Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. A day to commemorate the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
When I was younger, the Holocaust was a remote concept. We commemorated it at my Jewish day school and learned about it in class, but it didn't ever feel like something that was central to my family history. My great-grandparents had all immigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, and there was no open discussion about it in the family.
Not until I started digging into my family tree did I realize just how wrong I was. In most instances, my great-grandparents were the lucky ones. They lost whole branches of their immediate families. In some cases, I can find them. In others, it's as though they left no remaining trace, and each lead runs cold.
But what has really bothered me is the family we thought we accounted for, but left out of the family narrative. That's the story I want to tell.
When I really began to research my family history, my great-grandmother, Sophie (Khvoles) Berson, and her family were probably the most well-documented. Sophie was born Shifra in or around Bagaslaviskis, Lithuania, in 1873. She married my great-grandfather on 10 January 1897 and immigrated to the U.S. with two of her children, arriving at Ellis Island on 2 July 1903.
Many of Sophie's siblings had also immigrated, and I grew up hearing all about the Wallace family (the Americanized version of Khvoles). She was the daughter of Sender Khvoles and mother Raykha, and had siblings Avraham (the famous Georgian Rabbi), Orel Shlomo, Shia, Molly, Leah, Sara Devora, Jonah, Joseph, and Yenta. Of my great-grandmother's siblings, five immigrated to the United States, three died before the Holocaust, and one, Yenta, along with her husband Zalman, sons Avraham, Dov, Baruch, and daughter Rachel, were all murdered. Only one son of Yenta, Sender, survived, and much of the family information seems to come from him.
Because so much was known about the Khvoles family, I left that branch alone for quite awhile, focusing on more obscure family lines that had never received any attention. But when I finally started researching the Khvoles, I found a record that completely changed the layout of the family tree.
I found a marriage record for a Rachel Khvoles who was the daughter of Sender from Bagaslaviskis. From the available records I've looked at for Khvoleses and in Bagaslaviskis (and I've probably gone through them all several times over), there is no Sender Khvoles old enough to be the father of this Rachel in Bagaslaviskis, except for my 2nd great-grandfather.
But I wasn't totally convinced either. From every record I've seen, my 2nd great-grandmother was Raykha. That's a form of Rachel. Why is a Rachel giving birth to a Rachel, when Ashkenazi Jews don't name after the living? I quickly dismissed the mother dying in childbirth because three other children were probably born after this Rachel. And why did not one know about her? I wasn't totally convinced, so I needed to investigate. What I found leads me to believe that my great-grandmother had another sister. Here's why:
A marriage record for a child of Moshe (who went by Chaim or Chaim-Moshe in records) and Rachela Maruch. Her name was Rajchel! I concluded that the Rachels were possibly just named after different people, which was some kind of loophole. Perhaps this Rachel was named for her deceased maternal grandmother.
A marriage record for the son of Yente Melnik (my great-grandmother's known sister), Dov Ber. Notice who one of the witnesses was. Chayim Marukh! Although he was regularly a witness and mohel for Jewish life cycles in Bystritsa (he was a shochet, ritual slaughterer), this record alerted me to the fact that Rachel and her sister Yente actually lived in the same town, a town that only had about 154 Jews in 1919. No other known Khvoles lived in Bystritsa.
Chaim and Rachel had another daughter named Sara Yente who married, according to this record, Yakov Skobyanek. The spelling of this surname was quite fluid, however, with more records found for the variation of Skrobianski.
What I found was various Holocaust-related records, including a list for the Bystrista ghetto. The name Sender stood out, and I would guess he's named for Sora's maternal grandfather (my 2nd great-grandfather).
In passing, a cousin mentioned that his mother referred to a "Tante Raichel." I had dismissed it, saying she must have meant her grandmother, because how could a Rachel have a daughter named Rachel? Well, I'm guessing that maybe that Tante could be Rachel Maruch.
So why do I mention this all today? As far as I can tell, the Maruchs all perished in the Holocaust. I found both the Melniks (my great-grandmother's known-to-us family) and the Skrobianskis on the list of those murdered from Bystritsa. I can't explain why Sender Melnik, the only remaining member of the family, never seemed to mention Rachel or why no one remembered her. Maybe it was too painful, which is why many in the family probably knew little to nothing about many other lost family members. But I feel strongly from the evidence (the marriage record, living in the same town as her sister, naming patterns) that she would be my 2nd great-aunt.
Because much of my family is Litvak (Lithuanian Jewish), most didn't make it to the camps. They were murdered in the early years of the war. That's why I was surprised and so incredibly moved when I found the files for Leibe Maruch, son of Chaim and Rachel, who likely died in the camps.
Through the Arolsen Archives, an essential resource for anyone researching the Holocaust, I found that Leibe was caught in Riga, before being sent to the concentration camp Stuffhof. He was then sent to Buchenwald and arrived on 26 November 1944. I can only guess he met his demise in April 1945 on the Death March.
There's a prevailing myth out there that Jewish records were destroyed in the Holocaust. Did this happen? Yes. But the Nazis liked to keep records, which is why I have one that tells me about Leibe's parents as well as when they supposedly died (although I have Rachel Maruch still living in 1942 according to the Bystritsa ghetto list). Please know that if you lost relatives in the Holocaust, there may be records. Search for them! Some websites to get you started:
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum / www.ushmm.org
Yad Vashem (especially the names database) / https://yvng.yadvashem.org/
Arolsen Archives / https://arolsen-archives.org/
Ask family members questions, search the typical websites (e.g., Ancestry, MyHeritage), take DNA tests. I'm currently trying to get Leibe's passport (obtained through the Lithuanian State Central Archives) translated, in hopes I learn more about him and this branch of the family.
So today on Yom HaShoah, I remember Rachel Maruch, her family, and all my relatives who perished in the Holocaust. If you're willing, please share a family member you want remembered in the comments.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interesting in exploring your family history. Free initial consultations.
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