As much as I hate to admit it, this journey began with the death of my Grandfather, Harry Silberman in December 1985.  I wish it had begun years earlier but my grandfather was always reluctant to answer the questions about his family and my grandmother’s ( she had died in 1956).  After his death, we discovered a treasure trove of family information in boxes in his apartment.  The problem with the huge number of photos and fragments of letters and other information, was that they were completely without context.  On the other hand, there was so much information that somehow, there had to be a way to make sense of it…

Although on a romantic level, there is much to be said for pawing through letters that other people sent years earlier, the reality of it is, that when the letters involve people you know, sometimes you find out too much, like the letters between my dad and his  parents.  Most of the letters we found, though, left us puzzled – there were so many languages represented – Yiddish, Hebrew, German,  Polish, Ukrainian among others.  My dad set to work attempting to translate the German and Yiddish letters.  I had a Polish secretary and asked her to translate them for me.

The Polish letters had been sent by my grandmother, Blima Grass Silberman, to her younger brother, Samuel, after the Shoah.  Unfortunately they never reached him – they were all stamped “undeliverable” – which we  thought meant he had died in the Shoah and that she was writing to someone she mistakenly thought was alive.  It turned out the mistake was ours.  Samuel, his wife Diana and their son Eugene had survived – and they were the only members of their family who had.  Samuel’s mother, my great-grandmother, Chana, along with six of her children: Clara, Mundek, Oskar, Pepa, Rachel, Sara and their spouses and children had all been murdered.  Samuel, Diana and Eugene had been relocated to Kazakhstan and returned to their pre-war dwelling after the war.  This meant they were in the Soviet sector and letters from the US were not being delivered – Samuel was sending tearful letters to his two sisters, Blima (my grandmother) and Fanny who had immigrated to Brooklyn, NY in 1921.  Blima received his letters and promptly wrote back.  Her letters were all returned.

Of course, until the Polish letters were translated, we didn’t know any of this.  When I got the translations of the letters, I was shocked and in tears.  Immediately I began to try to figure out if these people were still alive and how to find them.  Someone mentioned to me an organization in Jerusalem that had been formed after the war: the Jewish Agency’s Search Bureau for Missing Relatives, with its single staff person, Batya Unterschatz.  I quickly wrote and a few weeks later had an answer from her that 20 years earlier someone in NY had been looking for these same people and had found them at an address in Stanislawaw.  When I compared the addresses I realized that it was the same as their pre-war address, and quickly wrote.  The family had moved.  The name of the city had changed to Ivnao-Frankivsk.  The letter however was delivered!  An amazing miracle – Samuel, Diana and Eugene were all still alive.  Eugene had been married and divorced and had a grown daughter, Ella, an English professor at the University!  They responded.  24 years and countless letters and e-mails later brings us to 2009 and my trip.

I should mention that among the challenges we initially confronted were not only the issues of finding documents in languages with with we were unfamiliar, there were other problems.   We needed to be able to correctly identify the people mentioned in the letters and their relationship to us.   This meant reconciling family “meises” – stories that needed to be untangled from their truthful origins and which had taken on a life of their own.  My dad had thought that Samuel and my grandparents had stopped speaking years earlier – that they had had a falling out.  It turned out that these returned letters were at the basis of that “story” – letters unanswered, not because of arguments but because of the political situation that prevented letters from being delivered.  Another challenge was discovering who the people were who had been looking for my relatives decades earlier.  Quite coincidentally, years later, my dad began seeing a dentist who had the same surname as those people.  One day, as an aside he asked his dentist if the dentist recognized the name.  It turned out that this was the dentist’s uncle!