The voice on the phone message was male with a heavy German accent. “Are you the daughter of Charlotte Mandel?” he asked. “If so, please contact me.”
The caller said he had some interesting information for me and left his name and a telephone number. Being of a suspicious nature, I asked my husband whether I should call back. Perhaps this was just a telemarketing scheme promising me a free vacation to some exotic destination, or someone who wanted to confirm my bank account number so he could deposit millions of dollars.
But this was not the case. My husband googled the caller’s name and reassured me that he was a respected professor of German visiting Queen’s University. That was how I started to reclaim a family I had all but forgotten for more than 50 years.
My parents and I were Holocaust survivors. After the war, we made our way to Canada, leaving behind the country of our birth, Poland (the region now part of Ukraine), soaked with the blood of my parents’ siblings, parents and large extended families.
In Canada, I grew up as an only child with no close relatives. I envied all my friends who had grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles whom they took for granted. How I longed for an extended family, for which no amount of friends could compensate. Holidays such as Hanukkah and Passover were especially difficult with only the three of us around the table.
Both of my parents came from large families. My father had four sisters, only one of whom escaped Nazi extermination by leaving for Palestine in 1939. My mother had six siblings. Four were murdered with their families. Two brothers escaped by going to the Soviet Union before the German invasion of our city.
The elder of these brothers was my mother’s favourite. Handsome, brilliant and generous, he funded her pharmacy studies in Prague when her father could not afford to do so. His primary allegiance upon returning to Poland was to his country and to his Catholic wife and child, so he disclaimed any connection to his Jewish heritage.
This didn’t sit well with my father after what he and my mother had suffered and the losses they had endured. So when we left for a new life in Canada, all contact with this uncle and his family was severed. This pained my mother, but she went along with my father’s wishes, entertaining a secret hope, once shared with me, that perhaps some day she might see her beloved brother again.
That wasn’t to be. My uncle died in 1968 without a word exchanged between the two of them for more than 20 years.
Enter my German telephone caller 38 years later. It turned out that he was the husband of my uncle’s granddaughter. In her teenage years, she had questioned her mother about her grandfather’s surname – Mandel – which is not a Polish name. Her mother acknowledged that it came from his Jewish ancestry. On further questioning and over the years, Joanna found out he had a sister somewhere in Canada.
Many years later, in 2007, when Joanna’s husband, Werner, brought his family to Kingston for a teaching assignment at Queen’s University, her search began in earnest. At first, the results were discouraging. My parents had moved to Toronto, where my mother became a resident in a nursing home, making the discovery of their address and telephone number in Hamilton, where they had lived for 43 years, invalid.
Then the magic of the Internet came to the rescue. When Joanna googled my mother’s name, a picture of her in the arts-and-crafts room of her nursing home appeared in the institution’s online newsletter. Accompanying the picture was a brief comment from me. Having my name was the key Joanna needed to complete her search.
In the past four years, we have met Joanna and her family in Toronto several times. I have e-mailed with Joanna’s mother, my first cousin, in Warsaw. She has put me in touch with two other cousins: the son of my other uncle who escaped the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, and my aunt’s son, who was hidden during the Holocaust and immigrated to Australia after the war. She has also connected me with the daughter of a cousin who was my mother’s dearest childhood friend, in Gdynia, Poland.
Sadly, after suffering from dementia, my mother died in 2008, just before a visit could be arranged with Joanna and her family. But my father surprisingly welcomed them in her stead. He told Joanna, “I feel a real affinity with you.” My mother would have approved.
The family connections continue to flourish in the younger generation. Joanna’s daughter spent four and a half months with us this past summer, helping to take care of my two young grandchildren. And in November, Joanna joined me and my two daughters on a women’s tour of Israel. Joanna is working on learning more about Judaism and is proceeding toward conversion. Although this was not my goal, I know my mother would have been delighted.
I wish I could tell my mother that finally, in my senior years, I have the riches of relatives such as I never imagined possible. I wish I could tell her about how the tear in our family fabric has been mended. But even though she isn’t here for me to share the joys of my reconnection to the family tree, I feel the warmth of her presence every time I receive a new e-mail message from Poland, Germany or Australia.
Renate Krakauer lives in Toronto.