Game-changing findings, tracked down through ministries, magistrates, museums, and archives around the world.
I’d like to begin with a shout-out to my followers (yes, you!)—I don’t check my site stats all that often, but I’ve been putting together agent queries and I was thrilled to discover that my blog has received over 10,000 visits! To all of you who continue to frequent the site, thank you. It means more to me than you know (and might just mean something to a future agent or publisher, too!).
Speaking of interest, I’ve been meaning to report that The Lucky Ones was a hit with my editor, Jane. She loved it! She called the story “amazing,” and then added, “but more importantly, your writing does it justice” (cue the exhale). Jane offered up several suggestions, all of which were spot-on. Whatever happens with the book, I will forever be grateful for her positive response and invaluable feedback.
Also on the topic of interest, the story of The Lucky Ones has garnered its fair share of it since I left you last.
A while back, I was approached by a team of Brazilian filmmakers for an interview. João, from San Paulo, and Marina, who lives in LA, are three years into researching and producing a documentary on the life of Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas, Brazil’s ambassador to France, who, in the early years of WWII, surreptitiously issued illegal Brazilian visas to hundreds of European Jews (my grandfather was one of them). I invited my mother to take part in the interview, and she and I had a lively conversation with João and Marina via Skype—we shared the details of my grandfather’s story and they shared the details of Souza Dantas’s remarkable personal and professional life. Before logging off we agreed to meet in person for a filmed interview in New York. I’ll let you know if The Ambassador makes it to the big screen!
Just last week, I received another request for an interview, this time from the Red Cross. I’d contacted the Polish Red Cross by mail back in 2011, in hopes of tracking down family records. When I didn’t hear back, I figured their search had come up empty. And then, amazingly, an envelope arrived last fall. The Polish Red Cross had, indeed, found records: birth certificates from a Registry Office in Radom; applications for ID cards during Radom’s Nazi occupation, marked with the seal of the Supreme Council of Elders of the Jewish Population; a hand-written record of circumcision (ironically for the relative who was later forced to “fake” a foreskin to dodge persecution); a record of a sibling registered as a survivor in ’46 with the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
Jan, who sent me these findings, works from my local Red Cross chapter in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She’d spent some time on my site, she said—she was inspired by my research, and asked if she could learn more about my story and share it with the region’s staff and volunteers before Holocaust Remembrance Day in April. She hoped an interview might help spread the word that the Red Cross still provides tracing services for families of Holocaust survivors. I readily agreed, and Jan and I are set to meet in person next week.
It’s gratifying to know that there are folks around the world as passionate as I am about researching and preserving the stories that define such an important chapter of our history. With fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors left to share their experiences, it seems now is the time to record what we know, and to search for what we don’t. So if you’re thinking of digging up the details of your ancestral past, I say grab a shovel! With organizations like the Red Cross and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum eager to help, sending an inquiry is easy. Even if your search yields something as simple as a name with a date, an address, or a birth certificate, it’s something—a sliver of a past life, a moment solidified in time and place, a detail that won’t be forgotten. And that, in my opinion, is worth digging for.
Can it be–August already? What a summer it’s been. Mine (in a nutshell) has entailed exploring Nova Scotia’s seaboard with family, cavorting with friends in Charleston, beach-hopping with Wyatt in Rowayton, tackling boatloads of travel writing assignments, and, of course, pushing to complete a second round of edits to my manuscript.
In my last post, I introduced you to Dvora, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, who grew up in my family’s hometown of Radom, Poland. I connected with Dvora in June, over the phone. She surprised me with her quick wit, her candidness, and her stamina–we spoke for nearly three hours. My questions revolved largely around life as a young girl in pre-war Radom. What did she do for fun? Where did she go to school? What was her favorite snack?
Dvora’s memory was sharp. She regaled me with stories of picking wild berries at Lake Garbatka, where her family (like many Radomers) spent the summers, and of strolling from her home (a stone’s throw from the Kurc’s) to the market, the park, the Przyjaciol Wiedzy, a Jewish school for girls where she studied six days a week (the norm). I could feel her nostalgia as she reminisced about her mother’s poppy seed cake and savory Seder brisket, and the sadness in her voice when she told me how everyone “cried their hearts out” at the 1935 death of Józef Piłsudksi, a heroic leader of the Second Polish Republic, and how life for Jews began to deteriorate thereafter.
