Roots and Branches: Part One
You know that TV show, Who Do You Think You Are? The one where celebrity guests research their family trees and find out they're related to royalty or discover long lost relatives? I've always found the show fascinating, especially since I've never been able to trace my own family history back more than two or three generations. After the Holocaust, so many Jewish family records were destroyed. Thankfully, with resources like 23 and Me and websites like Myheritage.com and (especially for families affected by the Holocaust) the Arolson Archives, information is being discovered and shared every day. Genealogy is one of my passions, and one that I love to write about. I've delved into these sites myself, and, until recently, I felt I knew all the branches of our family tree. Turns out, I was wrong! The following is the first in a series of blog posts about my discovery of family members I never knew existed, and secrets that until now were buried and forgotten. If you like this post, and would like a glimpse into my second novel, I hope you’ll continue to read about this amazing discovery and the bonds of family that transcend religion, geography, and generations!
* * *
It started with a Facebook message.
Back in December, I logged onto Facebook and noticed that I had received a new friend request. I glanced at the image of an attractive woman with a contoured face, serious expression, and large brown eyes. Her profile photo looked like it had been taken by a professional. At first, I thought she was a fellow writer. I am a member of many writing groups online, and we often "friend" each other on social media to exchange information and share tips on the craft of writing. However, when I looked at her followers, I noticed we didn’t have any mutual friends. This sent up a red flag, so I dismissed the request and quickly forgot about it.
The next day, when I went back onto Facebook, I saw I had an unviewed message request. I knew this was from someone who wasn’t a “friend” and therefore not one of my contacts. The request had been put in a separate folder, waiting for me to respond. Curious and hesitant, I looked to see who had written to me. I immediately recognized the image of the same woman who had sent the friend request the day before. The message read:
"Hi Melissa . . . I'm searching for my Jewish grandfather's brothers or kids, in case he had any. Because he was Jewish and my grandmother Catholic, they couldn't be together, and I never met that part of my family. Do you know anybody who has lived in Neunburg vorm Wald and later Furth after the war? His name was Schyja/Shyia Werthaiser/Werthajser.
Greetings from Bavaria.
I read the message two or three times before the words sank in. Jewish grandfather. Catholic grandmother. Never met that part of my family. My gut reaction was to assume this was spam, but why would someone make this up? The name of the city Neunburg vorm Wald caught my attention, as well as name Schyja Werthaiser. That was my grandfather's brother. And my family had settled in Neunburg vorm Wald after the war.
Family Portrait, as seen on display at the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust and Humanity Center
Of all my grandfather’s siblings, Schyja was the one I knew the least about. He had never left Europe after the war and had married a Jewish woman named Gretha. Together, they had raised two children in Germany. I knew of these cousins, who were my father's generation, but we had never met. So I was bewildered as to how Kat was related to us. I eagerly revisited her page, this time looking for any clues as to who she was. I looked at the available pictures, hoping for a spark of recognition, but for all intents and purposes she was a stranger. A stranger who lived in Bavaria and who claimed to be my second cousin.
I showed my husband the messages and we mulled it over. We discussed how she could be related to us. Perhaps Schyja had been in a relationship with Kat's grandmother (we later learned she was named Anna) before the war? Perhaps he had had an affair with her while married to his wife Gretha? I was eager to learn whatever I could about Kat, but at the same time I was wary. I decided to accept her friend request, figuring that would be a good first step. Her profile was now more visible. I scanned through pictures of her with who I assumed were her friends and family, funny and endearing memes (all in German so I didn't know what they read, but the sentiment was clear from the images), beautiful landscapes of rolling mountains and pastoral fields. When I went back into my messages, considering what to write back to Kat, I saw she had sent me two short additional messages:
"I read about your book and it is very touching."
"I'm talking to Reggie as well since yesterday. I would love to meet his (Schyja's) kids or grandkids if he had any. Can't wait to find out more."
I was even more intrigued. I knew Reggie well. In fact, I'd known her my whole life. She was my father's first cousin and our families had been together for many holidays and family milestones, from birthdays to B'nai Mitzvahs to Seders to weddings to funerals. She was my father's age, and I thought of her more as an aunt than a cousin. She was also that generation's keeper of family history, often sharing with me stories about the family after the war and sparking my interest to learn more. She had most of the family photos, and I loved whenever she shared them with me. She spoke with students about the Holocaust, a passion we both shared. The fact that Kat and Reggie were now communicating erased any doubts I had. And Kat had discovered my novel What She Lost! Overcome with curiosity, I wrote her back.
"Oh this is incredible! I would love to connect. My grandfather was Harry Werthaiser, Schyja's brother. Please feel free to call me anytime. I'd love to know more!"
I included my phone number and pressed send. Then I waited with baited breath.
I didn't have long to wait. Almost immediately, Kat wrote back. She sent pictures of her father as a child and more recent pictures of the two of them together. I sent pictures of my own father and family. I learned that her father had turned 75 in November, only three months after my own father's birthday. Doing the math, I realized that our grandmothers had been pregnant at the same time, which meant Schyja and Kat's grandmother had been in a relationship right after the war . . . before he met and married his wife. I was intrigued! Through numerous texts, I learned of their love story (and an amazing story it is! I will share that in a future post, and it will feature in my upcoming novel!). I learned that Kat had been raised Catholic and had never met her grandfather and was eager to know more about her own Jewish heritage. Soon, we were talking at least once a day, if not more. I always got a rush when I heard the "ping" on my phone that meant I had another message from my newly-discovered cousin.
Kat and I - New Cousins!