Discovering Family History Magazine • 2009
As a teenager in Israel,Pnina had fleeting memories of Polish family, Christian holidays, dark wood church pews and a shimmering golden altar. She also recalled living in a children’s institution, and being introduced to her parents as Basia. Though only six years old then, she remembers wondering, “Why must I be introduced to my own parents?”
The Himmels immediately renamed Basia Paulina. But only years later, in Israel, did Paulina, now called Pnina, learn that she had been adopted. Each time Pnina broached her mysterious past, however, her warm and loving parents responded with vague explanations. Finally she “kept all those memories in a secret drawer” of her heart.
Twenty years later, while reading about an Otwock,
Poland postwar Jewish orphanage, those memories came flooding back. Indeed, when she located their list of orphans, a name she recalled, Barbara Rebhun, jumped out at her. But beside it, in parentheses, appeared another surname, Kaczmarek. To Pnina, all was clear. Her real parents, the Rebhuns, had obviously entrusted her to the Kaczmareks, who brought her to the orphanage.
SEEKING BARBARA REBHUN (KACZMAREK)
In pre-Internet days, genealogical searches were often slow and costly. Pnina first wrote the Warsaw Jewish Historical Institute, Poland’s largest collection of Jewish documents, books, and objects (found online today at www.jewishinstitute.org.pl) for additional information. Archivists found receipt of letter from F. Kaczmarek of Sierakow, Poland to the Warsaw Jewish Committee regarding Barbara Rebhun—but not the letter itself. By a miracle, the first of many, Pnina later uncovered it herself in a dusty JHI cardboard carton.
Kaczmarek writes that in 1944, a Red Cross worker found a two-and-a-half year old Jewish girl abandoned in a train station in Milanowek, near Warsaw. She called herself Barbara Rebhun. Kaczmarek, a devout Catholic, reports raising the child ever since. “Now with the war over,” he asks, “what next?”
Though so many years had passed, Pnina located her step-brother, Kaczmarek’s son Bogdan. At their emotional reunion, Bogdan gave Pnina photographs of herself as a toddler, the first time she had seen herself so young. He also related that, after the war, an emissary from the Jewish Committee had taken her away to Otwock.
SEEKING BARBARA REBHUN
Convinced that her surname was Rebhun, Pnina then contacted Rebhuns around the world. Though the BBC, CNN, and the international press featured her quest too, she initially received no responses. Then the Munich Red Cross relayed a reply from Wolfgang Rebhun, who was searching for his little sister, Baschka (Barbara in German). Pnina flew toGermany to meet him—and hopefully, learn her past.
She was not disappointed. Just before the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Wolfgang recalled, a young Jewish couple, possibly freedom fighters, had convinced a German soldier to smuggle their daughter out of the ghetto. The nine month old had arrived in a white baby carriage, with a note draped around her neck reading Barbara Wenglinski. The soldier’s girlfriend, Sonia Spyra, passed the baby on to Charlotta Rebhun, Wolfgang’s mother, for safekeeping. After the 1944 Polish Uprising, however, the Rebhuns were separated. Charlotta was sent to work, Wolfgang sent to Mauthausen, and Baschka taken away.
Then Wolfgang offered Pnina two priceless gifts. The first was a photograph of Baby Baschka in Mama “Lotta’s” loving arms. The second was her parents’ parting words. “If we do not return, contact our relatives in America.”
For the first time, Pnina had met someone who could describe her parents. But only Charlotta, who had been killed in 1945, had known their names.
SEEKING HER PARENTS
Following a special Israeli Television series about Holocaust children with missing identities, Pnina joined Missing Identity at http://missing-identity.net/mi/content/view/22/26/ .This site seeks information about children who, during the Holocaust, hid in orphanages or monasteries, with friends or strangers; who survived ghettoes, concentration camps, or on their own; who lost not only their entire families, but also their original identities. Guided by Missing Identity researcher Eva Floersheim, Pnina began exploring a variety of online sources.
First they sought more information about her parents. Because Jews from a very wide area were herded into the Warsaw Ghetto, however, it was impossible to guess their origins. In addition, without knowing their names, there was no way to search
www.ancestry.com , www.familysearch.org , or any other surname-driven genealogical Internet site.
