It Began With a Picture

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It’s a picture of a young Parisian girl who is roughly 12 or 13 years old.  She is standing by a chair in a schoolyard, wearing a nice dress. She has a lovely smile, light olive complexion and has thick just below the shoulder length brown, curly hair.  On the back is a note was written in beautiful handwriting, “Paulette at school. Sends you her fondest regards.  June 1947”.   Aside from the fact that I know that she is a relative of my mother’s, I’ve had no other information about her at all whatsoever.

Paris, France was home to many Jews of Polish extraction especially post WWI. Before the Jews of Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and, Morocco made up the majority of the Jews of France that we know today, before WWII, Yiddish was the common language spoken by Jews throughout France, many of whose families lived there for centuries.

After WWI when my grandmother, uncle, aunt, and great-grandmother were immigrating to New York to meet up with my grandfather, they stayed in Paris with my great uncle Charles and his wife Terese with their children Bernard and Jean.  After roughly one year, my grandmother and her family, including her mother, set sail for Ellis Island in America, settling in with my grandfather and his relatives on New York’s famous Lower East Side, building a family totaling 10 children, most of who now have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Back in those days, when one left family behind in another country unless they were devoted letter writers, they never had contact with their relatives again.

Before WWII broke out, my aunt Sara was indeed in contact with her relatives in France and in Poland (Lublin). However, there was a point in time where she never again heard from them.  They figured that if they survived, they would contact the family. Yet, this never happened, so my grandmother and aunt assumed the worst.  My grandmother was an infirm woman by the mid-1940s. She was widowed young and left with 10 children, 8 of whom lived at home.  The horrific thought of what may have happened to her sister and her extended family was just too much for her to bear.

Thankfully, however, her brother Charles and his immediate family survived and was one of the only Jewish families in Europe that remained intact after WWII.  My mother who worked full time from an early age was able to fly to France to visit this family along with her sister in, around 1953, two years after my grandmother passed away.

Fast forward to my childhood, being that I was born to be a genealogist, I was the one in the family who loved to immerse myself in old family albums and pictures.  I couldn’t get enough of them.  One picture, in particular, was the one I described above. My mother never said much about it. All I knew was that her name was Paulette.  That was that.

Fast forward once again to late last week.  No longer a child, I boast 51 years but people still mistake me for younger and I’m perfectly OK with that.  I was doing some random genealogy research with www.jewishgen.org, which I was told had many improvements within the site and more information.  To cut a long story short, I found the name of a woman who was the daughter of my great-grandparents.  It was Etla Krouchtein. Never in my life have I ever heard of this woman.  After some detective work, I found her name on the same family tree site that I use. Even after more detective work, I found one Paulette Lapidus, the wife of the man who started that family tree.  Luckily she was on Facebook and I found that she was living in Netanya.

Being adventurous, I found her number via Bezek and phoned.  A woman with a very thick French accent answered. I asked her in Hebrew if I could continue to speak with her in Hebrew.  She asked if I spoke English which of course I said, yes.  I introduced myself and stated that I was a genealogist researching the name Krouchtein or Kroghszlengel. She said that she had a grandmother named Etla Krouchtein who was from Lublin, yet moved to France. I then felt my entire body shake and told her that Etla was my grandmother’s sister. “Oh mon Dieu”, she responded.  I told her that I always knew of my great uncle and his family and that they all survived the war, yet I never in my life ever heard of an Etla Krouchtein.

She informed me that her father Avraham Klik was a son of Etla (Krouchtein) Klik.  She then told me that she remembered as a teenager, two girls in their 20s who came to visit from New York.  She remembers that they stayed for a while and with my great uncle. I blurted out, “you know my mother! (of course, I started crying) You met my mother and my aunt”!  Chuckling, she responded warmly, “I guess I did. Yes”.   I asked her if she remembered Marilyn Feigenbaum, and she said: “not really”.  Then I asked her if she remembered Toby Feigenbaum, and she responded, “ahh yes. Toby. I remember a Toby”.

Paulette continued to state that she too had pictures and has had them for many years and wished that I would identify them.  As a lover of old family photos, how could I say no?

Then, the penny dropped.

“Paulette at school. Sends you her fondest regards. June 1947”.  Paulette, I think I may have a picture of you, I said after that epiphany.  As I was speaking to her, I was rummaging through old photos until I finally found it.  I sent it to her via WhatsApp. She responded, “it is me. We will meet soon”.

She then sent me the pictures that she was talking about. The one that had me crying non-stop was one of my mother, three of her sisters, and her brother, taken in the Bronx between 1945 and 1946.

Additionally, Paulette sent me pictures of my grandmother with my uncle who was in a Navy uniform, another uncle with my aunt and two of my cousins, as well as pictures of my French cousin who I knew as well as his parents.  Two pictures, however, I cannot identify, and I have a feeling that they are relatives who more than likely perished at the Belzec Death Camp like many others from Kamorow in Lublin.

In my twenty-plus years of genealogical research, I only read about things like this in magazines, saw clips like this in the news or nowadays on YouTube, or even in the movies. Never have I ever dreamed that I would experience such a wonderful accident. The mystery behind the picture I have of my cousin Paulette is now solved, opening the doors to a hopefully long-term relationship and answers that I’ve been seeking for decades.

