THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
Two brothers in France
WEEKS WENT BY. Then one day, Ron Coleman sent me a zip file, digitized from the American Friends Service Committee archive. "I think you will find it interesting," he wrote.
I unzipped the file, holding my breath as I watched the little green line slowly unspooling onto my computer. My heart beat faster as the images came into view.
First, of course, there was the familiar brown folder, with the Refugee Case File number. Then a card, with the names "Kagan, Uszer Pinchos & Zina." This was exciting: So there was a Pinchos Kagan! -- and now that I had another name for him, Uszer, I could search again. And Zina? He must be the brother. These were the two sons of Toba, the woman for whom I was named.
THE ADDRESS OF A "COMPAGNIE de Traveilleur Etrangers" -- a foreign workers camp in southwestern France. Jewish boys and men between the ages of 15 and 65 were assigned to work in mines, lumber camps and factories, the AFSC explained. The conditions in these companies vary according to the character and ability of the Commandant. "Conditions in such camps were sometimes better and sometimes worse than internment camps, depending on the commander.".
THE REAL TREASURE of the file scrolled into view in the third document, a letter that my mother had written to the American Friends in May of 1942, searching for the brothers, her cousins, and trying to find a way to help them come to America.
My mother's letter was actually the chronological beginning of the original file. (The card with the Kagan names, stamped March 2, 1943, marked the closing of the file, after the German occupation of the previously unoccupied zone severed all communication with AFSC's Marseille office.)
In the letter, my mother describes the Polish brothers: They "studied engineering in Belgium, lost their jobs there because they had not established Belgian citizenship, moved to France, and are now seeking to come to this country." Because the American relatives had not heard from the brothers in over a year, she writes, they were halted in their efforts to obtain visas for them.
"THIS WEEK WE RECEIVED A LETTER from one of the young men," my mother wrote. "He is working in a work camp for foreigners. He writes his brother has no permanent address because he just came out of the hospital where he had been for several weeks because of a wound in his foot. He says he has written us many times, but this is the first letter we have received in over a year."
Another cousin in New York, Sam Werbach, had tried to help the brothers, filling out an affidavit and communicating with the State Department and the Jewish aid organization HIAS. But the application was considered incomplete, and now my mother was asking AFSC to communicate with the brothers in France, perhaps through HIAS in Marseille, to ask them to complete the required information. She also asked the American Friends to send a report on the brothers' welfare, and she sent the organization a money order to cover the cost of telegrams to Marseille.
And, yes, my mother had written the names of these brothers in France. The one in the foreign workers' camp was OWSZYIA-GESZEL KAGAN (also known as Zina Kagan), she wrote. "The brother's name is USZER PINCHOS KAHAN (They spell their last names a little different)."
Another clue! Now I was no longer looking for Pinchos Kagan, but rather Uszer Kahan. It would make a difference.
I sent the file on to my cousin, Mel Werbach. It was his father, Sam, who had started the process of trying to rescue these brothers, filing an affidavit on their behalf.
"SINCE ATTEMPTING TO SAVE the two brothers was a joint project of my father and your mother, it's a little weird that, one generation later, we are working together to discover their fates," Mel wrote to me.
He was right, but I wanted to express the rightness of our search with a better word than "weird." Fitting? Uncanny? Mysterious? Eerie?
As we searched for what had happened to the brothers -- scratching the dried traces of our parents' determined rescue efforts, our partnership seemed appropriate if mysterious, a faint echo of the past.
Soon after receiving the file, I looked up Uszer Kahan at Memorial de la Shoah's list of Jews deported from France. "Monsieur Uzer KAHAN né le 07/03/1904 à SZUMSK. Déporté à Maidanek par le convoi n° 50 au départ de Drancy le 04/03/1943," the entry read.
So, another convoy, another relative murdered in Poland -- but this time, one who had also come from Poland. But what were the events, the details that had led to Uszer Kahan's end at a death camp less than 180 miles from his hometown?
And what had become of Zina -- the impossibly named Owszyia-Geszel Kagan?
I found no mention of him on the list of Jews deported from France. Even though we'd discovered his name, his fate was still elusive.