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Mistaken identity

ONE THING YOU SHOULD BE ABLE to find out about a Holocaust victim, especially one who had been living in Western Europe, is when and where they were killed. However, this information was proving very difficult to find in the case of Owszyia-Gezel Kagan, one of the sons of my namesake Toba.  Perhaps recognizing that his first name was nearly unpronouncable in French, he had also gone by the nickname Zina.


Yet despite many Kagans on the lists of the deported and the victims, I couldn't find an Owszyia Kagan (even given reasonable misspellings) or a Zina Kagan who met the right description.

ALTHOUGH THIS NAME looked like that of my relative, it was not the same person.

HOWEVER, AN OWSIEJ KAGAN was listed in Yad Vashem's database of Shoah Victims' Names, killed in Auschwitz. The name looked so close that for a time my cousin Mel Werbach was convinced that he was the relative we were searching for.


I was doubtful. Our relative had been born in Shumsk or in Dubno, not Lunna. The names of the parents were wrong. And the birthdate of 1920 also didn't make sense, according to my mother's letter that the two  brothers had gone to Belgium together to study. We knew that Uszer was born in 1904, so it was highly unlikely that his brother was 16 years younger. And there was no indication that Owsiej Kagan had ever been in France as had Owszyia.

I was really disturbed that I couldn't find "our" Owszyia Kagan on the list of Jews deported from France. I had been through the list a dozen times, somehow hoping to find him. But now I had another idea. What if I tried to pronounce each name phonetically?


AGAIN I WENT THROUGH THE LIST, saying each one aloud.  I stopped at AWAZYGA Kagan, born in DONYNOW. Could this be Uszer's brother, with both his given name and his birthplace garbled? Awazyga was possibly a phonetically misspelled version of Owszyia. And I checked -- there was no such place as "Donynow," so it could be a misspelling of Dubno. The birthdate of 1908, four years younger than his brother Uszer, seemed right. It was a hunch, or maybe more.


I wrote to Ron Coleman, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, suggesting my theory that Awazyga and Owszyia were one and the same. It was possible, he agreed, noting that the original documents, found in Paris after the war, were often barely legible.


In Memorial to the Jews Deported from France 1942-1944, Serge Klarsfeld writes that the list for Convoy 24, on which 'Awazyga Kagan'was among the deportees, "is in very poor condition."


"Each name had to be examined under a magnifying glass," Klarsfeld wrote, "but even this minute examination did not reveal all the details."



PART OF A PAGE listing some of the 1,000 deportees on Convoy 24, from Serge Klarsfeld's book, Memorial to the Jews Deported from France, 1942 - 1944.

"So, it is entirely possible that 'Awazyga Kagan of Donynow' is actually Owszyia Kagan from Dubno, and the transport list is in such poor condition that several errors were made while transcribing the names," Ron Coleman wrote. "For what it's worth, there is no town called "Donynow" (or even a close alternate spelling) that I can find anywhere."

THREE OF MY RELATIVES' NAMES are engraved on the Wall of Names at Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris with only slight misspellings. Was "Awazga Kagan," deported in 1942, really Owszyia Kagan, the fourth relative deported from France?

MISSPELLINGS AND ERRORS ON DOCUMENTS are very common. Even on the Wall of Names, there are small errors: For example, the family name of my father's cousin, Adolf Herrmann, is missing an 'r' and his birthplace, Freudental, is spelled Fruedetal. Even more disturbing, some of the American Friends Service Committee documents concerning Adolf Herrmann invert the numbers in his birthdate, listing it as 1932 rather than 1923.


In The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Daniel Mendelsohn writes that he is used to "the discrepencies between the facts and the 'record'" so doesn't get upset by them. "But I can see how they might be unsettling to some people," he adds.


I found the misspellings of Adolf Herrmann's name, birthplace and date of birth only mildly unsettling. They indicated carelessness and made me wonder what else was wrong. And yet, these were minor errors in comparison with the mutilation of Owszyia Kagan's identity.  Owzyia, Owsija, Owizya, Ozwiya-- any of these misspellings would have been understandable, and some of these mistakes I have made myself. It is a difficult name to spell.


But Awazyga? That -- along with the mangling of Dubno into Donynow -- had virtually obliterated him from the record of victims. What if his sister, Genya, the lone survivor of his nuclear family, had tried to find out what happened to her brother Owszyia, and had been unable to find his name?


BY NOW I WAS CONVINCED that the two identities were one and the same -- that the fate of one victim, my relative Owszyia Kagan, was hidden beneath the false name of Awazyga Kagan (nobody's relative) in documents, books and on the stone-engraved wall in Paris. 


It unsettled me, profoundly. This lack of recognition seemed like the last injustice.  I was determined to do something about it.

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