Internet-Genealogy Magazine • 2009
She was found wandering in a forest near Lwow, Poland (today Lviv, Ukraine). Though she too young to speak, too young to understand, the little girl bore no note pinned to her pinafore or hidden in its pockets. She arrived nameless.
Nazi occupiers had been sowing terror for at least a year. Jews were being sent to their deaths in Belzec and mass murdered in and around Lwow. Had peasants, sworn to protect the child, succumbed to fear of Nazi reprisals? Had partisans, on the eve of battle, abandoned her? Or had her parents, desperate, left her alone beneath the towering trees, hoping that somehow she might survive? Was someone watching from afar as she was taken to the nearby orphanage?
The toddler was named Subbota (Saturday, in Russian) because she was found on a Saturday. She remembers little from her orphanage years.
She cannot say if it was a religious institution, how many children were there, or if she had any friends. She cannot recall being sick, cold, or hungry. She remembers, though, that, when found, she spoke a language other than Russian. And in that language, she remembers just two words, harni kolyari.
One and a half million children perished during the Holocaust. The few that survived endured hunger, cold, disease, loneliness, and fear. Most witnessed suffering, deportations, and deaths. Some, having no alternative, lived on their own, hiding in sewers, bunkers, or far flung villages.
Others were sent into hiding. Those who found refuge in private homes, if they had Aryan features or were too young to reveal their origins, could often attend school and participate in family events. Assigned new names and histories, these
youngsters were often introduced as distant cousins, survivors of bombed cities,
or maids. Remembering all these fabrications, however, was often very stressful. Even at a tender age, hidden children knew that inquisitive neighbors, inadvertent remarks, or even a single slipup could lead to discovery and ultimately, death.
Hidden children who looked “too Jewish” or were in imminent danger were, for their own safety, sometimes cut off from daily life. Some were confined to huts, haylofts, attics, or cellars for long stretches of time, where they suffered 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 were instructed to remain motionless, lest they be heard.
Jewish children often had multiple rescuers. Some of them, stressed and fearful, agreed to take children in for short periods. Although repeated adjustments to new circumstances could prove especially traumatic, moving about was often safer for hidden children too.
Jewish children hidden in Catholic convents and monasteries quickly learned to imitate their peers, crossing themselves, praying, and taking communion. Some embraced Church regulations and traditions wholehearted, even accepting baptism. Being Christian, in their experience, was definitely preferable to being Jewish. But lying in confession could lead to deep, lasting trauma. How could they confess their lies when their whole lives were lies?
For Jewish children hidden in Catholic and Protestant orphanages, the shock of a new religion was compounded by the shock of communal living. Beyond sharing meals, classes, and toys, any one of their fellow orphans might, at any moment, discover their secret. Besides suffering hunger, lice, and cold, those who fell ill often suffered medical neglect, because they could not be openly treated. Moreover, when the Gestapo realized that orphanages were hiding Jewish children, raids became more frequent. Subbota had nothing to fear, however. No one, not even she herself, knew if she was Jewish.
As the German Army retreated from the Lwow area during the summer of 1944, Red Army soldiers advanced. One day, on bivouac near Subbota’s orphanage, a medical officer noticed Subbota’s dark hair and sad eyes. Suspecting that she was Jewish, he resolved to adopt her one day. To “introduce” her to his wife back home, he had their picture taken together. The following year, he returned and made good his promise.
Thus Subbota became Galina Gurevich, part of a warm, loving Jewish family. For the next forty-five years, she lived a normal life, studying, marrying, then raising a family. Then in 1990, when USSR opened its gates, Galina, along with nearly a million other Jews, left for Israel.
Once settled, Galina began brooding about her real identity. “As you grow old, you want to know your real name and your date of birth,” she explains, “You want to know the truth, you want the pages of your life open. Who am I? I deserve to know.” Galina’s daughter agrees. Vera, Internet-savvy and fluent in English, has become the catalyst in the search for their shared past.
Eva Floersheim at
a site that attempts to restore lost identities to child Holocaust survivors helped Vera get started. First, they crafted an online list of questions.
Who was this child? Where and when was she born? Who were her biological parents? Where and when was she found? Where was her orphanage?
Genealogists usually scour documents at hand for clues that, hopefully, will lead to further clues and discoveries. Although Galina doesn’t know her original name or circumstances of birth, she does have a birth certificate. But that and her adoption papers, both issued on August 30, 1945 are no help at all. They
feature her adopted name, Galina Gurevich. Though her adoption papers also
include names of witnesses and details about her adopted parents, by the time Galina began searching, all were long gone. Since she has no siblings either, there is no one left to ask about her past.
All Galina really has, then, are her photographs. In the one outside the orphanage with her father-to-be, she stares out with cold, sharp eyes. “You can see she was lonely,” explains Vera. “Alone.”
In the photo with her adoptive mother, Galina’s hair is cropped, and she is older.
August 1945, Lwow is scrawled on the back, in Russian. A largely undecipherable word follows, perhaps Chaikovitsy, Bjehovitsy or Sjehovits. Could this be the site of the little girl’s orphanage?
If only they could locate that orphanage and if it still existed, and if its records survived, might they include lists of staff members and orphans who might remember the girl found in the forest? Unfortunately, though Vera tried all imaginable spellings, she found no such villages in and around Lwow.
Vera then contacted the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC and the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, in Jerusalem. Their archives, together, hold the most comprehensive collections of Holocaust-related materials in the world. Their responses, identical, were disappointing: Unfortunately, without having surname and/or place of residence before WWII, we cannot check or even initiate any archival research.
Next, Vera wrote to Moscow’s Center for Holocaust Research and Education. Though they could not offer any help, they suggested that she contact both Lwow’s State Historical Archives and Warsaw’s Jewish Institute. Vera plans to do this soon.
Recently, Vera explored the Online Photo Archive of the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, keying in “orphanage and Lwow.” Though she hoped her mother might recognize her wartime refuge by sight, nothing looked familiar.
Trying all possible avenues, Vera then requested a search at the International Tracing Service’s Child Tracing Archive, located in Bad Arolsen, Germany, including copies of her mother’s photos. Vera also regularly browses the interactive online Holocaust Global Registry, located at
a central place for anyone searching for Holocaust survivors.
Not long ago, Vera also joined Jewishgen’s Ukraine and Jewish Records Indexing – Poland mailing lists, as well as its more general Discussion Group. She described her mother’s quest in all three. The response has been overwhelming. Many researchers, seeking “lost” Holocaust children themselves, have studied Galina’s photos in search of a familiar expression, a family resemblance. To facilitate Galina’s search, some good souls even include links to her personal Missing-Identity Internet site,
on their own websites.
Several researchers have suggested that Galina join The DNA Shoah (Holocaust) Project at
This organization, through advanced chromosome-based technology, aims to reveal Holocaust survivors’ deep ancestry as well as their recent genetic past. DNA databases like this hold great promise for countless families torn apart during the Holocaust.
Galina is not alone. Even today, sixty years later, relatives are still seeking relatives. Sometimes a miracle occurs. Sometimes they find one another.
Harni kolyari, the only words Galina recalls from her past, have haunted her all her life. Recently though, a complete phrase, na beze shvili harni kolyari, has
came to mind. Harni kolyari, it turns out, is Ukrainian for “beautiful colors.” The rest, unfortunately, is gibberish, perhaps a half-remembered sing-song or lullaby crooned at her cradle.
Want to learn more?
The Missing Identity Project offers profiles and photos of children who, like Galina, 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.