THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
By another name
I KNEW I WOULD NOT FIND Owszyia's name on the Wall of Names at Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris. Still, I looked for and found the name of Awazyga Kagan, and thought: "It's him."
Then Steve and I walked inside the museum, and I made an appointment to visit the archives the following day. I'd brought with me a copy of the letter that my mother had written to the American Friends Service Committee in 1942 and a written account of why I thought Awazyga was really Owszyia (although I could pronounce neither name).
The archivist I met with, Patricia Rozenberg, had impeccable English and was interested in my theory. She told me that the Wall of Names was based on the original deportation lists. In order to make a correction, you had to have documented proof. She said she'd do some research, and she encouraged me to do the same; victims' relatives usually have the best chance of obtaining records, she said.
I FOUND the Wall of Names moving and tragic. In the case of my relative Owszyia Kagan, however, it was also incomplete.
"According to this book, Orejza-Gerzel Kagan was born on 15/01/1908 in Daubio (Poland) and was Polish," Ms. Rozenberg wrote.
"He was an electrical engineer. He was part of the foreign workers group “travailleurs étrangers” at Soudeilles (matricule 665.152) and worked as a qualified worker (“manoeuvre”) at Saint-Cirgues-la-Loutre, at the Société des Forces Motices de la Maronne. He was transferred through Auchères on 23/08/1942 to Drancy and then deported to Auschwitz on 26/08/1942."
Groupements de travailleurs étrangers (GTE), I learned, were foreign labor batallians organized by the Vichy government to lawfully intern able-bodied foreign males between 15 and 60 -- most of them Spanish refugees or Jews--who were "superflous in the national economy." France's Ministry of Industrial Production and Labor was in charge of work crews, both in France and in North Africa; most Jews, like Owszyia, were segregated in separate units.
WE HAD JUST RETURNED HOME from our trip to Europe in November of 2014, when I received a letter from Ms. Rozenberg. She sent me copies of Drancy internment camp files for both Uszer Kahan and Awazyga Kagan, and Individual Police Prefecture files made after the war. The information on these was scanty, and there was nothing new.
Then the letter got interesting. My mother's 1942 letter had mentioned “St. Cingny la Loutre” but it should actually be “Saint-Cirgues-la-Loutre” in Corrèze, Ms. Rozenberg said. And a book had been written about this foreign workers camp, Un camp de juifs oubliés. Soudeilles (1941-1942), with "a little note about Orezja-Gerzel (Josué) Kagan."
OWSZYIA KAGAN WAS FORCED TO WORK at the Soudeilles labor camp, one of the special units known as "Palestinian companies" organized in 1940 to separate Jews from other foreign workers.
OREJZA-GERZEL? DAUBIO? Returning to Patricia Rozenberg's letter, I realized this was yet another jumbled spelling of both his name and birthplace! But at least the name began with an O, and the dates of birth and deportation matched those of the fictional Awazyga.
The most gratifying words of the letter followed:
"Because of the name, date and place of birth and deportation date, we can say that Awazyga KAGAN is Owszyia-Geszel KAGAN."
But there was a hitch. "Because the spellings are so different on the different documents, we will not be able to change the spelling of the first name on the Wall of Names," Ms. Rozenberg wrote. "But we will add the different names to his file and biography. We will also mention that they were brothers."
So, as satisfying as the news was, it was also in a sense disappointing. It would still not be a full recognition of Owszyia's name. Patricia Rozenberg had sent me a list of other places to write, "if you want to continue your research."
I DID WANT TO, emphatically. Maybe I could find more concrete proof of his actual name, proof enough to correct the name engraved in stone.
Most of the places on the list Patricia Rozenberg had given me did not have e-mail addresses, so I bought international stamps and set to work, writing letters of inquiry to archives in Belgium and France requesting documents about Owszyia Kagan and his brother Uszer Kahan-- and also, in some cases about Adolf Herrmann and Frieda Berger.
And then, impatiently, I waited for replies.