Let me tell you a story:
Once upon a time, there was a writer. She spent a lot of time on her computer. One day, when she was online doing research, she discovered a cryptic message that led to an amazing discovery. As I'm sure you've guessed, the writer is me. I had been looking up information for my next novel and wanted to find a picture I had posted on Facebook some time ago. I don't normally browse Facebook on my laptop . . . it is a distraction I save only for my phone. But that day, as I was viewing images on my much larger computer screen, I saw a notification request I would have otherwise overlooked. Someone whose name I didn't recognize and who I wasn't friends with on Facebook had sent me a message.
Usually, I don't open messages from people I don't know. I've found that most of these requests are spam, and I've even had my Facebook page hacked when accidentally opening something on Messenger. My first instinct was to dismiss this notification . . . except for the fact that there was no written message, only a series of photos. Because I hadn't accepted the request, the photos had been blurred so I couldn't clearly make them out. At first, I wondered if they might be inappropriate in nature, but from what I could tell, the indistinct images resembled someone's old family photos. Who that someone was, I didn't know. I studied the name of the person who had sent them again, hoping to ignite a spark of recognition, but to no avail. And even though I couldn't make out any faces in the pictures, something about these photos seemed somehow familiar to me.
I've spent a lot of time lately looking at older family photos. This is a hobby of mine when I'm not writing because it is a constant source of inspiration. I've become the family historian, so to speak. When my Grandma Evie passed away, I took her albums and boxes of loose photos (some dating back to the late 1800s/early 1900s) to sort through and organize. I have spent many hours digitizing hundreds of slides my parents had tucked away in their garage. I am always fascinated when looking at these sepia-toned images of relatives . . . some of whom I only knew when they were old, some I never had the chance to know. They stare back at me over the years, preserved in their youth. It is so easy to get caught up in the insignificant, often forgettable moments that make up each day, and looking at these photos grounds me, makes me feel connected to something greater, like a single thread in a large, beautiful tapestry. This is why I like recording my family's stories, to remember where I came from and to preserve these memories for the future. And whenever I falter in my writing, I turn to these photos.
So when I saw these blurry images, I was intrigued. A small voice warned me not to open them, and my finger hovered over the "Accept" button. Before I could stop myself, I clicked. The first picture became clear. I was staring at a family standing side by side. The image appeared to be from the late '60s or early '70s. There was a kind-looking gentleman dressed in shorts and sandals with his arm around a young boy, and standing beside a young woman of maybe eighteen with a high ponytail. None of them looked familiar to me. But I found myself staring at the fourth person in the picture, a young man in jeans and sunglasses who strongly resembled my father. When I zoomed in on the picture, I was sure it was him. A million questions filled my mind. Who were the people standing beside him? How old was he? Where was this picture taken?
And why did a stranger have a picture of my dad?
Quickly, I began to scroll through the remaining images. The next photo showed the same foursome sitting casually on a green lawn. For the briefest moment, I entertained the notion that my father had another family somewhere. Was this some dark family secret? Who was the young woman beside him, I wondered? And were was my mother? My father looked to be in his early twenties . . . perhaps he hadn't met my mother yet?
As quickly as the thought entered my mind, I dismissed it. I knew my father better than that. And perhaps this wasn't my dad after all, but rather someone who looked just like him!
When I opened the third photo, however, I froze. Staring back at me, clear as day, were my grandparents. I was only eight when my grandfather passed away, but I immediately recognized him from all the pictures I'd ever seen of him, and from my own childhood memories. And there was no doubt in my mind that the woman smiling at the camera was my grandmother, my bubbe. To my eyes, my grandparents were surrounded by strangers, yet they all stood close together, arms thrown around each other, sharing a bond I didn't understand. I was certain of one thing, however. The stranger who had messaged me was somehow connected to my family.
The remaining images all showed my grandparents with these other couples. My uncle, a young teenager, was in a number of the shots, as was as my great aunt who I had known very well.
Second from left: My grandmother Seventh from left: My great aunt
Third from right: My uncle
Last on far right: My grandfather
Bottom row, far right: My grandmother
Bottom row, middle: My great aunt
Top row, third from left: My uncle
Top row, third from right: My grandfather
By now, I was brimming with curiosity. I immediately tried calling my parents at home, but there was no answer. I then tried their mobile phones, but still no one picked up. It was then that I remembered they had gone out to dinner with my aunt and uncle, so I sent a group text to all four of them that read: "Do you guys know anyone by the name of H. K. (for privacy, I will only use his initials)?"
I decided to text my cousin next. Like me, she is fascinated with our family roots and we often share information with each other. Our correspondence went like this:
Me: Hey there! Does the name H. K. mean anything to you?
My cousin: Hmmm.
I don't think so. Should it?
Me: Here's a mystery for you. He messaged me on FB . . . No text, just pictures of OUR family! I thought it was spam at first until I saw Bubbe!
My cousin: What ?!?!?!
Me: Let me show you . . .
I proceeded to send her the images. We discussed at great length the fact that our fathers looked so young in the pictures, and how we were both eager to hear back from our parents (who were still out to dinner together). That's when I began investigating the stranger's Facebook page for clues. Included in his public posts was a moving tribute to the Jews of Olkusz, Poland, the town where my grandmother had grown up and one of the major settings in my novel What She Lost. I wrote to my cousin once more:
Me: I went to his profile and he posted a video recently about Olkusz. I'm wondering if he is a relative from Grandma's side?
