Barbara Goldman
Special to the Journal
Tue, July 28, 2009

Photos courtesy of Barbara Goldman

goldman photo 1
Above, the extended family meets for the first time
in Israel.
Below right, Barbara Goldman (left) and her
brother, Joel, with their long-lost Great Uncle Micha.

My father's father, Yossel Wasserman, left home at age 19 and never saw his family again. It was 1920, in Bessarabia, Russia. His escape from political turmoil and persecution, his severed family bond...these elements are at the core of my own sense of Jewish identity. I hardly knew my grandfather, as he died when I was small, in February 1966. I wished to know so much more, but theGoldman photo2 details of his early life were lost long ago.

My brother Joel, born in April 1966, was named for my grandfather. Three years ago, Joel took a work assignment in Kishinev, the capital city of Moldova - about 45 miles from our grandfather's hometown of Leova. Joel too had been determined to learn about our roots, and this coincidence presented a wonderful genealogical research opportunity.

We began with scant information...the names of my grandfather's parents, and a couple of colorful stories. We understood that Yossel was the youngest of seven brothers, and that he ran away to avoid being drafted into the Russian Army. We believed that the entire family was likely killed in World War II.

Genealogical research proved difficult, as Leova had changed hands several times between Russia and Rumania during the early 1900's. The official language and alphabet differed under each regime, and there is an apparent black hole in terms of archived records.

Variations in the spelling of our surname presented another issue. "Wasserman" was "Vasserman" phonetically, and in the Cyrillic alphabet, "Baccepman".  And as this was such a common surname in Bessarabia, we couldn't be sure of any relationship to our family, even when we discovered records.

This past February, I learned that almost all Jews from Moldova had emigrated to Israel in the early 1990s. I began to fantasize that if someone from our family had survived, we would find them in Israel. I phoned Joel and urged him to resume the search, as his work assignment in Kishinev would soon be ending.

I felt in my soul that someone was out there. Joel pursued the search with a renewed intensity. Through the digital archive of Yad Vashem, he discovered a Page of Testimony for a Luba Vaserman of Leovo, Rumania, possibly our great-grandmother. Her estimated age did not fit, and the name was a variation, but it was still possible. There were also Pages of Testimony for Mordechai Vaserman and Leibl Vaserman. The author, Yehoshua Mikhael Vaserman, listed himself as the son of Luba and brother of Mordechai and Leibl. These pages were submitted in 2001. ...and the man listed his address at an old age home in Netanya, Israel.

Could this actually be our grandfather's brother? We had always thought that ourgrandfather was the youngest of seven brothers, but maybe our understanding was incorrect. Immediately I cautioned Joel that even if this was our great-uncle, there was little chance he'd still be alive. After all, our grandfather would have been 100 years old in 2001, and how much younger could Yehoshua Mikhael Vaserman be?

We set to work to find Mr. Vaserman at the old age home in Netanya. We learned that he had moved out in 2004 to be closer to family in Bat Yam, but the receptionist remembered him as having been in good health.

At Joel's office in Kishinev, someone suggested contacting Magen David Adom, the Israeli Red Cross, which ran a tracing service. Within a day of Joel contacting Boris Kozozkin, he emailed us with tantalizing news: "I talked to Mr. Vaserman. It seems he is the one you've been searching for. He comes from the same city in Bessarabia. I'm going to meet him tomorrow morning, and will get back to you with more details."

Two days later we heard from Boris again: "He is indeed the man you've been searching for: he filled the Yad Va'Shem form, and he's the brother of Yossel Vaserman! He would like to be contacted by you. You must be aware how rare an event this is!"
After 89 years of separation, we had found the living link! Mikhael Vaserman confirmed that indeed he had a much older brother, Yossel, who had gone to America. We learned that there were four generations of the Vaserman family in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv. Aside from Great Uncle Micha, age 94, there were his nephew, Alexander Vaserman, wife Mara, two sons and daughter-in-law, and three grandsons. I phoned Cousin Alexander and introduced myself, with great emotion, in my not-very-good Hebrew.

