“Dora isn’t really my mother,” said Yocheved, who is now my wife (and who is called Judy at home in Hackensack), as we were mounting the stairs to the third floor of 45 Maccabi Street to reach her parent’s apartment. “But please don’t mention it at dinner.”
It was 1954, and we had just walked to what was the the northern end of Tel Aviv in order to be formally introduced to Yochi’s parents and sisters.
This last sudden remark caught me by surprise and immediately questions arose in my mind. What did it mean? Why can’t it be mentioned? But there was no time to ask them, as the apartment door opened and I was welcomed into Yochi’s family’s home.
Needless to say, the next time we met over tea and cake, I posed the questions that had been on my mind since the dinner. Yochi began to explain rather hesitantly. “I really don’t know the whole story,” she said. “All I know is that Dora is not our mother. Our real mother is dead. She committed suicide when we were about four years old.” (“We” is Yochi and her twin sister, Ruthi.)
“But we never mention it, or discuss it. I think my father believes that we were too young to remember the suicide and that we are willing to accept the fiction that Dora is our mother. But he is wrong. My sister and I certainly remember the event.”
“When Dora became part of the family, our father told us that she was our mother and we should call her ‘mother,’ which we did,” Yochi continued. Then Dora became pregnant, and a third daughter, Nurith, was added to the family. “We don’t have any photographs of our real mother, or birth certificates, or any other papers,” Yochi said. “The whole thing is just a big secret in the family.”
It took the next 40 years for the story to slowly unfold, and once again demonstrate what bitter pain and chaos the Holocaust inflicted on Jews for decades, long after the war ended and the Nazis were defeated. It wasn’t till a chance meeting in Israel in 1993 that the many blank spaces in the story were filled.
Of course, as the twins became older, their desire to learn more became more urgent. Ruthi did some searching at home and discovered some interesting but unidentified negatives of photographs. She decided on a multipurpose trip to Paris in order to visit the twins’ only first cousin, to help heal her broken heart, to assist caring for the cousin’s little daughter, and to talk to her cousin and learn what she could about the family secrets. When she returned from Paris, she told Yochi what she had learned.
Their father, Solomon Ginsburg, born in Grodno, Poland, earned a degree in electrical engineering at the Berlin University, and went to Tel Aviv in 1935. There he met an young Israeli women and apparently they fell in love. However, shortly thereafter, Solomon’s mother, Hasha, arrived from Poland. She told her son that she had arranged his marriage to a lovely young woman from a very prominent Jewish family in the town of Slonim, back in Poland. Such arranged marriages apparently were not unusual, because they allowed the marriage partner to escape from the Nazi threat in Poland and to gain permission to enter the Palestine Mandate under the British rules.
A few months later, Hannah Epstein, the lucky bride, arrived in Tel Aviv and met her husband. Solomon apparently accepted his mother’s decision and accepted Hannah as his wife. The twins, Yochi and Ruthi, were born in 1937 — but they were not born in Tel Aviv. As I mentioned earlier, Hannah Epstein came from an important Jewish family in Slonim. Her father was the head of the local Jewish hospital, and he convinced his daughter to return to Poland to deliver the babies at a modern hospital there, instead of at a who-knows-how-good hospital in the Middle East. So Hannah traveled to Poland, where, surprise, the twins were born.
Hannah returned to Tel Aviv, but only with Yochi. Ruthi, who was determined not to be strong enough to travel, was left in Slonim, in the care of Hannah’s sister.
The family continued to keep its secrets; they never brought up all this new information. When the twins’ half-sister, Nurith, was engaged to be married, her two older sisters finally sat down with her. For the first time, they revealed the fact that Dora was in fact her mother, but she was not the twins’ mother — and that Nurith was their half-sister.
In 1942, Hannah, Yochi and Ruthi’s mother, “fell off” a balcony and died. There were two possible causes for her despair that were rumored in the Jewish circles of Tel Aviv. My uncle Alfred, who was privy to most of the gossip around town, claimed that Hannah learned that her husband may have been unfaithful. The other report that may have caused her despondency was the tragic news that all the Jews of Slonim, including Hannah’s complete family, had been murdered by the invading German army. Whatever the reason, Hannah was dead, and the twins were motherless.
However, shortly thereafter, Dora entered the family as Solomon’s wife and became the twins’ mother.
The family secrets remained secret until 1993. By then both Dora and Solomon had died. We happened to be visiting Israel when Yochi received a phone call from her sister Ruthi, with the news that there might be someone in Israel looking for them. In 1993 there was a special department in the Israeli government that searched for relatives. That department advised Yochi that there was a family that had come from Russia that might have been related to her and her sister.
Yochi broke into tears when she got the news. Ruthi, on the other hand, was much cooler to the situation. She, apparently, never forgave her biological mother for abandoning her in Poland and then tearing her away from the only mother she knew two years later.
After a few more phone calls, a meeting was arranged. The two of us drove to Ma’ale Adumim to meet Lev Epstein and his family for what became a heart-wrenching five-hour-long exploration, revelation, and disclosure of the events that took place in the family during the past 45 years.
Slowly, the missing pieces in story of Yochi and Ruthi story began to fall into place. As he met Yochi, a cousin whom he did not know existed, and who had a twin sister, Lev also learned that his aunt Hannah, his father’s sister, had committed suicide. It was all news to him.
We, on the other hand, learned that Lev’s father, Aaron, following the Russian army after World War I, left Poland and moved to Moscow. Aaron’s son, Lev, earned a doctorate in mathematics, and Aaron’s daughter, Mira, earned a doctorate in philosophy. When Stalin’s government started to pursue and execute Jewish doctors, the family searched for some security by moving to Petrozavodsk, a city near the Finish border. Throughout this time Lev’s family did not dare to reach out to possible family members in Israel. Jews who tried to make such connections were considered disloyal Russian citizens and were persecuted, jailed, or even murdered.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many Soviet Jews seized the opportunity presented by liberalized emigration policies to emigrate. More than half of the country’s Jews packed up and left Russia’s miserable conditions behind. Many arrived in Israel, including Lev’s daughter, who went there to study. She convinced her father to bring the whole family to join her in Israel. We further learned that Hannah, Yochi’s biological mother, visited Slonim in 1939, just as World War II was about to start, to see her family and to pick up Ruthi.
Lev told us that his father somehow obtained an album of photographs containing pictures of the Slonim family. Lev brought this album to Israel and he offered to show it to us. He walked out of the room. Yochi reached for my hand and gripped it firmly. We both held our breath as Lev returned with an album carefully wrapped in several layers of plastic. Now, at last, as the final act of this monumental and emotional afternoon, was our opportunity to see this album and meet Yochi’s family. It was an incredible and heart-wrenching experience.
Everyone was in tears, as we slowly turned the pages of the album and Lev identified the people in each picture. We saw photos of Yochi’s mother as a young girl and as a young woman. We saw all of Yochi’s uncles, aunts, and grandparents. Everyone in the album except Hannah had died at the hands of the Nazis, and she who may have died because of the Nazis’ cruelty.
We found it hard to take our eyes off each photograph. What an unforgettable experience it was! Lev allowed us to make copies of the photos.
About two weeks after this memorable afternoon, Yochi and I attended an outdoor remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. Yochi cried throughout the whole moving ceremony.
As we were driving back home she murmured, “This was the first time I knew who I was crying for.”
Charles Ticho of Hackensack is a retired producer and film director. He and his wife, Judy/Yochi, will celebrate their 60th anniversary in September.