THE SERIES

Tales Told in “Family Treasures Lost and Found

How do you shatter your parents’ silence? Karen grew up knowing fragments of her Polish parents’ World War II stories of survival. Her mother spoke of her wartime ordeal, but her father was silent and died young. It took journalist Karen A. Frenkel six years to fill the gaps. Our series of five shorts covers this process of discovery. It is edited specifically for a young audience and perfect for educational and multimedia platforms.

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1. Oral Histories

Unlike Karen’s father, Karen’s mother spoke about the war to her daughters and did an recorded an extensive oral history with the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University. We intercut her interview with Karen’s to tell her mother’s story of survival and facts Karen uncovered to supplement it. We see how after Karen exhausted information in the family archive, she followed leads, scoured digital and real-world archives, and visited relevant cities to detail her parents’ stories. Far from dusty archival research, Family Treasures reveals the complexity and joy of Karen’s investigative adventure. Karen fact-checks and finds documents buttressing family lore, like a ship manifest showing that a great-uncle who emigrated to California visited his Kraków relatives in 1937 and offered in vain to adopt Irena.

2. Google Anything

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Spellings of names and changed names pose challenges when moving between languages, so Karen decided to google whatever occurred to her. On a whim, she searched “Dawid,” the Polish spelling of his first name, ultimately breaking through her father’s silence about his experience at the University of Vienna Medical School. Karen found out that her father was one of 2,330 students and 200 dismissed faculty who were victims of National Socialism. Next, Karen learned what campus life was like when her father arrived in 1933; daily fascists beat up Jewish classmates. Visualized through newspaper photos and archival footage, including a clip from the movie Julia, we recreate the terrifying riots Dawid Frenkel and fellow Jewish students faced in the anatomy building.

3. Sleuthing Archives

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Arolsen Archive

After the Anschluss in 1938, Karen’s father graduated and married an American oddly visiting Lwów in the winter of 1939. The newlyweds left separately, the bride for New York, and Dr. Frenkel for the Caribbean. Karen traced his path with his 1939 Polish passport, which her mother saved. With the help of the archives of The French Lines, she discovered the French ship he boarded, Flandre, bound for Havana. It arrived during the St. Louis crisis (May 1939).

One amazing find for Karen was a news story by a local Texas reporter describing the commotion her father’s first wife caused as she entreated an anti-Semitic Cuban immigration official to let Dr. Frenkel disembark. Thus Family Treasures shows the importance of a free press and local reporting. Like the St. Louis, Flandre’s passengers were refused entry. When Flandre arrived in Veracruz, Karen’s father responded to a medical emergency on the dock…. Family Treasures demonstrates the randomness of luck.

Archival research was essential in tracing Karen’s paternal grandfather’s arduous escape across mountains and the sea to Palestine, forever leaving his home in Lwów, now Lviv, Ukraine in 1943.

Karen searched the following European, Israeli, and American archives: Germany’s State Archives and Arolsen Archives (formerly the International Tracing Service, parts of which recently went online), Austria’s State Archives, the AGAD Central Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw, the Central State Historical Records in Lviv, Ukraine, the French Lines archives, The Central Zionist Archives and Yad Vashem in Israel, Ancestry.com’s ship manifests and clippings in Newspapers.com, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JOINT) Archives, GesherGalicia.org and JewishGen.org, the United States National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and St. Louis, Missouri.

4. Family Tree

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Finkelstein Family Tree

Descendants of Kraków’s Jews can start their search at the Mormon Library because it acquired that city’s birth, marriage, death, and census records. Karen randomly googled her grandmother’s maiden name––Finkelstein––and was surprised to see the tree already built by a UC San Diego computer scientist. We meet him on Zoom and he describes how and why he built 700 family trees of Kraków’s root Jewish families. With the Finkelstein electronic tree and a letter from Karen’s great-uncle Max she traced distant family members, including a great-great-uncle emigrated to California in the mid-19th century to cash in on the Gold Rush. He arrived via Panama too late and settled in Stockton, CA. Through Stockton’s Temple Israel, Karen ultimately met his descendants, one of whom we interview via Zoom about what it felt like to be found by Karen. This segment offers insight into the power of genealogical knowledge to connect the story and migrations of the Jews of Europe before WWII.

5. Value of Visiting: Lviv, Tarnów and Gestapo headquarters 

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The capstone of Karen’s investigation is her 2016 trip to Europe. In Lviv, Karen found the house where her father was raised, a beautiful gem of Austro-Hungarian Secessionist architecture commissioned, designed, and built in 1907 by Jews. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it not only reflects the story of her family, but the lives of Jews in Lwów, now Lviv, Ukraine. Karen also saw and appreciated the neighborhood and the nearby Opera House, an important element in the family’s life. Inside the former Fränkel home we meet a resident who reveals clues as to how Ojzer Fränkel, Karen’s one surviving grandparent, escaped in 1943; there were two secret passageways to the theatre next door. Karen knew Ojzer had hidden in the attic. She deduced he must have fled through the top floor passageway when the Gestapo arrived.