Nor was it possible to search The Central Database of Shoah (Holocaust) Victims’ Names, the world’s single largest computerized database of Holocaust victims, located atwww.yadvashem.org . Even Pnina’s online request to www.its-arolsen.org, an organization that documents the fate of victims of Nazi persecution, proved disappointing. Regarding her mother, for example, they replied, “In order for us to be able to make a check of our records …. we still need her name and first name as well as her exact place of birth.”
In lieu of hard facts, Pnina also wondered about other possibilities. If the German soldier had married his sweetheart Sonia Spyra and they were still alive, might either remember her parents’ names? Might one of the few Warsaw Ghetto survivors remember the handsome young couple with the baby daughter? To find out, Pnina not only met with survivors personally, but also pored over their testimonies, memoirs, photographs, documents, and memorial volumes both at the Yad VaShem Library and at Israel’s Ghetto Fighter’s Museum, located at
http://gfh.org.il/en . /
All these efforts, however, were in vain.
Recently, Pnina discovered that Charlotte Rebhun’s brother, living in the US, had saved letters she ahd written to him during the 1940s. However, they didn’t describe Charlotta’s courageous wartime activity, or mention Sonia Spyra, a German soldier, a Jewish couple, or a baby.
On the chance that her name was actually Barbara Wenglinski, Pnina also explored the massive Jewish Records Indexing- Poland database which, hosted by www.jewishgen.org, contains microfilmed Latter Day Saints, Polish State Archives, and census records; military and passport lists; cemetery files, and legal announcements. There she came across a Polish Wenglinski whose young daughters had disappeared at the beginning of the war. Did he will their identity papers to Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto? Is this how Pnina became Barbara Wenglinski?
Today, more than sixty years after the Holocaust, Pnina is not alone. Hundreds of child survivors who lived by losing their identities are still searching for themselves. Some hope to find the most basic information– their real names, their birth dates, their birthplaces, and the names of their parents. Others, like Pnina, hope to find all this and more. They seek living relatives.
Unfortunately, without knowing her relatives’ surnames (which along the way, could have been shortened or Americanized), Pnina has no hope of tracing them.
Still, hoping that someone will recognize her story, Pnina submitted entries under all her names to The JewishGen Holocaust Global Registry. Located atwww.jewishgen.org/Registry/ , this interactive database attempts to reunite Holocaust survivors with friends and family, and aid child survivors seeking their identities. Since even the smallest detail or the haziest memory may yield results, researchers can search by any word at all. In the event of a “hit,” researcher and submitter are easily connected.
Pnina also registered at www.allgenerations.org, a site that, besides exploring Holocaust-related topics, maintains an international email network with a searchable online archive of Holocaust survivors and their descendants. All Generations, to increase the chance of receiving responses, forwards select search requests to the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, an umbrella organization of North American survivor groups, located at
Realizing that her best chance for recognition is probably through her photographs, Pnina submitted a selection to Lost and Found Photos, located athttp://photosdie.typepad.com .
Shortly she plans to submit them to the online photo archives at both Yad VaShem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, located, respectively at www.yadvashem.org and www.ushmm.org
One and a half million Jewish children perished during the Holocaust. Most of those who survived owe their lives to non-Jews who through their noble actions, endangered their own families with discovery and death. To convey her deep gratitude, Pnina has documented the extraordinary courage of those who saved her. Charlotta Rebhun and Frantisak Keczmarek, through her testimony, have been recognized posthumously as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad VaShem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, located in Jerusalem, Israel. There is no greater honor.
That Pnina survived the Holocaust is a miracle. That she was able to trace her survival through those perilous years is another. So Pnina continues to hope.
She hopes that her parents, before the walls of the Ghetto closed tight around them, announced her birth far and wide.
She hopes that someone somewhere treasures the same picture she treasures, Baschka in a white carriage. She hopes they are wondering if little Baschka survived.
Above all, she hopes that today, with so many exploring their roots through the Internet, her family is searching for her.
She still wonders, “Who am I and what’s my name?”
Want to learn more?
The Missing Identity Project offers profiles and photos of children who, like Pnina, 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.