When I hung up the phone with Dvora I felt like I’d gleaned a new, colorful perspective on what it meant for my grandfather and his siblings to grow up in Radom. To my new friend Dvora–I can’t thank you enough for your precious insights.
In June I also collaborated with a cartographer, Ryan, who was referred to me through a travel client. I charged Ryan with creating a map that depicted the Kurc family’s WWII Diaspora…which, considering its breadth, was no easy task. After several revisions, we ended up here:
And just a couple of weeks ago, I’m proud to report I completed a second round of manuscript revisions and, after quieting the demons (I can make it better! What if they hate it?), finally mustered the courage to hand it over to a few trusted editors. It was hard (so hard!) letting go. But now that it’s off my plate, I feel lighter on my toes than I have in months. To my better half Robert, my mother Isabelle, and my good friend John–I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking on the role of The Lucky Ones’ first audience. I’m so excited for your feedback.
I’ve still got plenty of work ahead, of course, but with this early draft of the book out I feel like I’ve checked off a major milestone, and I’m determined now more than ever to make The Lucky Ones as great as it can be. A heartfelt thank you to all of the folks–from survivors to cartographers to editors–who have carved the time out of their own busy summers to lend a hand.
Well folks, I’m mid-way through a second round of book edits, and if I squint hard enough, I think I can see the finish line!
I’ve tackled my revision process in two phases. In the first I asked myself, from a big-picture perspective, does it flow? With so many characters whose routes span so many countries, continuity is key. Phase One was a beast. I doubled back often, cut scenes that seemed superfluous (easier said than done), and penned new scenes where there were gaps or where I’d recently discovered pertinent information (e.g., I felt I owed Halina a chapter devoted to her incarceration at the the Montelupich Prison in Krakow).
I’m now neck deep in Phase Two revisions, my goal this time to bring each page to life by adding color—sensory-rich details which, I hope, will allow readers to slip seamlessly back in time, and into the well-worn shoes of my relatives. For the book’s early chapters, which are set in the Kurc’s hometown of Radom, for example, I asked myself: What did their street look like? What kinds of clothes did they wear? Did they have a favorite restaurant before the war? Which paper or radio station did they rely on for news?
In my search for answers, I found several helpful resources, including a collection of photographs entitled, Image Before My Eyes, A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland 1864-1939, which offered a strong visual of pre-war Poland. I also discovered a KehilaLinks site on JewishGen dedicated to the study of Jewish family history in Radom, with scores of interesting facts and photos, including an old advertisement for my great grandparents’ fabric shop (at top). I emailed the author of the site, Susan Weinberg, curious about her connection to Radom, and about one of the photos I’d stumbled across (above)—could she tell me the name of the building in it, or perhaps the street? I was also curious about the trees—did she happen to know what kind they were? Minutiae, yes, but the sorts of details I’d been craving.
Susan surprised me by replying right away—her grandfather was from Radom, as well, it turns out. You’re in luck, she said. I saw your email while having lunch with a dear friend, Dvora, who is 90, and a survivor from Radom. She’s legally blind, but I asked her about the trees, and she remembers them as chestnuts. Susan went on to describe what Dvora remembered of the city’s 17th century architecture, along with its arts center, which now houses the Resursa Obywatelska, an Arts & Culture Center. I’m happy to ask if Dvora would be open to speaking with you, Susan offered. I also have a contact at the Resursa—Jakub. He’s been my feet on the ground when I need photos of Radom. Shall I put you in touch?
I’d struck gold.
Dvora and I are scheduled to chat later this week. Jakub has already graciously answered a dozen of my questions. Susan and I email often. Last week, she sent a photo of a tombstone in Radom she came across in her own research, marked Nusyn Kurc, 1874-1936; I’m in the process of trying to learn if “Nathan” was related.
