My mother’s people came from two shtetls, Jezow--east of Lodz--and Ujadz, a village to the south of Jezow.
The Galas family of Jezow owned a farm and a hardware store in the center of town. My grandfather, Icek Majer Galas, had eight children. He and his oldest son, Israel Mordka, ran the local hardware store. Two sons, my grandfather Abram Michal and his brother Jacob Noech were leather tanners, and when they moved to Lodz in the early part of the 1900s, they became leather wholesalers.
My grandfather Abram Michal prospered in the big city. He married my grandmother Hinda Dworja Dobrzynska, and they lived in a beautiful section of Lodz near Liberty Square with their seven children. My mother was their middle child. The family's comfortable lifestyle made them early targets of the Nazis. Forced out of their home on Pomorska Street, my mother and her middle brother and parents went into the Lodz Ghetto in 1940.
Two of my mother's brothers left Lodz in 1939 before the Ghetto was sealed. The oldest sister who was married died with her infant son in a street action in Brzesko (near Kracow) in the summer of 1942. A sister and brother who left for the safety of Krakow most likely died in the gas chambers of Belzec. My mother's middle brother stayed in the Lodz Ghetto with her and their parents until he was deported to Skarzysko-Kamienna labor camp, then Czestohowa labor camp, then Buchenwald, then Theresienstadt, never to be heard of again.
On August 7th, 1944, my mother and her parents were deported to Auschwitz, where my grandparents were immeidately sent to the gas chambers.
My mother survived four years of the Lodz Ghetto, then Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Salzwedel, as well as the murder of her parents, and brothers and sisters. We never knew the exact number of her aunts, uncles, cousins and other family members who perished in the Shoah. Up until her death in 2008, my mother believed that she was the sole survivor of the Galas family.
No matter--my mother never gave up hope that someone would be looking for her. Before she left for the United States in 1946, she left contact information with the Red Cross. Later, she made international inquiries through lawyers. She reported her address and name changes to various Holocaust survivor registries and dutifully filled out the forms with Yad Vashem. Anywhere and everywhere another family member could be looking for her, my mother left contact information. As the Internet grew, I too began replicating my mother’s work and filed electronic notices and searched databases for missing family members.
In the 1970s, my mother found two second cousins from her mother’s side living in Israel. Through a series of improbable coincidences, they read an ad in a Yiddish newspaper looking for relatives of Abram Galas. My mother’s cousins, Abram and Henoch Dobrzynski, ran away to the Russian border before the Lodz Ghetto was sealed. Imagine my mother’s unbearable joy at finding these two cousins! Imagine finding someone who remembered and shared a common past!
Over the subsequent three decades, hope faded that any more relatives would be found. Too much time had passed. But though my mother’s mental faculties diminished in her last years, she never forgot her brothers and sisters, and more and more, she began to call me by her sister’s names.
With my mother’s passing, my search became even more pressing. My mother’s generation of survivors was dying, and if there were any family members left, soon they too would pass away. Starting in January, 2009, my work started to pay off, little by little. By searching Jewishgen databases, I found two photos of my mother’s youngest brother and of her second oldest sister in files from the Cracow Ghetto. In June, I acquired the Lodz Ghetto work card of my mother’s oldest brother, accompanied by a photo. What my mother would have done to see these only existing family photographs of her beloved siblings!
These treasures compelled me to take a journey this past July that I had dreamed of my entire life—to walk in the footsteps of my parents and see their ancestral villages. On my mother’s side of the family tree, that journey brought me to Jezow, Ujadz and Lodz to see how the Galas family lived, and ultimately, how they died. It was a bittersweet, transformative journey.
Shortly after returning from this experience, I took one more trip—this one a little closer to home—Philadelphia--for the International Jewish Genealogy Societies annual conference. I went there to learn, to meet some experts, and to talk to people with common interests. I had no expectations about finding any specific information about my family.
During the last day of the conference, I had an opportunity to meet with Megan Lewis and Jo-Ellen Decker of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Megan and her colleagues have always been helpful to me. It was Megan who sent me a Lodz Ghetto ID card displaying a photograph of my mother's beloved oldest brother, Menachim Jehuda Galas.
At the conference, I asked Megan to look in her database to see if I had overlooked anything in the USHMM database about the fate of the last two Galas brothers. While Megan scrolled through the list of Galas names, she showed me a record which confirmed information about my great-uncle Jacob who had died in a death camp. And then…a shocking discovery: Megan showed me that Jacob's record reflected that two individuals had memorialized Jacob's name on a wall at the Stockholm Holocaust Memorial. Someone had survived the war after all!
These two individuals were my mother’s first cousins who survived the Shoah, and after the war, emigrated to Sweden. I received this incredible thrilling news Friday, the last day of the conference.
I flew home, and over the weekend, I contacted the Stockholm Memorial Foundation, Yad Vashem, and everyone in the universe I knew who could possibly help me, including subscribers to various listservs.
On Monday, a Jewishgen subscriber and economics professor in Sweden, Henry Ohlsson, contacted me after he made the effort to go to the Uppsala Tax Office to gather information on my surviving Galas family members. He gently gave me the sad news that my mother’s first cousins had passed away since putting their father’s name on the memorial wall. But later in the day, he emailed me with more hopeful news: estate reports (or estate inventories) listed the direct heirs, my second cousins.
Within five days of Megan’s revelation, I made contact with my newly-found Swedish relatives, my second cousins, in a tearful, bittersweet, and ultimately joyous phone call.
I know that some of the readers of this website are likely to be children of survivors, as I am. While it is with sadness that I acknowledge that my mother did not live to experience this reunion, finding my new family is a reminder to me that miracles happen, that strangers can be generous and kind, and that--even after decades of searching-- hope does not die.