Ten days later, Joel and I were heading for Israel...there was no time to waste! We arrived at the home of Alexander and Mara Vaserman. Alexander is the son of Shloime, another brother of my grandfather. Having been an only child, Alexander was elated by this instant expansion of his family.

More than 60 years worth of pictures were brought out at our first meeting. We absorbed the names and faces of our grandfather's many relatives. During World War II Alexander and his parents escaped Leova, surviving in Uzbekistan for 2 1/2 years and eventually settling in Lvov, Ukraine. Alexander and his family made aliyah to Israel in 1992.

As we talked with Alexander, Joel and I wondered where Great Uncle Micha was. Through the apartment window, we looked down and could see a small, well-dressed man making his way deliberately through the park towards the building. What a vision! This was the most normal thing in the world, and at the same time, nothing short of a miracle. When Micha entered the flat, he extended his arms and we had a warm and emotional embrace.

Animated and sturdy, vibrant and youthful, Micha had a high-pitched voice that seemed a bit other-worldly. His languages of choice were Russian or Yiddish, but he was also able to speak some Hebrew.

I brought out a photo of my grandfather, who had left home when Micha was only five. Micha had memories of Yossel and was aware of many of the details of Yossel's departure. He explained that our great-grandmother had never wanted Yossel to leave...she hid his clothes, and took the money he had saved up. He left anyway, with another young man from Leova named Rabinowitz.

My brother and I filled in our own pieces of the story...Yossel had made his way through Europe - Rome, Trieste, Paris - and made money converting currency in train stations. Somehow he ended up in Rio de Janiero, where he won a small lottery and paid for ship passage to New York."Joe" began his American life on the Lower East Side selling flatware on an orange crate. Little by little, he parlayed his business into a series of food markets in the boroughs of New York City and eventually in Passaic, New Jersey.

Micha's life passed against a decidedly different backdrop. He served in the Russian Army from 1941-45, finishing his military service in Tambov, 280 miles southeast of Moscow. He considered returning to Leova, but heard that conditions were poor. There was food in Tambov, so he remained there, eventually marrying Sophie and having a son, Vladimir. He ran a men's clothing store and lived in Tambov for 50 years. In 1993, he and Sophie came to Israel.

When it was time to say goodnight, we embraced. Uncle Micha said softly in Yiddish "Eyzeh mitsiyeh!" (What a rare and special find!)

Joel and I presented him with a small wooden box with the word Leova carved into it, a souvenir Joel had found on one of his genealogical research trips to the town. It seemed fitting that it should end up in the hands of the one we were looking for.

I had written a special note for Micha, which a friend of mine had translated into Russian, and these words captured all the emotion of our meeting:

To my great uncle Mikhael,
At your honored and advanced stage of life, having lived through so much, I would imagine that it would be hard to get too excited about anything.
I'm sure you thought the milestones of your life were behind you.
But as we see, life is full of mysteries and surprises.
The Lord had something else in store for you.
There are reasons why we were all brought to this day.
What joy our whole family is feeling, to have discovered you!
We are thrilled to meet you, to be with you, and to get to know all about you.
Whoever you are, we love you.
We are the living ones, to take part in the reuniting of two strands of our family.
But the others are with us, too. As I look at the photographs to share with you, all of these people are alive to me, because they are in my memory, in a sacred place. If I can share those memories with you, then they will be with you, too. And your memories will be with me, and my children, and their children.
We will celebrate all that we can share, for the time that we have with one another.
This is our blessing!
All my love, Barbara

We now understand that what happened to our grandfather's family mirrors the larger story of 20th Century European Jewry...one son ran away to America, others were murdered by the Nazis, others survived the war and were dispersed behind the Iron Curtain for 50 years, eventually arriving in Israel in the early 1990's.

We know what happened historically, but experiencing it on a personal level has been another thing...entirely

Used by permission of author

Barbara Wasserman Goldman lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

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