Years ago, I sat down with an empty notebook and a voice recorder to interview a relative in Paris—a first step in the daunting task of unearthing my family’s ancestral past. I’ve come a long way, yes. The end is near. But as thrilling as that is, I’m reminded often that there’s still much to learn. And that you never know when one small discovery might lead to a trove of others.
This second phase of research and revision has been tedious as well, but I love it. Each finding—whether gleaned through photos, a conversation, or my own sleuthing through obscure sites and out-of-print books—brings more focus and vibrancy to my family’s story, which is exactly what I need to take The Lucky Ones from good to great. I know that at some point, I’ll need to deem my research complete and step across that finish line…but for now, I’m content to keep on digging.
I highly recommend a visit to Susan’s blog, “Layers of the Onion, a Family History Exploration,” and to her site, where you can learn the story of how she met Dvora, who inspired a series of beautiful paintings and poems.
Last spring, I contacted the Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in DC, in hopes of tracking down some family records through the International Tracing Service (ITS), a German archive containing ~3o million WWII/Nazi-era documents. I submitted five separate inquiries, one for each of the Kurc siblings. I never heard back, and after a month, I marked ITS on my list of resources as “explored.”
And then—almost a year later—I woke up to an inbox full of news from a gentleman by the name of Bashi at USHMM’s Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center. Bashi apologized for not being able to locate any ITS records for my grandfather (unsurprising, as he was living in France at the outbreak of the war, and fled shortly after for Brazil)—but my inquiries, it turns out, had churned up a slew of documents for each of Addy’s siblings—one for Genek, five for Halina, six for Mila, and a whopping eight for Jakob. Overwhelmed with gratitude, I thanked Bashi for his help. Then I dug into his findings.
For Genek, Bashi had discovered the name “Gerszon Kurc” on a list of Jewish refugees serving with the Polish Army in Tehran. He found Mila’s name on a list of Polish Jews employed in Warsaw in 1945. Jakob and Maryla were listed among hundreds of refugees who passed through the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1946 (post-war). One document revealed that Halina had been confined to a prison in Krakow from August 1944 until January 1945 (when Soviet forces entered the city).
It took me weeks to translate and decode each of the records (20 in all). By the time I was finished, I’d filled several gaps in my family’s timeline. But I was also left scratching my head, suddenly consumed with a whole new set of questions.
What kind of will did it take, I wondered, for Maryla to walk through the gates to Bergen-Belsen, when she’d lost her parents to Treblinka just two years before? And how did Mila find work as a Jew in Warsaw? I was under the impression she’d gotten by with falsified Aryan papers, but the work records Bashi sent were entitled Wykaz Alfabetyczny Zydow Polskich: an Alphabetized List of Polish Jews. And what was it like for Halina, at 27 years old, to spend nearly half a year in Krakow’s notorious Montelupich Prison—one of the “most terrible Gestapo prisons in Poland?” (I’ve asked Krakow’s Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish for more details about her incarceration.)
Such is the nature, I’ve learned, of ancestry research: information garnered can be as mind boggling as it is revelational (e.g., I was aware Halina spent some time in jail, but now I know which jail, and for how long…that said, I’ll only ever be able to imagine what was going through her head during those five heinous months at Montelupich). But that’s okay. Because thanks to Bashi’s findings, my story is more complete. And because as a writer, filling in the missing details is, well, part of the gig.
Interested in Researching Your Family’s Holocaust Records?
If you’d like to try to track down your own family’s Holocaust records, I highly recommend contacting the International Tracing Service. You can submit an inquiry here, through the US Holocaust Museum. Keep in mind it may be months before you hear back. You can also try searching USHMM’s Holocaust Survivors and Victims Database, JewishGen (powered by Ancestry.com), Yad Vashem, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the The Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center (managed by the American Red Cross). For more advice on researching your family history, check out my page on Ancestry Search Tips.
Greetings, friends! I’m sure many of you are as reluctant as I am to bid summertime adieu—although I must admit, I’m looking forward to some downtime this fall. Robert, Wyatt and I have been moving nonstop, it seems, hopping between family reunions, horse shows, adventure races and ultrasound appointments. Turns out the reason I’ve been so tired and crabby for the past couple of months is I’ve got a bun in the oven! Very exciting (slash terrifying)—and all the more reason to finish The Lucky Ones by the end of the year.
