Karen’s father, David A. Frenkel, M.D., came to the U.S. in 1939 as a refugee and would not talk about the past. Karen starts her research with the address where he grew up. With that minimal information, she follows clues and reconstructs a traumatic family history.
Highlighting the great moments of discovery of her six-year quest, Karen builds the stories of her parents’ survival, both Polish Jews who at various times lived in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine), which became the epicenter of the Holocaust. Karen’s mother, Irena Goldberger Frenkel, had false papers that enabled her to pose as a Catholic slave laborer in Germany. In her own voice, Irena shares her experience in an oral history for the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. With only scraps of information, Karen discovers that as a medical student at the University of Vienna her father experienced atrocious violence on the part of Austro-fascist classmates.
Karen’s research takes her deep into the cultural life of assimilated Polish Jews before the war, their resistance to fascism, and their complex fates due to altruism, courage, foresight, and chance. Karen ultimately understands the beauty and heartbreak of what they left behind and tries to reconcile the violent loss of three grandparents.
Karen’s research begins with the treasure of an oral history. Her mother Irena was interviewed for the Fortunoff Holocaust oral history collection at Yale University. Another gift––a rare collection that Irena inherited of family portraits painted in 1912, photographs, and documents––reveals the flourishing lifestyle and culture of the assimilated Jews of pre-war Kraków who raised her. Few Holocaust survivor families could save anything, but in 1941 Karen’s great-grandparents sent from Berlin to New York two trunks filled with these artifacts. They did so at great peril and in defiance of the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews of their civil rights, including owning art and precious belongings. This large archive was hidden in plastic garbage bags in a closet in Washington Heights, NY, until Karen’s great-aunt died in 1968. Thus, we are able to interweave Irena’s first-person account with family portraits and photographs of her life in Kraków. We also use archival footage to visualize the danger her family faced when fleeing Kraków as the Nazis advanced.
To research David’s early life, Karen started with the address of his childhood home in Lwów, Poland, now Lviv, Ukraine. Challenged by the Cyrillic alphabet and changed street names, she compared a pre-war Polish map with today’s Ukrainian map and identified the street’s current name. After plugging that into Google StreetView, Karen was thrilled to see an Austro-Hungarian architectural gem that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Later, on a lark, she Googled the Polish spelling of her father’s name, “Dawid.” To her surprise, that whim shattered her father’s silence and revealed his shocking experience of violence at the medical school’s anatomy building. She learned that he was one of 2,330 Jewish students victimized by National Socialists. Karen discovered that the real Julia in the movie by that name was her father’s classmate. Visualized through a clip from the movie Julia, newspaper photos and archival footage, we recreate the terrifying 1933 riots David and his classmates endured.
After playing with names and ideas, Karen deep dives into digital and real-world archives. Far from dusty archival research, Treasures reveals the complexity and satisfaction of this investigative adventure. After the Anschluss in 1938, David graduated and married an American. They left Lwów separately. His wife returned to New York to arrange for a US visa. Using his 1939 passport, Karen discovered the name of the French ship, Flandre, that ferried David to Veracruz, Mexico. But it turned out that his real destination was Havana during the St. Louis crisis (May 1939).
Randomness of Luck
Another amazing find on Newspapers.com was a feature by a reporter for a Texas newspaper. It describes David’s first wife entreating an anti-Semitic Cuban immigration official to let David disembark. He refused. Flandre made one more stop in Veracruz where David saved the life of someone ailing on the dock. He talked his way out of returning to the ship. The remaining passengers were forced to return to France.
Thus Treasures demonstrates the randomness of luck, the importance of a free press, and local reporting. In New York, David discovered that his wife, whose family owned the famous dairy restaurant Ratner’s, was having an affair with a Jewish gangster. David filed for divorce and enlisted in the U.S. Army. On his tour of duty, he healed the wounded across Northern France and during the Battle of the Bulge.
In Their Shoes
In 2016, Karen decided to retrace her parents’ steps in Vienna, Kraków, Tarnów and Lwów. Visiting a location provides a visceral understanding of a person’s life. When Lwów became very dangerous in 1941, Irena’s parents forced her to leave Lwów and go to Tarnów, where her aunt lived. Karen got into her aunt’s apartment and saw the parquet floors that her mother describes in her oral history for the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony. She starts to feel the terror her mother experienced every day, especially when she entered the former Tarnów Gestapo headquarters, now an apartment house. There, her mother got a stamp that saved her life. Later, she and her aunt were forced into the ghetto. Irena’s parents sent her false papers. With the papers in hand, she audaciously walked out of the ghetto expecting to be shot. But righteous gentiles hid her and advised her to go to Germany as a slave laborer. There, her “employers” forced her to work 16-hour days, starved her, and denied her medical treatment, which permanently damaged her heart. When she faced breast cancer years later, she couldn’t tolerate the full chemo therapy treatment because of her weakened heart.
In Lviv, Karen enters the house where David was raised and meets a resident who describes two secret passages to the theater next door. They were clues to how her one surviving grandparent, Ojzer Fränkel, escaped from his hiding place in the attic when Nazis stormed up the stairs. From Lwów he crossed the Carpathian Mountains to Hungary. Ultimately, Ojzer arrived illegally in Palestine in 1944. With documents from Israeli and German archives Karen pinpoints all this down to the ship he sailed on.
His wife, Michaela, was less fortunate. Karen was warned by her mother to be gentle with her father in the spring; that’s when his mother took cyanide when exposed to be a Jew. Karen struggles with accepting this decision, but then realizes it was her grandmother’s last act of free will and defiance.
Through her many, unexpected discoveries, Karen understands her father better and the reasons for his silence. She appreciates the constant mortal danger her mother faced, her enormous resourcefulness, courage, and resilience. Karen finds some solace upon learning details of her grandparents’ lives and where and how they lived. They become more than names: She learns that it’s possible to love people she never met.