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In search of names

MY GRANDMOTHER (BABA), Judith Kanfer Arshack.

MY GRANDMOTHER'S SISTER, Toba (or Tova) Kanfer Kagan, the woman I was named for.

IN THE INTENSITY of my search for Frieda, I had been neglecting something -- my mother's side of the family. And specifically, the woman I was named for, Toba (or Tova) Kanfer Kagan -- and her family.


When my mother's parents had emigrated in 1906 and 1912, their hometown of Shumsk (Volhynia gubernia), was a part of the Russian Empire, but like many places in the Pale of Settlement, its nationality was transient. Shumsk had belonged to Poland from the 16th century to the end of the 18th century. In 1921, it was returned to Poland -- until the USSR took it in 1939. The German army overtook it during World War II. Then, in 1945, it became part of the USSR again -- until the independent state of Ukraine claimed it in 1991. What a tangled history.


TOBA WAS A BELOVED SISTER of my grandmother, the one I called Baba. Or really a half sister, because Baba's mother had died giving birth to her, the sixth child. Baba's father remarried and had five more children, among them Toba. There's a very sad story that must have been all too common in the past: Baba never celebrated her birthday because it was her mother's death day.  Only when she was very old, and felt that her mother would have died of something else by then, did she allow herself to acknowlege her birthday.


What happened to Toba? I had asked my mother several times. "She died in the Holocaust," my mother had answered, with a little shrug, as if to indicate: Who didn't? 


When I pressed her for details, she said she didn't know, then retracted the earlier account. "Maybe she died a natural death," she said, clearly wishing to change the subject. "It's better not to dwell on it."


MY GRANDMOTHER'S PASSPORT HOLDER from the ship she took to America. Those who remained in Russia/Poland did not survive.

BUT DWELL ON IT I DID, and the Grey Folder Project only sharpened the question for me. I searched Yad Vashem's database of victims' names and the Holocaust Survivors and Victims Database, but I  found no mention of Toba. I wrote to my cousin, Mel Werbach, the genealogist of the family and he sent me a list of descendants of Baba and Toba's father. Next to most of the names, including Toba's, was the dark refrain, "Holocaust victim."

Mel told me that before he'd started doing genealogy, he'd thought the Holocaust had not touched his family, because his relatives had immigrated to America near the turn of the 20th century.  Only when he started looking at the ones who remained in Russia/Poland/Ukraine -- the parents and sisters and brothers and their spouses and children -- did he realize the extent of the losses to his grandparents' generation.


WHAT HAPPENED TO TOBA, her husband David, her children? One of them, Genya (or Sheindel) Kagan, went to Israel in 1937.  She was the only one of her family who did not perish in the Holocaust, and she spent most of her life, until her death, on Kibbutz Negba.


When my parents went to Israel in the early 1960s, and looked up relatives , my mother gave Genya the only known photo of her mother, Toba. I went to Israel in 1967, when I was 17, and met Genya one summer afternoon in her simple home at Kibbutz Negba. Unfortunately, I don't remember much about this visit, except that she was kind and gave me some refreshment -- tea or lemonade and cookies? We smiled at each other:  she spoke no English and I spoke no Hebrew. Even if I had spoken Hebrew, I wonder if I would have recognized what a remarkable opportunity this was to ask her about her parents, her siblings, her own life. But I was young and didn't realize the questions I should have asked, had there even been someone to translate. A lost chance.


Now, in March of 2014, I looked through some letters I had saved from my mother. In one, written fourteen years before, she told me that among Toba's six children -- three of whose names are unknown -- were "two brothers who were engineers in France and deported to Auschwitz."


"I tried many times to get news of them and to them through the Quakers," my mother had written, "and even had a friend translate my letter in French. I had one reply when they were on their way to a 'labor' camp -- Auschwitz. Unfortunately I didn't save the letter -- I didn't realize at the time how rare it was to hear from a deportee."


SO MY MOTHER HAD REGRETS too, and maybe she even dwelled on them. This short letter held such resonance for me. And there was France again. And deportation from France -- again!


Since the brothers had been deported from France, there should be a record of their names on the deportation lists compiled by Serge Klarsfeld, and now accessible through online at the Mémorial de la Shoah site in Paris. Mel's genealogy notes listed a firm first name for only one of the brothers, Pinchas. I scoured the Mémorial de la Shoah database, but there was no Pinchas Kagan. The other name had a question mark beside it -- "Pesach? Kagan," born in Dubno, where the family had moved. But neither was there a Pesach Kagan on the French deportation list. These were Yiddish first names. Could the brothers have gone by Polish names on official records?


So not only was Genya the only one of Toba's children to survive, but now it seemed that we might never even know what had befallen the others.  I was especially disturbed that three of the children in Mel's notes had no first names at all. Only question marks: (?) KAGAN was born in Dubno, Rivne, Ukraine. (?) died between 1941-1945 (Holocaust).

AND THE TWO BROTHERS deported from France had disappeared -- how would I even locate records telling what happened to them if I didn't know their first names?


Mel sent me a photograph of one of the engineer brothers, but again, there was no name. His eyes haunted me, challenging me to learn more. But how would I do it? There was just one shred of hope, a clue in my mother's letter: The Quakers.


It was worth a try. I wrote to Ron Coleman at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, asking if he could check the American Friends Service committee files. Again. Could there possibly be a file for a Pinchas Kagan?


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