I heard back from the Whidbey Contest and while Kath and I didn’t make Top 2, I did received a couple of very positive critiques (phew!) along with some constructive feedback on my first 50 pages.
I also learned that the piece I submitted to 826 Seattle will serve as the closer in the What to Read in the Rain 2014 anthology coming out this winter! Very cool. Very honored. And very excited to hopefully make it out for the launch in early December.
I’ve designated Fall 2013 Fact-Checking and Polishing Season, the goal being to send off my manuscript to agents this winter. With the family narrative piece of my research largely complete, I’m focused on the historical content now—the details that will not only validate the story, but also help bring it to life. These details, however, aren’t always easy to find.
A while back, for example, I set off on a mission to confirm the number of Jewish survivors from my family’s hometown of Radom, Poland. A couple of books mentioned, vaguely, that a mere “handful” survived. I wanted a number. So I contacted the Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team, several historians, Radom City Hall. I scoured the World Wide Web. Nothing. Finally, I reached out to the U.S. Holocaust Museum. A librarian named Jonathan responded, confirming not only the number of Jews in Radom before the war (~30,000, 33% of the population), but also a statistic from the The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust stating that, sure enough, “only a few hundred Radom Jews survived.” Not the exact number I was hoping for, but enough to validate my understanding (and declaration) that, if left to probability, my family, along with 99% of Radom’s Jews, should have perished during the Holocaust.
With the clock ticking (the new addition is due early March) I’ve enlisted the help of a college student, Kristen, in my research efforts. Every week, I send Kristen a handful of questions. What kind of desk might my great-grandmother have had in her living room in pre-war Poland? (Popular at the time were rectangular and kindey-shaped desks in mahogany, oak and rosewood.) What kinds of guns did the soldiers of the Polish II Corps carry? (Thompson Submachine Guns, aka “Tommy Guns.”)
Kristen’s meticulous research not only allows me to enrich my piece with the nitty-gritty details I’m after, but to spend my time focused on the bigger picture, polishing my prose and taking a good, hard look at things like story arc, character development, and dialogue.
So to the Jonathans and Kristens of the world—the folks who have played a role in the hours and hours of sleuthing this project has entailed—thank you. Your help is invaluable as I push on down the path to completion.
Greetings and happy 2013! I hope you’re as excited as I am for what the new year has to bring. #1 on my list of resolutions this year is to complete a draft of The Lucky Ones by summertime. Wish me luck!
I left you last with a snapshot of life for the Kurc siblings in December of 1940. My grandfather was desperate to escape Nazi-occupied France. After being denied visas to America, Argentina and Venezuela (anywhere that would take him in the free world was fine with him—he couldn’t afford to be picky), he was finally able to talk his way into a Brazilian visa; shortly after, he set sail for Rio de Janeiro aboard a passenger ship called the Alsina.
The Alsina never made it to Brazil. It was detained in Dakar, again in Casablanca, and later sunk in an Allied air attack. How my grandfather eventually found his way to Rio, I had no idea. What I did know was that he managed to make the most of his time aboard the ill-fated Alsina. Soon after the ship left Marseille, story has it he charmed his way from his bunk in steerage to the grand piano in the first-class lounge, where he entertained passengers with Chopin etudes and popular jazz tunes—and where he met a girl. And not just any girl—a beautiful Czechoslovakian named Elizabeth, to whom he later proposed.
A romance aboard a ship full of refugees! I couldn’t wait to learn more. Who was this Elizabeth? How did they meet? Was she Jewish? Her last name was “Lowbeer,” my mother said, unsure of the spelling. “She was traveling with her mother. They made it to Brazil, and later moved to the States, I believe.”
Perhaps if Elizabeth was still alive, I thought, I could talk with her. I started fantasizing about the questions I’d ask—about the ship, about Dakar, Casablanca, Rio, about my grandfather—of the man he was at 28 years old, having just left his home and his family, without a clue as to what the future might hold. But after scouring the Web, I couldn’t find any record of Elizabeth Lowbeer.