We met Saturday night after Shabbat on 12 January 2019 at Paulette’s lovely home in Netanya. It is a large penthouse apartment overlooking the Mediterranean Sea just across the street from the shore. Paulette answered the door with her son Lionel and her daughter Sandrine on either side of her. They were warm and excited when the door opened. My wife and I were both welcomed with hugs and kisses on each side of our faces. We were greeted by Lionel’s wife Patricia and Sandrine’s husband Yves Cohen-Solal, who were both waiting in the salon. There was a huge generous spread of cheeses, wine, and sandwiches. It was, for lack of better words, very beautiful and very French. She had even more pictures of my family that I never saw before, including a picture of my aunt Dorothy and Uncle Louis when they were first engaged, and that of an old, religious man, who most likely was my great-grandfather.

Lionel’s younger daughter Sarah met up with us later as well as one of my younger sons Motti. It was so wonderful to have these next generations meet. We will, GD willing, meet up with the rest of our families in the near future.

Two yellow Stars of David with the word “Juif” are taped to the middle of Paulette’s bureau. She told me that these were patched to her clothes when she was a young girl in Nazi-occupied France. She, her mother Rivka, and her sister Chana were constantly on the run and fortunately, they were never caught. Despite several very close calls, they managed to escape the clutches of the Nazis.

Paulette’s father, my mother’s first cousin, Wolf Avraham Klik, was not as lucky. He was arrested early on in the war and incarcerated in a forced labor camp. It was the type of situation where her family was allowed to visit with him from time to time and he was even permitted to stay with them in their hotel. Avraham Klik had many opportunities to escape, yet if he did, the authorities would arrest his wife and their children. So, as a result, Avraham Klik played closely by the rules. However, when the Nazis began rounding Jews up in the summer of 1942, Jews who were in forced labor camps, including Avraham Klik, were deported immediately to Auschwitz. Needless to say, Rivka Klik and her daughters had no way to be in contact with him.

Despite the fact that they had very little money, very little food, and had to depend upon the kindness of Gentile friends or strangers to hide them, they were very fortunate. In mid-1945, after Germany surrendered, Chana Klik, Paulette’s older sister, would travel to the main post office in Paris where lists and pictures of survivors were displayed. Chana carried a picture of her father. One day at the post office, a man approached Chana and told her that he recognized the man in the photo. He confirmed that it was Avraham Klik and he knew him at Auschwitz. He informed her that he was a part of a band of young men who managed to escape the infamous death camp, yet they were caught by the SS in the forests not too far from that hell hole. He, along with his comrades, was shot and killed on the spot.

Reunion of Three Generations
of Krouchteins*
Netanya, Israel; January 2019
(click to enlarge image)

 

Sharing family history, sharing laughs, and creating an atmosphere of familiarity that is only found at family gatherings, I was able to forge relationships with people who just over one week before this were total strangers. Since then, I added many names to my family tree and was introduced to an entire branch of my grandmother’s family who I never really knew existed.

Not only am I very thankful to GD for this, as He is always behind the scenes, but the support I received from a great genealogist by the name of Trisha Wilson, a good friend, neighbor, and mentor, who always lends an ear when asked.  Since only 4 days ago, I’ve added many names to my family tree and began establishing relationships with cousins who I never knew existed who live a mere 15 minutes drive from me.

This may be a closed chapter that is roughly 70 years old, but a new chapter is beginning, and it began last Thursday morning when I just randomly went onto www.jewishgen.org just to see what was new.

February 2019

Ra’anana, ISRAEL

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19 Comments

  1. Maria Wagner

    I came upon your story by accident on one of the Israeli news sites which I’m suscribed to. Unlike he people who respond on this page here I’m not jewish but have been supportive of Israel for years. What a wonderful discovery you are discribing in your story! Too many Jewish people who lived through those dark years of WWII and survived have lost their loved ones. How they can ever forgive I don’t know! I was born in 1947 in Austria but have lived in Western Australia for almost 40 years now. To the end of my days I will regret that my beautiful old homeland produced such evil as Hitler! My knowledge of what your people had to endure does not come from my school years but mostly from literature I found after leaving Austria. The same goes for the persecutions of the Jewish people for centuries under the Catholics all over Europe! How much your people have suffered!
    I guess you get comments like this one often but all the same I though to post one also.
    May God help and protect Israel and jewish People everywhere, Shalom!

    1. blank Rashi Rosenzweig

      Wow! Thanks, Maria. What lovely sentiments you left me. To be honest, I don’t think that I ever received a comment like yours before, in my recent memory anyway. GD Bless!!

      Out of curiosity, which Israeli news site did you see this article? Kindly let me know.

      GD Bless!!

  2. S. Malkah Cohen

    Thank you for sharing your story. I intend to pass it along to others who have been hoping to find connections, but find such hope fading as the years pass. This may renew that hope.

  3. Reuben Mowszowski

    I was looking forward to this mail since you told me about it this morning but I didn’t think for a moment how emotional and exciting this is for you and your family.
    I too, had some difficulty in holding back my tears.
    Thanks for sharing this amazing story.

  4. I too had a similar experience. I had pictures of 6 children and on the back it listed their names, dates of birth and a note: to cousin Belle love Devorah and Haim Rosner. Tel Aviv and a date. I knew about cousins in Israel, but after my great Aunt Belle died in 1990, no one in the family had their contact information. Two cousins of my fathers in their 80s at the time had old pictures they sent me of their parents (my great uncles) visiting the Israeli cousins. After my detective work I sent off a couple of emails I found to Haim Rosner. One actually when to a cousin and I had a return email within a week saying you found us.

  5. Barbara

    What a wonderful thing to have happened to you! I experienced something similar about 12 years ago and know well the overwhelming feeling of looking at familiar pictures sent from a total stranger (who is actually a relative!) So happy for you and your family!

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