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 Karen six years to fill the gaps. Our documentary series of five shorts covers the process of discovery and models the major research steps needed for this kind of genealogical adventure.
1. Oral Histories
Unlike Karen’s father, Karen’s mother spoke about the war to her daughters and did 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, 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, recognized Hitler’s objectives, and offered in vain to adopt Karen’s mother. Later, Karen’s mother insisted her parents buy false papers and with those documents walked out of a ghetto. Righteous gentiles, at great personal risk taught her the catechism so that she could pose as a Catholic, hid her, and advised her to go to Germany. In Bavaria she had four jobs: as a farm field hand, produce worker, store assistant, and Siemens factory worker. She was starved and denied medical treatment by her “employers,” which permanently damaged her heart.
2. Google Anything
Spellings of names and changed names pose challenges when moving between languages, so Karen decided to google whatever occurred to her. That is how she ultimately broke through her father’s silence about his experience at the University of Vienna Medical School. One day, on a whim, she searched “Dawid,” the Polish spelling of his first name. The result: 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; fascists were daily beating up Jewish classmates. Visualized through newspaper photos and archival footage, including a clip from the movie Julia, we recreate the terror Dawid Frenkel and fellow Jewish students faced in the anatomy building that culminated with riots.
3. Sleuthing Archives
After the Anschluss in 1938, Karen’s father graduated and married an American oddly visiting Lwów in the winter of 1939. They left separately, she for New York, and Dr. Frenkel on a little-known French ship, Flandre, bound for Havana. It arrived during the St. Louis crisis (May 1939). Karen traced his path with his 1939 Polish passport, which her mother saved, and with the help of the archives of The French Lines, which owned Flandre.
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 Treasures shows the importance of a free press and local reporting. Treasures also demonstrates the randomness of luck. 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 and then talked his way out of returning to the ship. In New York, he discovered his wife was the black sheep of the family that owned the famous dairy restaurant Ratner’s, and that she was having an affair with a Jewish gangster. They divorced after he returned in 1946 from serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corp in Europe.
Archival research was essential in tracing the escape of Karen’s paternal grandfather from Lwów in fall 1943, his trek across the Carpathian Mountains the following winter, and his arrival in Budapest just when the Nazis occupied it. Ultimately, he arrived illegally in Palestine in August 1944. We document how with the help of Israeli and German archives Karen pinpointed all this down to the ship he sailed on (chartered by the Haganah) and his detention in Camp Atlit.
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), 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
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 great-great-uncles who went to California in the mid-19th century to cash in on the Gold Rush. They arrived via Panama too late and settled in Stockton, CA. Through Stockton’s Temple Israel, Karen ultimately met their 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 a Gestapo headquarters
The capstone experience of Karen’s probing journey is her 2016 visits to Lviv and Tarnów. Karen found the house where her father was raised in Lviv, a beautiful gem of Austro-Hungarian architecture commissioned, designed, and built in 1907 by Jews in the style of the Vienna Secession movement. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it not only reflects the story of her family, but the lives of Jews in Lwów. Inside, we meet an elderly 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. Now she realized that when the Gestapo discovered his hiding place, he must have fled through the top floor passage. Karen also saw and appreciated the neighborhood and the nearby Opera House, an important element in the family’s life.