Unwilling to give up, I kept digging, and soon discovered a book by a gentleman named Fábio Koifman called “Quixote nas Trevas” (Quixote in Darkness), about a Brazilian ambassador to France who, against Vichy orders, helped secure visas for ~800 Jews during the war, several of whom wound up on the Alsina. I contacted Mr. Koifman and told him what I knew of my grandfather’s story. He wrote back right away: “The surname Kurc sounds familiar. I’ll investigate.”
A week later, an email came— “Adolph Kurc appears on page 365 of my book. He was issued a temporary visa, #51.” Koifman went on to share a wealth of invaluable details about my grandfather’s journey. Apparently he arrived in Rio via a ship called the Cabo do Hornos, where he and a handful of others were detained on an island off the mainland, Ilha das Flores. Koifman sent me a list of the detainees (below). My grandfather’s name is at the top. If you look closely, you’ll see Eliska Low Beerowa, fourteen names below.
After thanking Koifman profusely for his help, I immediately googled “Eliska Low Beerowa.” It didn’t take long for me to find her. Eliska, married name Chanlett, lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She was 88 years old.
Giddy with excitement, I wrote Eliska a letter, explaining who I was. I’m going to be visiting North Carolina in March, I said. If you have any interest, I would love to meet you. Worst case, I told myself, I wouldn’t hear back. Best case, I would, and she’d be lucid, and open to meeting me, the prospect of which kept me awake at night, wondering what she’d look like, sound like, what kinds of stories she might share.
My heart skipped a beat as I dropped the letter in the mail. All that was left for me to do was keep my fingers crossed, and wait.
It’s official–the holidays are upon us. This evening, families will gather to light the first of their menorah candles, hosts will begin prepping their holiday menus and children will sit down in pine-scented homes to pen letters to the North Pole. In the midst of it all, I can’t help but reflect on my own holiday rituals, and on those of my ancestors. What was it like, I wonder, to watch the holidays come and go as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust? Let’s try to imagine. Join me, if you will, as we step back in time 72 years, to the war-torn world of my grandfather and his siblings.
The date: December 8th, 1940.
Your country no longer exists. The Polish army, which put up a gallant fight at the start of the war, has surrendered. Germany occupies the western half of Poland; Russia occupies the east. (Poles, however, continue to fight abroad alongside the Allies under a British government-in-exile.)
Your hometown of Radom is under German control. The city’s ~30,000 Jews (a third of the population), are forced to wear white armbands with blue stars; getting caught without one is punishable by death. Jewish schools are closed, Jewish businesses have been confiscated, a strict curfew is established. There is talk amongst the Schutztaffel of constructing a ghetto.
Your family’s fabric shop has been sequestered. Food rations have dropped to an all-time low. Your mother is put to work in a cafeteria peeling potatoes for the Gestapo; whenever she dares, she sneaks a handful of peelings home to make broth. Your sister Halina works at a farm outside Radom. The produce she harvests feeds the German military; her pay is a bit of bread.
Your brother Jakob lives in Lvov and works at a factory mending Russian uniforms from the front. Your sister Mila hasn’t heard from her husband in over a year, ever since he was called up to join the Polish army. She works at a uniform factory in Radom. Her daughter Felicia, two years old, comes to work with her every day, where she spends hours alone, in hiding.
Your brother Genek and his wife Herta have nearly frozen to death within the confines of their Siberian gulag. Herta is nine months pregnant. She must continue working until the baby comes–the rule, “To eat, you must work,” makes no exception for pregnant women.
You are in the process of gathering the paperwork you need to leave Nazi-occupied France. You’ve been denied visas to Venezuela, Argentina and America. You are now in Vichy, where you’ve been denied a Brazilian visa as well. Rather than give up, you decide you’ll wait outside the embassy to speak with the ambassador in person. Can you charm your way to a visa–and out of Europe? You have nothing to lose.
Fast forward six years and the Holocaust has taken its toll. Of Radom’s 30,000 Jews, fewer than 300 survive. The Kurcs, incredibly, comprise nearly seven percent of the city’s total survivors.
