada. Brother Heinrich found a circuitous route to Sao Paolo, Brazil, and Adolph took his family to Genoa, Italy.
There would be no more family reunions.
Oldest brother Max and two more brothers Ferdinand and Franz were stranded in Vienna. Franz, who had embraced Catholicism to marry his Slovenian sweetheart Elsa years before, realized conversion was not enough to save them. By 1939, all three brothers knew their prospects were slim. But at least they knew that the children were safe.
By 1940, thanks to my grandfather’s insistence and some financial assistance, the cousins were safely out of Austria.
Max and his wife Paula had two teenage daughters, and Franz and Elsa had one son. All three were among the 100,000 youngsters who wound up in the UK through the Kindertransport, an organized rescue effort facilitated by the British government. The girls enrolled in a nurses training program in the west of England, and Franz’s son Herman went to a pig farm outside of London.
Franz and his wife had reason to hope they would be safe. However, Max and Paula were artists and intellectuals with few prospects for escape. Ferdinand, a bookbinder and a musician by trade, a small homosexual man with a seriously deformed back, was doomed.
Ferdinand’s passport was confiscated immediately after the Nazis took over. They refused to allow him to travel until February 1941, when they deported him to Mali Trostinec, a death camp outside Minsk. There is no date of death listed on Ferdinand’s transportation records. In all likelihood, as soon as the train reached the Mali Trostinec station, Ferdinand was summarily shot.
In May of the following year, Max and Paula were also sent to Mali Trostinec. Max was gassed on the first of June, and Paula followed him twenty-six days later.
Franz and Elsa seemed to have scored a better outcome. In 1940, they were granted permission to depart, and they arranged to reunite with their son. Despite the obvious dangers of the raging war, they set sail for England.
Once in London, the couple settled into a hotel to await their son’s arrival the next day. Overnight, the heater malfunctioned. When Elsa awoke coughing and choking, she found Franz dead beside her. He had been gassed. Carbon monoxide.
After the war, through the 1950s and into the 60s, the surviving Zwilling siblings reached out and let one another know where they had gone. By 1963, my grandmother had managed to visit Adolph in Genoa and Ella in Canada. Letters traveled back and forth for years between New York and Australia. She never knew what had happened to Franz or the precise fate of Max, Paula, and Ferdinand. She found comfort in knowing most of her nephews and nieces had escaped.
Except for one who died flying for the RAF, the next generation of Zwilling progeny were safe. They, too, all members of the same close-knit family that gathered so frequently to make music together, sought one another out. Max’s daughters immigrated to the US, and the younger of the two was married in my grandmother’s backyard in Bayside, Queens. But not all were able to reconnect.
The cousins in Brazil and Europe remained out of reach. As far as my mother knew, Franz’s wife Elsa and his son Herman had vanished. It was Nancy who discovered that the information was incorrect.
Nancy is an only child, whose mother was an only child. Since Joe and his wife had left all their effects to Nancy’s mother, it was Nancy who ultimately inherited the task of sorting through all her family papers and memorabilia. A child psychologist who has written two impressive books on the acquisition of language and numbers, Nancy is a brilliant researcher with a highly disciplined, organized mind and methodology. The first thing she did when she began the mission was to catalog her parents’ miscellany.
In the dizzying piles of paper and photographs, she found letters to her father from a Harry Willing. Who was this Harry Willing? And how did he know her father?
In 2015, when Nancy contacted me, she had just begun the massive task of clarifying the family history.
“Come to Columbus and help me with this thing,” she invited me. “I’ll share the cost of the travel because I could really use some assistance.”
I was intrigued.
“Really,” Nancy insisted in her most erudite academic voice. “I’ve hired a genealogist, a genealogical detective,” Nancy explained. “He’s searching in the ruins for all of them.”
Among the detective’s impressive discoveries was that this Harry Willing was the name Franz’s son Herman Zwilling took when he was confirmed into the Church of England. The letters to Nancy’s father began to make sense. Among them were photos of Franz and Elsa before Franz’s death and photos of Elsa and Harry thereafter. There were also photos of Harry’s family – he had a daughter Lesley and a son Martin. Both still live in London.
“Let’s see if we can make contact,” Nancy enthused, and she immediately wrote to the addresses her sleuth had given her. She was not able to find Martin, but Lesley was well within reach and thrilled to be contacted.
Last May, Nancy and her husband visited Lesley and hers in the UK. There is no way to capture the emotional impact that reunion had on all of us. For Lesley, it was most profound.
“I thought my father was alone in the world,” she told Nancy at that first meeting. “I never dreamed I had any kind of family but the one I’ve made.”
Lesley and I began corresponding. “I feel like I have to meet you,” she said soon after her day with Nancy. “I need more time with Nancy, and I need to see you.”
She was hesitant at first to venture over to the US. Though she and her husband are inveterate travelers, Lesley had never gone off on her own.
Luckily for all of us, however, Lesley was driven by her curiosity.
We converged on Nancy’s home and spent three days talking incessantly. We were awake each night well past our bedtimes, and for Lesley that meant staying up past a bedtime that was five hours earlier than Nancy’s and mine. We shared pictures, stories, observations. We crowed about our children, grandchildren, Lesley’s one great-grandchild. We compared medical histories, and we examined the emotional vacuums of our parents’ collective memories.
We are all nearly the same age, and we all grew up with parents who didn’t know how to convey the emotional depths to which their losses had taken them. They were unable to talk about where they’d been, what they’d suffered. I first unearthed the basic truths about the family’s ordeals when I was eleven and had read a novel set in and after the Holocaust. Animating the stories became my passion. Even so, there were things no one disclosed. As my mother’s older sister was wont to say, “There are things we just don’t talk about.”
For Nancy, the discovery came a bit later. She began to ferret out information when she was in college and later turned to a more methodical approach to learning about them. She could not ask her parents. She could only intuit how their lives fit into those she read about in the literature.
For Lesley, the past was a void. She told us she always felt there was something huge missing from her life, but she had no idea what it might be.
What she did know was that Franz’s death left a hole in her soul. Had he lived, she surmised, her life would have been far different from the one she knew. Harry and his wife were not warm, nurturing people, and Lesley was left on her own much of the time. There was among them little physical contact at all, no expressions of affection. As a shield, she held fast to the image of the distinguished, beautiful man depicted in the single photograph she had of her grandparents, and, “Somehow I knew that if he were alive, he would have loved me the way I deserved to be loved.”
When the weekend was over, Lesley, Nancy and I had bonded like sisters. Cousins. It felt as though we had begun to heal the great gash that persists in our family narrative. Someday perhaps we’ll have this encounter with the other second cousins scattered about the world, and we’ll close the circle.
In the meantime, our Ohio weekend was transformative.
“You’ve filled my heart,” Leslie sobbed as we tearfully hugged goodbye at the airport. “There was always a piece of myself I knew was not there. But I had no idea where to look for it. You’ve given it back. I feel complete.”
What a sad story, leading to a wonderful reunion! Thankful, you’ve all reconnected. Beautiful!!!