"EXCITING BREAKTHROUGH!" read the subject heading of the e-mail from my cousin Mel Werbach. It was just a week after I'd returned home from Europe, and Mel and I had been puzzling out the new information about Uszer Kahan that I'd brought from France.
Attached to the email was an old photograph of a family, their faces hauntingly familiar.
"Toby, remember the photo that your mother gave me" Mel asked, "as she knew that it was somehow related to the Kanfers, but she couldn't recognize anybody in it?"
"I was looking it over for the 100th time - and suddenly realized that it is a photo of the entire Kagan family!!"
EVEN BEFORE I HAD FINISHED reading Mel's note, I gasped at the photograph. The faces of the two brothers whose lives I had following for more than a year stared back at me from the back row of the photograph. And they were with their family.
OWSZIJA KAGAN, (above)
USZER KAHAN (right)
Just earlier that day, I had been looking again at their photographs on the Belgian documents, as if I could unearth something more by studying their faces. Of course, I recognized Owszija and Uszer now.
But how had I failed, earlier, to recognize Toba? For, like Mel, I had seen this photograph many times. Mel had sent it to me years before, asking me: Who are these people? Do you know? Before I undertook this search, I hadn't known. Hadn't recognized them. Hadn't looked closely enough.
RE- COGNITION. "Knowlege or feeling that someone or something present has been encountered before."
That knowlege/feeling came over me as I gazed at the brothers' faces. And also on realizing that this was Toba, their mother, my namesake. Here she was -- a second photograph! Both my mother (who had never met her) and I had looked at it, yet never recognized her. She was perhaps a bit younger in this photo, but with the same deepset sad eyes. Her mouth was set in the same somber expression -- but so was everyone else's. Posing in the photographer's studio for a formal portrait was a serious and expensive event, and often subjects had to hold a pose for several minutes. In old photos, it's rare to find people smiling.
When was the photo taken? Mel wrote that it was customary to take a formal famly photo just before a member of the family emigrated. In this case, that would have been Uszer, the older brother, who was about to go to university in Belgium in 1924. I figure out the family's approximate ages when the photograph was taken. Uszer would have been 20 and Owszyia 16, though he looks older), Toba 38 and her husband, David, 41 (he too looks older with his heavy beard).
There was another person in the photo that Mel recognized: Genya, or Sheindel, the only one of the family who did not perish in the Holocaust. She would have been 11 in the photograph, years before she would join the Hashomer Hatzair Socialist-Zionist movement. It would be another thirteen years before she would go to live in Palestine.
Genya/Sheindel represented our closest connection to the living: Mel and I had each met her on long-ago trips to Israel, and my Israeli cousins, Yael and Joshua, had known her well, visiting her at Kibbutz Negba when they were young. And her obituary had given us the only descriptive details of the family.
TOBA KAGAN. Her daughter Genya, below, was the only family member to survive the Holocaust. Genya's obituary says that her mother, Toba, had "not acquired a good education in her youth and had decided that she would spare no efforts to provide her children with a higher education."
In this way -- my only clue to her character -- she reminded me of my grandmother (her sister) who was prevented from continuing school after age 12 by her stepmother. Education was important to her. When she heard of her arranged marriage, she asked only one question: "Can he read and write?" He could.
GENYA KAGAN, who later changed her name to Sheindel Kagan
OF GENYA'S SISTERS, WE KNEW NOTHING -- or rather very little. Sheindel's obituary said that all the children had completed high school and all but Sheindel herself continued on to higher education. The obituary did not name any of her siblings. From the photo, we could guess at her sisters' ages. At what age would they have stopped wearing the big black bows in their hair, I wondered. Had they married -- thus changing their names -- and had children in the 17 or 18 years between this photograph and their deaths?
Their deaths. Looking at the photograph, my first delight at seeing their faces is replaced by the eerie chill of knowing that murder awaits them. It is a near certainty that they were shot with their friends and neighbors by the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads made up of the SS and the police, often aided by local residents, which carried out Aktions, mass executions of Jews, Roma and Communists in the occupied Soviet Union. (Dubno was occupied by Soviet forces on September 18, 1939, when 12,000 Jews lived there. When German troops arrived in June, 1941, they promptly initiated the mass murders.)
