Community Connections

A Search For Family Leads to a ‘Bittersweet Revelation’

Wed, 10/13/2021 - 5:27pm

When Deborah Long was a teenager, she often came home to find her mother sitting with the latest issues of Life or Look magazine, quietly tearing out pages.

“You see this picture?” her mother would say. “She looks a little like my older sister Ryfka.” Or, “This movie star right here? He reminds me of my father. So handsome.”

Her mother, Felicia Galas Munk Brenner, had no photos of her family, save for one of her oldest sister, Ryfka, sent to her after the war by relatives of Ryfka’s husband. Felicia’s entire immediate family—her parents, four brothers, two sisters—were lost in the Holocaust, and no family photos had made it out of Łódź, Poland.

So it was both a triumph and tragedy when, while doing genealogical research, Deborah found photos of two of her mother's brothers and her other sister—just after Felicia died in 2008.

Deborah also found out that three of Felicia’s first cousins had survived the war; Felicia had always thought she was the only survivor in her extended Galas family.

“Within a few weeks after my mother had passed, I already had three more photographs of her family members than she ever saw. Such a bittersweet revelation,” Deborah said.

Deborah has spent the last decade researching her family with a doggedness that has made her an expert. She founded the Triangle Jewish Genealogical Society in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she and her husband live, and she has authored several articles for Avotaynu: International Review of Jewish Genealogy. In 2012 Deborah, who runs a real estate education business, began teaching seminars on how to recover family histories and to search for victims and survivors of the Holocaust.

“It's tragic enough that they don't have a gravesite, but not even to have a name–to me that's just unbearable," Deborah said.

Working mostly through Jewish genealogical societies and museums, Deborah offers no-cost seminars (she suggests the sponsor make donation to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center) to guide people on their quest for information. Her toolbox includes accessing online databases of Holocaust documents and photos, contacting researchers at institutions like the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum and JRI-Poland (Jewish Records Indexing), and using websites such as JewishGen.org and Ancestry.com to locate Jewish records.

"I listened to her testimony, in part or in full, a couple times a year because I always hear something in a different way, or I pick up on a little clue that I hadn’t followed before,” Deborah said. “There is nothing like first hand-testimony of a survivor.”

Since 2020, USC Shoah Foundation has partnered with JewishGen and Ancestry to include data from the Visual History Archive along with records such as ship manifests, census data, and cemetery records.

The Visual History Archive is one of the most fertile and dynamic research avenues, Deborah said. More than 52,000 Holocaust survivor and witness testimonies are publicly accessible and indexed with information about locations, names, and keywords about the experience. The archive contains nearly 2 million names mentioned in testimonies.

Her mother's testimony, recorded in 1995 in Skokie, Illinois, has offered Deborah a treasure trove of information, allowing her to build a timeline and narrative, and connecting her to her mother’s trauma.

In two-and-a-half hours of often tearful testimony, Felicia Brenner, born Fayga Galas in Łódź, Poland in 1917, mentions 12 family members, whose names and relationship are listed in the accompanying biographical index, that enabled Deborah to fill out her family tree.

Felicia’s account provided a painful and detailed road map for Deborah.

At the start of the war, while some of her siblings were sent away and others escaped, Felicia, then in her early 20s, stayed in Łódź to care for her parents. Felicia hid during a deportation action in the Łódź ghetto in August of 1944—her family had thought the Nazis were only rounding up young people—but when she emerged, she learned that her parents had been taken. She ran to the train depot and gave herself up. She and her parents were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, where they were separated upon arrival. Felicia never saw her parents again.

After a few months Felicia was sent to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp and then to a slave labor camp. She was liberated, sick and weakened, by the U.S. Army in April 1945 and sent to a military hospital, where she met Tibor Munk (later changed to Theodore Munn), a survivor from the Budapest suburb of Ujpest.

The two were married in the Zeilsheim Displaced Persons camp in September 1945, and, after finding Tibor’s mother in Budapest, the pair were allowed to immigrate to the United States in 1946. They eventually settled in Minneapolis.

"I listened to her testimony, in part or in full, a couple times a year because I always hear something in a different way, or I pick up on a little clue that I hadn’t followed before,” Deborah said. “There is nothing like first hand-testimony of a survivor.”

Deborah has used clues in the testimony to corroborate and elaborate on her mother’s story.

Her mother mentioned a terrible windstorm that knocked over tent-like barracks in Bergen-Belsen. Deborah was able to locate records of that storm. When her mother spoke of cousins from a small town, Deborah researched other testimonies from that town, and was able to piece together how some of her cousins survived and how others were likely killed. She even contacted a survivor from the town who had given testimony.

Deborah used similar tactics to reconstruct what she could of her father’s story, since he shared very little of his experience before he died in 1985. Felicia and Tibor divorced in the 1970s and both remarried.

Felicia began speaking publicly about the Holocaust in 1977, after neo-Nazis petitioned to march near her home in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago heavily populated by survivors. Felicia was involved in founding the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center with other survivors enraged and traumatized by the events. Mayor Richard Daley recognized Felicia as Holocaust Speaker of the Year in 2005.

Deborah regrets that her mother wasn’t alive for the revelations that came when Deborah took a deep dive into family genealogy to channel her grief after her mother died.

Almost immediately, on JewishGen she found two records for “Galas” in the Krakow ghetto.

Within 24 hours, Deborah clicked on an email from the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, in response to her query. The faces of her mother’s siblings, Sara Blumka Galas (born 1915) and Israel "Srullek" Galas (born 1925), popped onto her screen. A few weeks later, she received a Łódź ghetto identity card for Felicia’s brother, Menachem Jehuda Galas (born 1919).

By 2009, with the help of the librarians and archivists at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Deborah had found two cousins and flew to Sweden to meet them. A few years later, she found another cousin in Israel, who had recently died. In 2013 Deborah visited her grave.

“It turns out my mother was mistaken about being the only survivor in her family,” Deborah said. (Felicia had located and contacted two cousins, from the maternal side of her family, in Israel in the 1970s.)

One thing that still haunts Deborah is not being able to find more information about her uncle, Menachem. After the war, a survivor told Felicia that Menachem had starved to death in Buchenwald. But Deborah found evidence that Menachem was liberated from Theresienstadt at the end of the war. However, the trail stops there. Deborah documented her 10-year, exhaustive but fruitless search for Menachem in an article in Avotaynu.

Though Deborah now spends more of her time helping others reconstruct family histories than researching her own, she still listens to her mother's testimony regularly.

“There is something very compelling about hearing a survivor speak, with their choice of words, with their accents,” she said. “It’s almost mystical.”

 

View a recent presentation by Deborah Long here.

Contact Deborah about leading a webinar on researching your Holocaust past.

To view Felicia Brenner’s full testimony, click here.

Read how the Scheinman family discovered their extended family.

Share your family’s story with us!

Julie Gruenbaum Fax
Julie Gruenbaum Fax was a senior writer and editor at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and has co-authored six personal history books. She is currently writing a book about her grandmother’s Holocaust experience.