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Jetti Hecht Haendel, Evelyne’s grandmother, above left, and Pessah Haendel, her mother, with baby Evelyne. Photos courtesy Gary Mokotoff

Evelyne Haendel always felt she was living someone else’s life, or, as she put it, she was like a person “living next to your shoes.”

When she was 5, Haendel’s parents hid her away with a non-Jewish family in Belgium so that she would not suffer at the hands of the Nazis. She was raised in a Catholic home, disconnected from the Jewish life and family that she felt had abandoned her. She always felt empty.

“I did not know what it was to have family,” Haendel told The Jewish Standard during a visit to Bergenfield earlier this month. “You don’t know what it is to have family, this security of people caring for you. It seems so natural to everybody – when you don’t have family you just fend for yourself. You can’t just relax.”

The sad tale of this 72-year-old woman from Liege, Belgium, may seem like one of many from the Holocaust, but through several twists of fate and the help of a Bergenfield genealogist, Haendel has been on a more-than-20-year journey to reclaim her life, her family, and her Jewish heritage.

‘It was a past of everybody leaving’

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Evelyne Haendel today.

Haendel was born in Vienna in August 1937. She and her mother, Pessah Wolfowicz Haendel, fled to Belgium in December, just a few months before Germany annexed Austria. Her father, Moses Haendel, followed them in 1938.

After Germany invaded Belgium in May of 1940, the Belgians arrested Moses Haendel as an enemy alien and deported him to France. Evelyne was 3.

In 1941, Germany began instituting its Jewish discriminatory laws. Before she was arrested in 1942, Pessah Haendel hid her daughter with Christian neighbors.

Moses and Pessah Haendel were sent to Auschwitz and never returned.

Evelyne Haendel’s aunt, Sasha Wolfowicz, survived Auschwitz and returned to Belgium, but felt she was in no shape to care for her niece. The Christian family that had cared for her during the war adopted her, and Evelyne Haendel became Colette Vandor. But tragedy found Evelyne again when she was 10; her adoptive mother died.

“It was a past of everybody leaving,” Haendel said. “A child of 3 doesn’t know it’s because of the war. It’s just that people – the closest that you have faith in, that you rely on – are just leaving.”

To this day, Haendel carries with her a fear of abandonment, said Gary Mokotoff, the genealogist who helped her uncover her roots. He recalled an argument the two of them had a few years ago. Their voices grew louder and more heated until Haendel broke down, he said, pleading with Mokotoff not to leave her.

“I instantly knew what she was saying,” he told the Standard. “She was afraid I’d abandon her the way her mother ‘abandoned’ her, the way even her adopted mother [‘abandoned’ her] when she was 10 years old.”

Colette Vandor married but never had children. That marriage would end in divorce. Though she was brought up as a Catholic, she never connected with Catholicism. And when she would meet another Jew she felt no bond there either. Evelyne Haendel had disappeared, but Colette Vandor was nothing more than a shell.

“I lost completely the notion of who I was,” Haendel said. “I started to go back in my past, which I had just totally pushed away. I recovered my first name, then my original [family] name, the name that my father and mother gave me.”

Reclaiming Evelyne Haendel

In her 40s, “Vandor” legally changed her name back to Haendel and began the long journey to discovering who she really was. Her adoptive parents had been able to save a number of photos from her mother’s apartment, including a wedding picture and baby pictures of Haendel. Armed with only these few pictures and the names of her parents, she began searching through European archives.

Haendel’s father had been born in 1905 in Ukraine to Jacob and Jetti Hecht Händel. Her mother was born in 1909 in Poland to Joseph and Malka Ehrlich Wolfowicz. After returning to Belgium from Auschwitz in 1945, Haendel’s aunt, Sasha Wolfowicz, married and immigrated to Australia. An uncle, Julius Wolfowicz – the brother of Haendel’s mother – apparently wanted little to do with Haendel, she felt, and died in New York in 1976.

She found Harry Hollander, Sasha Wolfowicz’s son, who told her that his mother had another brother in New York who used to send her articles from the Yiddish-language Forward newspaper – another clue for Haendel in the puzzle of her life.

She called the Forward to see if a Wolfowicz appeared in its subscriber list. Nothing turned up, but the Forward recommended she seek out the Hidden Child Foundation.

In 2004, that group put her in touch with Mokotoff. The two began exchanging e-mails, chatting through webcams, and forming a bond beyond their research.

“She was born four months after me, on Aug. 22, 1937,” Mokotoff said, as he thought about why this particular case struck him so. “In the early days, when we discussed the first 10 years of her life, I found myself saying, ‘What was I doing when Evelyne’s father was deported on May 10, 1940? What was the status of my family when her mother was arrested and departed in 1942? What was I doing at the age of 8 when her aunt returned from Auschwitz without her daughter and Evelyne’s parents never returned?'”

Mokotoff usually does not get so involved in these types of cases, but the details of Haendel’s story pulled him in. Beyond helping her rediscover her family tree, though, Mokotoff said he felt he had another duty to Haendel. In 2005, he asked if Haendel would like to know more about her Jewish heritage. She eagerly accepted the offer.

Every Jew has a Jewish name, he told her, usually after an ancestor. Haendel asked him to pick one for her and he chose Chava, Eve. About a week later, Haendel excitedly wrote to him that she had discovered that Chava was the name of her great-grandmother.

