Miriam was four years old when the Nazis occupied her hometown, Lwow, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine). Though all around her, Jewish property was plundered, synagogues burned, and thousands murdered, her memories of that time are hazy. She recalls hearing sirens, sleeping in bomb shelters, and bidding her father goodbye. Miriam and her mother, soon thrown from their apartment, moved in with her grandmother. On their next eviction, the pair crowded in with other relatives. Then the establishment of the Lwow Ghetto, heralded overcrowding, little food, no sanitation, and daily killings. Now the two fled to the paint factory where Miriam’s mother worked. During the day, Miriam remembers, “I always stayed under my mother’s desk. When someone came up, my mother would [gently] kick me as a sign that I must stay still. I stayed under the desk for about a week or a month.” At night, the pair moved in and out of different hiding places. Finally they found safer haven with an acquaintance who also had a daughter. Though the two girls played together, Miriam was never allowed outdoors. Six months later, Miriam and her mother moved in with her grandmother again. When deportations to the death camp Belzec began, Miriam’s mother took drastic action. With the help of a Christian friend, she smuggled the child out of the Ghetto to Irena, her paternal aunt who lived in Krosno, Poland. “I never saw my mother again,” recalls Miriam. Irena, fleeing the Nazis herself, shepherded the child from one orphanage to another. Finally, placed in a tiny convent, Miriam Gefaell became “Marysia Gerda.” At first the nuns questioned the six year old closely. Did her parents live together? What were their names? Did they have a Christmas tree? Then life settled into a blessedly quiet routine. Marysia helped herding cows, played, and like everyone else, prayed to the saints and the Holy Mother. No one, not even she herself, knew she was Jewish. There she stayed, safe and sound through the end of the War. Some one and a half million children perished during the Holocaust. Those that survived lived their own nightmares, witnessing suffering, deportations, and deaths, enduring hunger, cold, disease, loneliness, and fear. Some survived on their own, hidden in forest bunkers, sewers, or isolated villages. Others, due to their parents’ courage, foresight, and means, were sent away, like Miriam, into hiding. Some found refuge in private homes, whether for benefactors’ financial reasons or altruism. Those with Aryan features or those too young to reveal their origins could often live openly. The older Jewish child, however, from the first step over her new threshold, had to blend in with her adopted family. Families usually introduced these youngsters, whom they assigned new names and histories, as distant cousins, survivors of bombed cities, nannies, or maids. Remembering these fabrications, in day to day life, was often very stressful. Even at a tender age, children knew that inquisitive neighbors, inadvertent remarks, or a single slip up could lead to discovery and death. Hidden children who looked “too Jewish” or were in imminent danger were sometimes cut off from daily life. For their safety, they were confined to huts, haylofts, attics, or cellars for long stretches of time, suffering unendurable loneliness and boredom in silence. Others were confined to even smaller, more unpleasant secret hiding places, like closets, cupboards, or cavities carved out behind walls. Some children, though allowed to move around, were forbidden to approach windows, lest they be seen. Others remained completely motionless lest they be heard. Jewish youngsters with Aryan features could often attend school and participate in family events freely. Since informers, schoolmates, or shopkeepers might find then out, however, they quickly learned to blend in, even if it meant eating pork, praying, and going to church. Religion was a way of life for Jewish children hidden in Roman Catholic convents and monasteries. To survive, they learned to cross themselves, pray, and take communion by imitating those around them. Although discipline was sometimes harsh, some Jewish youngsters embraced Church regulations and traditions wholehearted, even accepting baptism. Being Christian, in their experience, was definitely preferable to being Jewish. But lying in confession often led to deep, lasting trauma. How could they confess their lies when their whole lives were lies? Jewish children were also frequently hidden in Catholic and Protestant orphanages, where their true origins were often withheld from staff, teachers, and classmates. Here, though, the shock of a new religion was compounded by the shock of communal living. Beyond sharing meals, classes, and play, any one of their fellow orphans, total strangers, might discover their secret at any moment. Living conditions varied. Many hidden here suffered hunger, lack of warm clothing, and lice. Since they could not risk being treated, those who fell ill often suffered medical neglect. Toward the end of the War, when the Gestapo realized that these orphanages were hiding Jewish children, fear increased considerably. Raids became more frequent. Jewish children sometimes had multiple rescuers. Some people, haunted by stress and fear, pre hid youngsters only for short periods of time. For the children, too, moving around could be safer than remaining in one place. Fourteen year old Fred G., for example, was transported in a bicycle basket from Dutch household to household dozens of times. Others, like Miriam, passed from one refuge to another before finding an appropriate, safe setting. After the War, a Jewish emissary appeared at Miriam’s convent, to accompany back her to war torn Lwow, now occupied by the Soviet Union. As they