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Before the Decimation: Researching My Family’s Past

Before the Decimation: Researching My Family’s Past

In anticipation of my trip to Israel and visiting Yad Vashem, I’m digging into my family’s history.


I am a New Yorker, born and raised. For over a hundred years, my family has made our home in or near New York City. Most members of my family immigrated to the United States late 19th or early in the 20th century. I know they were eastern European, Yiddish-speaking Jews. They assimilated quickly into their American lives – so quickly that most information about their past was lost. For the first twenty-six years of my life, I didn’t know where in Europe my family came from. One day, a distant cousin traced a maternal great-grandfather’s family to Kovno, Lithuania, and contacted all his far-flung descendants. I finally had an answer.

But one relative and one city wasn’t enough; I wanted more. I used to spend a lot time sifting through genealogy websites, looking for other great-greats, but that mostly stopped when my first daughter was born. My life was suddenly and completely consumed by breastfeeding and diaper changing and trying to get used to my new life. Then, my second daughter arrived. I had a baby in one arm and a crying toddler in the other. I had no choice but to focus on the present, and on the needs of my little girls. There was no time to dwell on history or family members that were gone.

Now that my children are bigger, I am getting back to my research. There will be a day when my daughters want answers. I want to have the information waiting for them. They deserve to know our complete story, so they can tell their children someday. L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.

I have another reason to start my research again: I’m going to Israel with as part of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project. Our tour includes a visit to Yad Vashem. I’ve wanted to see the museum since I learned of its existence. Once I knew I was headed to Israel, I looked into the different exhibits. I was immediately struck by the images of the Valley of the Communities. I quickly discovered that Kovno is listed there. When I found a great-grandfather who came from Radom, I learned that city is part of the exhibit, too. Other great-grandparents, on my father’s side, came from Minsk. Minsk is also recorded there.

I want the people who lived in these cities to know they were not forgotten.

I thought of my childhood, in my green, leafy hometown on Long Island. I have moved away, but I have classmates that remained. Their children go to our old schools and they play soccer on the same fields and they eat at our favorite diner. I tried to imagine how I’d feel if the places and people I left behind were suddenly annihilated. My stomach twisted.

When I was young, I was frustrated by my parents’ lack of information about our family’s origins. But in the midst of my research, I suddenly remembered something my mother told me, long ago: “I knew not to ask too many questions.”

Her words make sense now.

Some might say that I need to let the past go. Yet I know I have a responsibility to dig into my history. I am trying to trace all my relatives, and my husband’s, back to Europe. I am making a list of city names, and I plan to bring it into the Valley of the Communities with me.

But I’m still not sure what to do when I see the names of their cities carved into Israeli bedrock. Do I take pictures and save them for my children? Do I say Kaddish by the stones? Should I stand silently? How do I observe my own personal Yom HaShoah? I don’t know what the answer should be. Whatever I do, I want the people who lived in these cities – the relatives, friends, and neighbors of my ancestors – to know they were not forgotten. I want them to know that I exist, and I am Jewish, and I am raising Jewish children. Perhaps I will stand in front of each stone and simply say, Ani zocheret. I remember. Ani po. I am here.

April 7, 2018

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Visitor Comments: 12

(10) MESA, April 13, 2018 2:34 PM

Every time we do a mitzvah, we're sending a message to the Nazis and all those who try to destroy us that they will NEVER win. If you're bring up your children to love Torah and Mitzvot, then that's the ultimate revenge on our enemies and the ultimate tribute to your ancestors. Kol Tuv.

(9) Samuel Martin Gordon, April 10, 2018 8:15 PM

Father came from a area called "Sirvunt". Family name was formerly koltun.

(8) Samuel Svarc, April 10, 2018 6:47 AM

You can send messages to those departed Jews

Tosofot states that while those departed don't know what occurs on this world, angels can inform them.

So while we G-d forbid don't pray to angels, we can ask them to be messengers to those who have departed. If, when you go the the Valley of the Communities you perform a mitzvah (make a pledge to charity, recite a Psalm, etc.), you can ask the angel who is created through such an action to pass on a message to those departed. (This holds true in any place in the world.)

(Once again, due to the severity of the prohibition, we can only pray to G-d, and to G-d alone.)

The most Jewishly meaningful thing we can do is to continue living a Jewish life, keeping the Torah, and raising our children to do the same.

Enjoy your upcoming trip to Israel!

Anonymous, April 11, 2018 2:13 PM

What a beautiful idea.

I was not familiar with Tosofot. Sending the departed a message via angel is a beautiful, meaningful option.

(7) Andria, April 10, 2018 2:55 AM


My grandmother’s side is from Vilna, Lithuania. It is very heart piercing when you are trying to trace roots from there and then see the exhibit at Yad Vashem. Standing in front of the stones that reach toward the sky, making you realize, that is your family home town affected by the Holocaust. When I was there, the museum also has a great book on Lithuanian Jewish history, explaining a lot of missing history. Good luck on your adventure.

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