THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
OF THEIR FOUR CHILDREN, my parents named only me—a middle child— for someone who perished in the Holocaust. And I bear not just one but two such names, each from a favorite sister of my two grandmothers.
I have often wondered if in giving me the names of these two women, these sisters, my parents somehow predestined my connection with their lives and their deaths, and my immersion in examining, through personal stories, the details of the devastating tragedy we call the Holocaust.
MY FIRST NAME, TOBY, is in remembrance of Toba (Tova) Kanfer Kagan, on my mother's side.
Toba was my Baba's half sister, as my grandmother's mother died in childbirth with her (consequently she did not celebrate her own birthday until she was in her 80s), and her father remarried.
Like my Baba, Toba was born in the shtetl of Shumsk (or Szumsk) when it was still Russia (it later became Poland and is now Ukraine). She and and her husband David moved to Dubno and owned a flour mill there. They had five--or was it six?--children.* One daughter, Shaindel, went to work on a kibbutz in Israel in 1939. She was the only one of Toba's children to survive, my mother told me.
There is no known record of Tova's death, but she was very likely shot in a mass killing by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen (mobile death squads) in Dubno, Poland, in 1941 or 1942.
* An obituary for Shaindel said she had four siblings, yet my mother said Toba had six children. We may never know.
** Update. We did find out. My mother was right.
For a long time this was the only known photograph of Toba, and it is a copy. When my parents went to visit Toba's daughter Shaindel in Israel in the 1960s, they gave her the original photograph.
MY MIDDLE NAME, FRIEDL, was given in honor of Frieda, my Oma’s sister who had lived with my father’s family in Mannheim.
She was divorced twice. Her first husband, Jakob Levy, was an ironmonger, nearly 17 years older than her. Her second husband, Phillip Norbert Berger, was 14 years younger. Seven years after the divorce, at the end of 1931, Frieda moved in with her sister and family. She supported herself selling Pfaff sewing machines door to door.
In the late 1930s, Frieda was the top salesperson in the region of southwest Germany, my father said.
I wondered how Frieda carried the heavy sewing machines all around Mannheim, as she went door-to-door.
FRIEDA REMAINED IN MANNHEIM waiting for her visa appointment with the U.S. Consulate after the rest of the family – her sister, brother-in-law (my grandparents) and two nephews (my father and his brother) – had all received their U.S. visas and left. She was sure to receive her appointment for a U.S. visa very soon. But in October of 1940—just months after my grandparents left Mannheim—she was deported, along with some 7,500 other Jews from the southwest region of Germany, to the concentration camp of Gurs in Vichy France. In August, 1942, Frieda was deported again, from France to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.
At the beginning of this project, I focused mostly on Frieda, for a couple of reasons. The first was personal. My father had known her well and loved her, he and his family had actually lived with her, and he had tried to get her a U.S. visa to rescue her from Gurs. Also, perhaps because she was German, there was more evidence of her life -- in letters and documents. And I had even been to the village where she and my grandmother grew up -- Freudental, Germany -- and the city of Mannheim where she had lived as an adult.
NAMES--THEY COULD HELP ME TOUCH the memories of people before me. Elie Wiesel wrote that "a name has its own history and its own memory. It connects beings with their origins. To retrace its path is then to embark on an adventure in which the destiny of a single word becomes one with that of a community; it is to undertake a passionate and enriching quest for all those who may live in your name."
THE QUEST FOR NAMES would come up again and again in the Grey Folder Project, as I later searched for the names of Toba's children, contributed to Yad Vashem's Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names, found the names of my four relatives deported from France at Memorial de la Shoah's Wall of Names in Paris, tracked down the obscure documents I needed to correct a misspelled name, and otherwise tried to rescue the names and memories of people who could not be rescued.
But all that would come later. For now, I wanted to understand all that had happened to one of my namesakes -- Frieda.