"Almost literally no Jew who stood at the edge of a death pit survived," writes Timothy Snyder in Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and as Warning. Yet such mass killings into open pits-- not the gas chambers of Auschwitz -- comprised the vast majority of murders of Jews in the Holocaust. The conflation of Auschwitz with the Holocaust itself, Snyder argues, has "made plausible the grotesque claim that Germans did not know about the mass murder of the European Jews while it was taking place."
"It is possible that some Germans did not know exactly what happened at Auschwitz," Snyder writes. "It is not possible that many Germans did not know about the mass murder of Jews. The mass murder of Jews was known and discussed in Germany, at least among families and friends, long before Auschwitz became a death facility. In the East, where tens of thousands of Germans shot millions of Jews over hundreds of death pits over the course of three years, most people knew what was happening. Hundreds of thousands of Germans witnessed the killings, and millions of Germans on the eastern front knew about them. During the war, wives and even children visited the killing sites; and soldiers, policemen, and others wrote home to their families, sometimes with photographs, about the details. German homes were enriched, millions of times over, by plunder from the murdered Jews, sent by post or brought back by soldiers and policemen on leave."
For the same reason, Snyder adds, everyone in the western Soviet Union also knew about the mass murder of the Jews. "In the East the method of mass murder required tens of thousands of participants and was witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people."
ONE OF THOSE WITNESSES was a German named Hermann Graebe. He was an engineer, a former Nazi Party member who had been jailed in 1934 for his open criticism of the Nazi campaign against Jewish businesses. From September of 1941, as chief engineer and manager of the Ukrainian branch of a German construction company, Graebe supervised the firm's projects under contract with the army construction services.
Thus, on October 5, 1942, Graebe was visiting a project to build grain warehouses on the old Dubno airfield in the Ukraine when his foreman told him that he had seen a mass execution of Dubno Jews shot near the building in three huge ditches -- about 1,500 Jews killed every day.
"Since the executions took place in the presence of my employee, he was painfully impressed by them," reported Graebe, who went with the foreman, Hubert Moennikes, to the work area to see for himself.
"Several trucks were parked nearby," Graebe continued, in an affidavit read at the Nuremberg Trials on November 10, 1945. (The full affidavit is here.) "Armed Ukrainian militia were making people get out, under the surveillance of SS soldiers. The same militiamen were responsible for guard duty and driving the trucks. The people in the trucks wore the regulation yellow pieces of cloth that identified them as Jews on the front and back of their clothing.
". . .The people from the trucks – men, women and children – were forced to undress under the supervision of an SS soldier with a whip in his hand. They were obliged to put their effects in certain spots: shoes, clothing, and underwear separately. I saw a pile of shoes, about 800-1,000 pairs, great heaps of underwear and clothing. Without weeping or crying out, these people undressed and stood together in family groups, embracing each other and saying goodbye while waiting for a sign from the SS soldier, who stood on the edge of the ditch, a whip in his hand, too.
"During the fifteen minutes I stayed there, I did not hear a single complaint, or plea for mercy. I watched a family of about eight: a man and woman about fifty years old, surrounded by their children of about one, eight, and ten, and two big girls about twenty and twenty-four. An old lady, her hair completely white, held the baby in her arms, rocking it, and singing it a song. The infant was crying aloud with delight. The parents watched the groups with tears in their eyes. The father held the ten-year-old boy by the hand, speaking softly to him: the child struggled to hold back his tears. Then the father pointed a finger to the sky, and, stroking the child's head, seemed to be explaining something.
"At this moment, the SS near the ditch called something to his comrade. The latter counted off some twenty people and ordered them behind the mound. The family of which I have just spoken was in the group.
"I still remember the young girl, slender and dark, who, passing near me, pointed at herself, saying, "twenty-three." I walked around the mound and faced a frightful common grave. Tightly packed corpses were heaped so close together that only the heads showed. Most were wounded in the head and the blood flowed over their shoulders. Some still moved. Others raised their hands and turned their heads to show that they were still alive. The ditch was two-thirds full. I estimate that it held a thousand bodies.
"I turned my eyes toward the man who had carried out the execution. He was an SS man; he was seated, legs swinging, on the narrow edge of the ditch; an automatic rifle rested on his knees and he was smoking a cigarette.
"The people, completely naked, climbed down a few steps cut in the clay wall and stopped at the spot indicated by the SS man. Facing the dead and wounded, they spoke softly to them. Then I heard a series of rifle shots. I looked in the ditch and saw their bodies contorting, their heads, already inert, sinking on the corpses beneath. The blood flowed from the nape of their necks. I was astonished not to be ordered away, but I noticed two or three uniformed postmen nearby. A new batch of victims approached the place. They climbed down into the ditch, lined up in front of the previous victims, and were shot."
AS GRAEBE'S EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT was read, "a hush of horror," came over the Nuremberg courtroom, wrote the journalist William Shirer.
Hermann Graebe was the only German citizen who volunteered to testify for the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials.
Besides being a vital witness, Graebe actively rescued Jews, meriting him the title of "Ukrainian Schindler."
"As a civilian contractor for the Railroad Administration of the Third Reich, Mr. Graebe hired and protected hundreds of Jewish workers," reads his New York Times' obituary. " He provided transit visas, false identities and medical care for Jews, German dissidents and Polish peasants. In a confrontation with an SS officer, he once rescued 100 Jewish workers from a Nazi pogrom."
After the war, Graebe was ostracized in Germany for his testimony and work for the War Crimes Commission. He received death threats and was denied the means to establish a private
engineering business. With his family, he left Germany in 1948 and moved to the United States.
Graebe's heroism and eyewitness testimony led Yad Vashem to recognize him as "Righteous Among the Nations," those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust His biography at Yad Vashem's site is titled, "The Witness to Murder Who Decided to Act."
THE MASS EXECUTION WITNESSED BY HERMANN GRAEBE in October of 1942 was one of a series of mass murders perpetrated by mobile killing squads in Dubno. They began in July and August of 1941, when more than 1,000 Jews were shot. In April 1942, around 8,000 Jews were driven into the Dubno ghetto. They were killed in a series of Aktions between May and October of 1942.
It is impossible to know when exactly Toba, David, and three of their daughters -- perhaps along with their husbands and children -- were killed. In which of these Aktions were they murdered? Did it really even matter?
MORE IMPORTANT TO ME was that I learn the names of Toba's daughters, the sisters of Genya, Uszer and Owszija, the unknown sisters. I thought of the Talmud saying quoted by Gunter Demnig, the Stolpersteine artist: "A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten."
Yet how could I remember these three names that I never knew, that nobody seemed to know?
In the months -- or rather, the year -- to come I would try everything I could to discover their names. There was no obvious way. I looked through the "list of the holy victims of the Dubno community" in the Dubno Yiskor book on the genealogy site JewishGen, but there was no Toba (or Taube) Kagan -- and it was impossible to search for the daughters' names as I didn't know what they were.
My hopes skyrocketed when I learned that residents of Kibbutz Negba, in 1954, had compiled a list of their family's victims. This was the best chance of an answer! But the expectation was quickly crushed. Mel told me -- and I later confirmed with Yad Vashem -- that Sheindel had identified only her parents, not her siblings. Why? I will never know.
THERE HAD TO BE another way to find their names, I thought. I asked my Israeli cousin, Joshua, if he could unearth any information about Sheindel's family at Kibbutz Negba. Joshua went to the kibbutz and spoke to a couple of "old timers" who remembered Sheindel, but told him that there was no information about her family in Europe.
I still wasn't satisfied. What about records, an archive?
Next, I prevailed upon Dede, a childhood friend living in Israel, who kindly agreed to help me in my quest. She phoned the kibbutz repeatedly, and found an e-mail address for the person in charge of its archive, so I could write directly, pleading for copies of any records concerning the daughter of the woman I was named for.
HOPE MIXED WITH DOUBTS as I waited. Doubts tipped the balance. It was a long shot. But if the kibbutz failed to turn up anything, I thought, I could write to Hashomer Hatzair, the Socialist/Zionist organization that Sheindel had joined before she came to Israel. It might have an archive, she might have listed her siblings' names. Or maybe that organization would know where Sheindel had gone in Israel before she went to Kibbutz Negba. . . and maybe that place would have a record naming her siblings. . .
Each new plan I came up with seemed more unlikely, as if I were reaching underwater trying to grasp a lost ring, again and again, only to see it float further away each time. At least the photograph allowed me to see the faces of all of Toba's children, I told myself. For now, that would have to be enough.
SHEINDEL KAGAN listed her father, David Kagan, and mother, Toba Kagan, as victims of the Holocaust, but did not mention her five siblings, who were also murdered.