I am the family historian. Since very little information was shared with my generation about our family history prior to the family’s arrival in New York, I seek out information from anywhere I can find it. Every tiny piece of information I find is a treasured piece of the puzzle of my family history.
Irmgard Jurkovich is a woman who lives in my father’s hometown of Kittsee, Austria. Although not Jewish herself, she has an archive in her home dedicated to the fate of the last Jews of Kittsee and has provided me with a wealth of information about the trials and tribulations that my family endured just prior to World War II until they managed to escape from Europe. I am truly grateful for all she has done to help me pull together many of the pieces of my family history.
My family and their community of Kittsee were expelled from their homes and eventually placed on a rat-infested barge, where they lived precarious lives under Nazi control for several months. The group was then transferred to a detention camp where they were confined until they were able to immigrate to other countries. Irmgard put me in contact with several survivors of the barge and their descendants.
My brother and I went to visit Yitzchak Roth. Yitzchak was not from Kittsee, but rather from Gols, a nearby village whose residents were also expelled and placed on the same barge as the Jews of Kittsee. Yitzchak showed us a photo of the barge that we had never seen. His hand shook as he showed us an old fork and ceramic pitcher from his kitchen. He held the utensils as if they were worth their weight in gold and explained that they came from his home in Europe. He also showed us photos of himself and his grandsons together with the President of Austria at a ceremony during which the Austrian nation asked forgiveness of the Jews who were expelled. I left my phone number with him in case he would want to contact me in the future.
A short while later, I got a phone from the Yitzchak’s son, Ofer. Apparently, Ofer is on a similar quest to learn about his roots. He found my phone number lying on his father’s kitchen table and immediately reached out to me. He invited me to meet him at the Zionist Archives in Yerushalayim, where he was planning to search for information about a relative whose fate was unknown. Ofer and I met at the archives and shared the information that we each had. Ofer was very touched when he saw a photo he had never seen of the leaders of the community of Kittsee sitting together while on the barge. Among those sitting in the photo were both of our grandfathers. Ofer had difficulty containing his excitement and practically had to cover his mouth in order to maintain the quiet expected in a library.
As Ofer and I spoke, we realized that members of our families had shared the same fate in yet another incident involving a boat. My grandmother’s sister and brother-in-law were traveling on an illegal transport heading toward Palestine in 1939. Unfortunately, the boat got stuck on the Danube River, which had frozen over. The approximately 1200 passengers on board were placed in a detention camp in Yugoslavia and waited to be able to immigrate to Palestine. A boat was sent for them but signals crossed and sadly, they were never rescued. In 1941, Hitler invaded Yugoslavia and it became impossible to get the Jews out. Tragically, they were brutally murdered. Ofer’s relatives had been on that same boat. He dedicated a park in memory of the Jews who were exterminated in Yugoslavia and invited me to the ceremony, which was very moving.
I got in touch with some of the other barge survivors and their descendants, who were thrilled to be in contact with others who shared the same experience. I decided to organize a gathering so that we could all meet in person. The best way I can describe the reunion was that it was loud! There were only nine people in the room but they were all very excited to be there. Everyone attempted to share his or her knowledge and memories by shouting louder than the others who were trying to do the same. The charge in the room was palpable. The group did eventually quiet down and listen during one especially touching moment. Eli*, the host, who did not wear a kippah, walked over to his curio cabinet. Out of respect, he put a handkerchief on his head as he opened the door and pulled an old and tattered Chumash off the shelf. He explained that someone had shipped some old seforim from Austria to Israel. Somehow, this Chumash ended up in his very own neighborhood. A friend recognized Eli’s name on the inside cover when he happened to pick up the Chumash, and called to tell Eli what he had found. Eli was astounded when he found himself holding the Chumash that he had used as a child in cheder all those years earlier, back in Kittsee. The personal holy relic of the past had somehow followed him all the way to Petach Tikvah.
There was something very special about being in the room with people who were basically strangers, yet knew exactly what my family had been through during those dark days in Europe. Baruch Hashem, our families survived - or none of us would be here today to talk about it. We were joined by our common history, as well as our common destiny.