Finally, my parents called on their way home from the restaurant and I told them the story. They began to deliberate and asked to see the pictures. "The last name does sound familiar," my mother mused. "I know your grandmother had two cousins, Gutcha and Privka, who survived the war as well and lived in Israel. Your dad thinks these pictures were taken when he went with your grandparents and uncle to visit them. I think Gutcha's last name starts with a "P," but this might be Privka's married name. I wonder if Privka's son sent them to you?"
I knew about my grandmother's cousins Gutcha and Privka as well. In the original version of my novel, I had written them both as characters. They were instrumental in helping my grandmother survive not only the concentration camps, but also many moments of hardship that came later in her life. It was with her cousins that she healed after the death of my grandfather in the 1980s. My grandmother slipped into a deep depression and wanted to end her own life after my grandfather passed away. It was only with her cousins' help that she discovered the joy of living again. She spent many years in the '80s and early '90s traveling back and forth between the United States and Israel, spending time with her relatives, before her own health made it too hard for her to travel. As a result of this, we lost touch with that side of the family. When my editor suggested I combine both cousins into one central character, I did, but I always knew the character of Gutcha was based on both of these important women in my grandmother's life.
"How do you think he found me?" I asked my mom. The thought kept going through my head. Why now, after all this time, had he reached out? How did he know my married name? How had he discovered me on Facebook? Before going to bed that night, I sent him a response. I wrote:
"Hi there. I'm so sorry that I don't recognize your name, but I definitely recognize my family! I'd like to get to know you. Thank you for sharing these treasures with me. I shared the pictures with my own family. Are you Privka's son? We are all very happy to hear from you! I'm also excited to connect and learn how you found me on Facebook. I sent you a friend request. Hope to speak to you soon."
The following day, I received his answer:
I was, frankly, shocked and amazed. When I set out to write What She Lost, I had no idea it would ever be seen by anyone other than my immediate family and perhaps a few friends. Knowing that someone on the other side of the world was talking about my book was simply astonishing. And I felt so incredibly grateful to my publisher for accepting my manuscript and making my grandmother's story accessible to an international audience. Because of this, I had now connected with family I didn't know existed. It felt like a small miracle!
My newly-discovered relative also sent pictures of my grandmother from the many visits she took to Israel after my grandfather's death. This older woman was the bubbe I knew growing up, but there was something radiant in her expressions that took my breath away. The smile that shone from her face in these photos was beatific. When I showed my parents, they agreed. "Look how happy she is," I said, staring at her face. She was glowing.
"I noticed that too," my mother agreed. We were struck by how peaceful she looked in the company of her cousins, how at home she seemed to be with them. Perhaps it was because of their shared childhood in Olkusz and their shared experience of surviving the Holocaust. Perhaps that's why they were the ones who helped bring her back to life a second time when her sons and family here couldn't reach her. Only with them could she find the strength to survive once more, because together, they had lived through the unspeakable. She left for Israel a broken woman and came back whole. In one of his messages to me, H. K. addressed this, saying: "After the death of your grandfather, in the mid-1980s, your grandmother came to Israel in poor mental health. Gutcha took her home and wrapped her in warmth and love and returned her the joy of life."
Now, so many years later, most of the relatives who gaze back at me from these photos have passed away. But I like to think my grandmother is with them in death, . . . that they are all together, reunited once more.
H. K. and I have written back and forth a number of times, and I've come to learn so much more of my grandmother's history. I have a better understanding of my grandmother's family tree. I learned of an uncle of hers who had moved to Brasil before the war and raised a family there. I learned that he had a daughter named Bracha who, in her later years, was the spitting image of my grandmother!
My grandmother spent time with this cousin as well as Gutcha and Privka during her years in Israel. I reconnected on Facebook with Gutcha's children as well. A photo of one of my grandmother's brothers from before the war was unearthed . . . this filled me with joy because I didn't think any photos of my grandmother's siblings had survived! the Holocaust!
I even saw a photo of my great-great-grandfather, the patriarch of my grandmother's family, perhaps the oldest image I've yet seen on my grandmother's side.
As I move forward in my writing, I am excited at the prospect of reconnecting with this branch of the family and, hopefully, one day visiting my second and third cousins. I also hope that, if they read my book, they know I tried to honor our family's memories. With the miracle of modern technology, perhaps we can all have a global Zoom call! When I think about the Holocaust and Hitler's agenda to eradicate those of the Jewish faith, I feel a sense of victory to think our family tree not only survived but thrived, its roots spreading across the earth. The original title I had selected for my novel was Scattered Embers, and that's how I envision us, . . . embers scattered far and wide after the Holocaust, but connected by the unbreakable bond of blood.
If you made it this far, thank you for reading my little story. I wanted to give a couple of shout-outs:
The images in this post were enhanced and corrected with the use of the MyHeritage App. For those interested in
this wonderful tool, check out their website at:
Free Family Tree, Genealogy, Family History, and DNA Testing (myheritage.com)
Below is the tribute to the Jewish population of Olkusz that I watched on my relative's Facebook page. It brought me to tears and could have been the backdrop to Part One of What She Lost: