At the beginning of last week I received an email out of the blue from a cousin with whom I have not communicated in about 35 years. I last saw him as a little boy in Ann Arbor. His younger sister was a newborn when I arrived at U. Mich. at Ann Arbor to study for my masters in English. His father (still living) is about 10 years older than I. His grandfather was my father’s first cousin. His grandfather and my grandfather both fled Poland before the Holocaust. My newfound cousin, now 40, emailed to ask if I would be willing to communicate with him and tell him more about the family. He and his sister have little knowledge of that branch of their family and they are now curious.
I spent some time this week emailing stories to this young cousin; stories about his grandfather and the relatives he has never known. I also friended him, his sister, and his mother on Facebook; and I sent a message to him along with a dozen other cousins from the Wachspress family. Many of them chimed in to say hello and welcome him back into the fold. He was delighted to make the connections. I have always remained fond of his dad, ever since I got to know him during my year at Ann Arbor. I guess his father never felt compelled to share much about the Wachspress family with his children for whatever reason.
Meanwhile, as this little flurry of communication and family connection was happening in my life, a family in our synagogue was sitting shiva (the week of mourning that Jews observe when someone dies) for their patriarch, whose name was Abraham (like the biblical patriarch). Abe was a Holocaust survivor, as is his wife Bella (who survives him). Bella was incarcerated at Auschwitz and survived. She was once put into a gas chamber but the gas chamber malfunctioned and she lived. On Thursday I went to their home for an evening service and to be with them when they said Kaddish, the prayer Jews say for the dead. Despite the horror they experienced while teenagers, Abe and Bella made a beautiful life together, with children, grandchildren, friends. Abe was 93 when he died. I did not know them very well, but I am deeply moved by their story of loss, survival, and triumph. They told their stories one year on Holocaust Remembrance Day at our synagogue. I have always loved to watch them together. Abe adored Bella and took exceptional care of her.
I have spoken often about how my father’s family was decimated by the Holocaust, and about how deeply I am affected by this family history. I wrote a book about it, for goodness’ sake. So as I sat in mourning with Bella and her family this week and then went home and responded to emails from my young cousin, I felt as though the two things were somehow connected. My cousin and I share the good fortune of having ancestors from the Wachspress family who left everything behind and came to this country to start over. By doing so they saved their lives and they brought us into the world, my cousin and I. Abe and Bella left their monstrous past behind and determinedly moved forward into a magnificent future. I am the product of people with that same courage, perseverance, and hope.