trudged over theCarpathian Mountains, she brought the nine year old up to date. “You had a mother and father. Now you don’t. You had a family. Now you don’t.” Unbeknownst to her, however, Miriam’s Aunt Lonia, who had immigrated to Israel before the War, was searching frantically for her. Eventually, through letters between friends and acquaintances, as well as sheer coincidence, she located the youngster. But how to bring her to Israel? Again , Miriam passed from place to place, from person to person, before finally arriving. For the first time, though most of her loved ones had perished, though she was in a new land speaking a new tongue, Miriam felt at home. Her loving aunt, a living link to her mother’s family, had saved boxes of pictures and letters received from Europe. Though Miriam enjoyed sifting through them, they reduced her aunt to tears. She learned not to mention her wartime experiences, and anyway, people didn’t ask. They were afraid. So Miriam mourned her past alone. However, she became very close to another survivor, a friend of her mother’s. A comment here, a recollection there, and little by little, Miriam began to get a sense of who she really was and where she came from—at least on her mother’s side. Over the following decades, Miriam, like most Holocaust survivors, put her past behind her and went on with her life. Only when a grandson pressed for details did she speak of her Holocaust experiences. “I can describe what happened then, or perhaps what people told me happened,” she explains, “ but I can’t say what I felt. How did I react? Did I cry?” Once hidden, now revealed, fifty years later, the time had come for Miriam to reclaim her lost childhood. She began retracing her past. First Miriam registered at http://www.missing-identity.com/mi , an Internet site that helps Holocaust children searching for parents, family, and their missing identities. (This site also aids family members searching for children who were lost in the Holocaust.) Although she remembered Irena, the paternal Christian aunt who had hidden her, her father was Miriam’s biggest mystery. All she knew of him was his name, Bronislaw Gefaell. Together with Missing-Identity researcher Eva Floersheim, they searched through Lwow business directories for the years 1929-1939. There she came across a David Gefaell, watchmaker, living at 4 Zybliewiecka St. Since Gefaell is such an unusual name, she reasoned, they must be related. But how? In the 1935 Malopolska (greater Lwow) Resident Address Book, she found David again, living at the same address. Two others, Benjamin and Etka Gefaell, also lived with him. As she progressed, Miriam published her quest on Missing Identity, on the chance that someone, somewhere would recognize her, either as Marysia Gerda or Miriam Gefaell. Descendants of watchmaker Gefaell, born 1800, who settled in London and those with roots in Vienna responded online. Although this London contact has yet to bear fruit, descendants of a Spanish Gefaell family who also contacted her, a family with roots in Vienna, may possibly be related. Vienna’s Jewish Community Archives revealed that their ancestor, a Moritz Mozes Gefaell originally came from Lwow in the mid 19th century. This lead holds promise. According to the 1929 Lwow Business Directory, another Maurycy (Polish for Moritz) Gefaell was living at 4 Zybliewiecka St. in Lwow, David’s home. Could Maurycy be David’s son? In the meantime, Miriam, receiving her birth certificate from the Polish State Archives, learned that her father, whom she knew as Bronislaw, was also called Benjamin. Could this be the same Benjamin who lived with Maurycy? Could they be brothers? Hoping to find more clues, Miriam began poring through the letters from Europe that her Aunt Lonia had saved. There she discovered something that, somehow, she had always known: her mother and father had divorced. A copy of her parents’ marriage register surprised her further. David and Miriam Gefaell were the groom’s parents. Sound familiar? Miriam then sifted through the millions of International Tracing Service (ITS) index cards archived at Jerusalem’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. Two cards stood out. One noted that her uncle, Maurycy, son of David and Maria Gefaell, born in Tarnopol, was arrested in 1941. The other is a plea from Eugenia Gefaell of Lodz,Poland, for information about her father Maurycy, followed by her address and the date. This survivor was alive and well as late as 1967. Had Miriam found a living relative? Indeed, data from the Jewish Records Indexing-Poland at http://www.jewishgen.org did confirm that David and Maria Gefaell of Tarnopol had at least six children, among them Moritz and Benjamin. So Maurycy was Miriam’s uncle—and Eugenia her first cousin. Though decades have passed since Eugenia filed her request, Miriam is still trying to locate her. In Judaism, personal names hold great significance. Miriam, through her research, discovered that she had been named according to tradition, for her paternal grandmother. Then something very strange happened. A newborn grandson, for no apparent reason, was named Ben, a variant of Benjamin. Three days later, Miriam discovered that her father’s Hebrew name was Benjamin. Inexplicably, the baby had been named for her father. Miriam’s circle, stretching from Poland to Israel, had drawn to a close.
DO YOU RECOGNIZE MIRIAM– OR HER STORY?
Want to learn more?
The Missing Identity Project offers profiles and photos of children who, like Miriam, lost their identities during the Holocaust, along with descriptions of lost children sought.
The JewishGen Holocaust Global Registry is an interactive database for people seeking Holocaust survivors, survivors seeking family members, and child survivors seeking clues to their lost identities.