At this point, Purim was fast approaching, and Mokotoff decided to make that the next lesson. He told her about the traditions and encouraged her to hear the Megillah reading in her local synagogue in Liege.

The Jewish presence there is very small, and Mokotoff understood how daunting it could be to venture into a synagogue, alone, for the first time. Haendel ultimately decided not to go. With Passover coming up, Mokotoff decided to try again. Haendel was uncomfortable asking a local rabbi to find a place for her for the holiday, though, and so Mokotoff decided that this woman, who had never really known family or Judaism, should get a taste of both that Passover. He invited Haendel to New Jersey to spend the holiday with him and his wife, Ruth.

“The risk was I was never going to find her family for her [so] I was going to make my family her surrogate family,” he said.

That April, Haendel participated in her first Passover seder with the Mokotoff family, which has since become an annual tradition. On Yom Kippur in 2005 she ventured into a synagogue and said Kaddish for her parents for the first time.

“It was the right time for me,” she said. “He slowly taught me, without pushing, without grabbing. I’m fascinated with all the tradition. Everything is new.”

Between their genealogical quests, the two have studied together and regularly celebrate holidays together. She has become as much a part of Mokotoff’s family as he had hoped. “I didn’t feel Jewish before,” Haendel said. “I’m feeling it now. I have a duty to be Jewish and not to be afraid of being a Jew.”

After 20 years of searching, though, Haendel’s own family still eluded her.

In May 2005, the producer of a documentary on hidden children, who had recently interviewed Haendel, gave Haendel the name of Gisela Mollenhoff, who had written about the Jews of Germany and might be able to help her access German records.

The suggestion led to the discovery of Julius Wolfowicz, Haendel’s uncle. They found an application for reparations, which – to Haendel’s horror – said her mother had never married and Evelyne did not even exist. Despite the troubling discovery, she also found another of her mother’s siblings listed, Adolf Wolfowicz, who lived in New York City.

Mokotoff tracked down Adolf Wolfowicz’s gravesite, where he discovered that Wolfowicz’s daughter, Pauline – the names of Haendel’s cousins have been changed to protect their privacy – lived in Florida.

On Aug. 22, 2005, Haendel’s 68th birthday, Mokotoff received information from a genealogical contact about her cousins in Florida. Pauline Frank seemed to show no interest in reconnecting with Haendel. Later that week, however, Mokotoff received a call from Frank’s son-in-law. Shortly after Mokotoff told him Haendel’s story, he received a call from one of Frank’s daughters, who was eager to connect with her long-lost cousin. As it turned out, her mother had feared that Haendel’s original outreach had been a scam, but she also was excited to meet her cousin. Haendel now regularly talks with and visits family in Montreal, Florida, and France.

“Evelyne spent her entire life alone, and now she’s almost too busy,” Mokotoff said, noting that she now knows of more than 100 relatives. The search is far from over, though.

Epilogue

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Evelyne Haendel joined Gary and Ruth Mokotoff for Passover in 2005 and now spends the holiday with them every year.

“It’s never finished,” Haendel said, noting she continues to look for relatives both living and deceased. “If I found another aunt somewhere I would feel very happy because she would no longer be an aunt or cousin or whatever buried in the darkness, forgotten. I will not have abandoned them.”

Haendel’s research isn’t focused solely on her own family anymore. Her journey into her own past has left her with a need to give back, she said, and she now works in Liege as the director of family tracing services with the Hidden Child Foundation. Haendel never had children of her own but she looks at those she is helping as her children.

Haendel’s own past is a “tremendous advantage” in this line of work, Mokotoff said, as rediscovering one’s past can be quite a “culture shock.”

“It’s not such an easy road,” Haendel said. “I’ve been through it so I can understand. I’m happy. I’m making others aware of their Jewishness, of the tradition.”

One of Mokotoff’s goals, he said, is to make Haendel cry. He accomplished that this summer when he asked her if she had given any thought to having a Jewish funeral. When she said she would like to have one, Mokotoff proposed that she be buried in New Jersey beside him and his wife.

Barry Wien, of Eden Memorial Chapels in Fort Lee, is chair and manager of Linas Hazedeck of Hudson County, a more-than-100-year-old burial organization that has arranged for many gravesites in Riverside Park Cemetery in Saddle Brook.

“I was very glad we were able to put this together and get her a grave near her Jewish roots,” he said. “It’s a very special story.”

Fighting back tears, Haendel recalled the initial conversation with Mokotoff about the cemetery.

“For someone who was lost – totally lost in the universe – felt abandoned – to receive this gift of being asked, ‘Why don’t you share the last house?’ I can’t express what it means,” Haendel said.

In January 2006, Haendel made her first visit to Israel with one of her cousins. She ventured on her own to Jerusalem to visit the Western Wall. As she reached out to touch the ancient stones, she felt something that had eluded her for her entire life: A sense of home.

“My whole life I never had my feet under a table, sitting and feeling I have the right to be here, I don’t have to do anything, I don’t have to apologize, I’m just home,” she said. “That is how I felt in front of the Wall.”

After denying herself for so long, Evelyne Haendel now knows who she is and where she belongs. She is still haunted by feelings of abandonment from her childhood, but her new-found family – her blood relatives and the Mokotoffs – has given her something else to focus on.

“My life has been started anew,” she said. “I feel so much gratitude. That would be the ultimate word.”