Fast forward another two-thirds of a century, and here I am, at the keys of my computer. I am a click away from virtually anything–a plane ticket, a doctor’s appointment, a video chat with my grandmother. My son naps in the room next to me, curled up with a stuffed zebra, surrounded by photos of his family. After we put him to bed tonight, my husband and I will enjoy a quiet dinner and a glass of wine by the fire. Small luxuries, but luxuries indeed.
This holiday season, I am grateful. I’m grateful for my boys, whose smiles make me feel warm inside. I’m grateful for the roof over our heads that stood up to the wrath of Hurricane Sandy, and for the friends who took us in when we were without power for a week. I’m grateful for our health, our safety, our freedom–for the things I’m reminded over and over again in my research that I must never take for granted.
I am grateful of course for the Kurcs, whose story has instilled in me the belief that with courage, perseverance, ingenuity and a bit of luck, nearly anything is possible.
Finally, I am grateful for you! My family, friends and followers–for your support as I continue along this journey. I couldn’t do it without you. I wish you all barrels of cheer this holiday season–I look forward to turning the page together in 2013.
Last April, I received a letter from the Memorial Center in Moscow—an organization I contacted in hopes of tracking down additional information about my great-uncle Genek, who was deported from Poland in 1941, along with his wife Herta, to one of Stalin’s Siberian gulags.
A woman by the name of Olga Cheriepova, a member of the Memorial Center’s Polish Committee, sent two responses to my inquiry, one written in Russian, and one in Polish. She’d found a record of Genek’s name, she said, and prompted me to contact the Ministry of Internal Affairs for details. What struck me the most about her letter wasn’t the fact that Genek’s records did, in fact, exist; it was her closing statement. It read:
As citizens of the country that was responsible for harm toward Poland and the Polish people, please accept our words of regret for the suffering and injustice sustained by your great-uncle Genek.
Immediately I followed up with my translator, to be sure she’d gotten the message right. Sure enough, 70 years later, Russia was apologizing.Apologies are interesting. Most, if delivered genuinely, offer a bit of consolation and, later on down the road, pave the way to forgiveness. But Cheriepova’s “words of regret”—70 years after the fact—felt to me like too little, too late. Genek and Herta were just two of countless innocent men, women and children plucked from their homes, herded into cattle cars and sent off to forced labor camps in the far reaches of Siberia (in her book, Gulag, Anne Applebaum estimates that the USSR forced a total of 28.7 million laborers into the gulag system from 1930-1953). Does “we’re sorry” really cut it?
After reading Cheriepova’s letter, my mind immediately leapt to Hitler. What about the 6,000,000 souls lost to the Holocaust? Did their families ever receive an apology? It turns out some did.
President François Hollande gave a speech this summer in which he admitted that France was responsible for the death of thousands of Jews residing in France during WWII. His speech was delivered on the 70th anniversary of a two-day police roundup of more than 13,000 Jews in Paris in July of 1942. (The story of the Vel d’Hiv roundup is told in Sarah’s Key, based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay.)
While apologies such as Hollande’s and Cheriepova’s will never, of course, make up for what happened, they are, I suppose, a step in the right direction. To admit fault is a brave and difficult thing, especially when it comes to personal (and in this case, national) pride.
I wonder often what Genek and Herta would have thought of Ms. Cheriepova’s letter. I’ve been told they rarely spoke of Siberia—their time in the gulag, it seems, was a chapter of their lives they preferred to forget. Perhaps they’d have shrugged the apology off with an attitude of what’s done is done. Or perhaps they’d have felt worse, the words a reminder of the frigid winter they spent felling logs, listening to the howl of wolves through the thin walls of their barracks. Or perhaps, over time, they’d have accepted the apology, and a small piece of their conscience would rest easier, knowing the wrongs they’d endured had been recognized. I guess we’ll never know.
After its debut in January, We Were the Lucky Ones spent over four months on the…
We Were the Lucky Ones is selected by Harpers Bazaar as one of 14 Books You Need to Read in February…”a tale of resilience and commitment to one another amidst the direst of obstacles.”