Wolf Hall was born to a shoemaker in Lodz, Poland in 1925. He was the youngest of seven siblings. Until about six months ago, he thought he was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust.
Hall searched for his family members while living in Germany immediately after the war, but found no clues of any survivors. He married his fiancée Freida and they started their own family. Soon they moved to the Puget Sound region.
More than 65 years passed. Then, this past spring, a man in Israel contacted Hall asking strange questions about his life before the war. Hall, who is a co-founder of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center and long been involved in survivor affairs, thought little of it; such calls came often and always amounted to nothing. But this one was different.
The man on the other end of the phone was an Israeli genealogist named Zack Oryan. He was working for a woman in Tel Aviv named Rachel Vered. She had hired him to find what he could about her family’s murky roots. Instead, Oryan found Vered an uncle: Wolf Hall. And Hall finally found what he never thought he would: A sister, Esther Bielski, and a niece.
Last week, Hall, with members of his family, met Vered and her husband for the first time at Seattle Tacoma International Airport.
“Up till now I didn’t have any family in the world except my own that we started,” Hall said. “Now at least I can say that we have a family. Not too many, but some family.”
The scene had all the trappings of a family reunion: Flowers, cameras, tears, and long embraces. After six months of emails, phone calls, and Skype chats, it truly felt like one.
“It was like I was floating all the time,” said Vered. “Like it was happening to someone else, not to me.”
Tempering the emotional encounter was the one person who did not make it to the reunion: Esther. She suffers from dementia and is unable to comprehend that her brother Wolf is still alive.
Wolf Hall introduces his wife Freida to his niece, Rachel (left). (Photo: Eric Nusbaum)
Searching for roots
Esther Hauszpeigel Bielski never spoke about her experience in the war. When she became ill, her husband Aaron asked that their daughter not investigate her mother’s roots further. When he died, Vered finally felt liberated to pursue her mother’s history.
“I don’t know why,” Vered said. “I was already an old lady and yet I obeyed my father. The moment he died I felt, ‘I can do it.’“
Vered began her search at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and archives in Jerusalem, seeking not specifics, but a general idea of her mother’s roots — anything that might give her some concept of the life and the family about which her mother never spoke. The Yad Vashem database offered no leads. So a week after her father died, she and her husband Michael Vered traveled to Poland.
In Lodz they searched through old records and met with a rabbi. The rabbi introduced them to a historian in Warsaw who claimed to be working with Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to reunite family members. But the historian requested additional funds before demonstrating any signs he was making progress. Vered decided to cut ties.
Her search appeared to have stalled when a friend met Oryan at a hotel while on vacation in Tiberias. Oryan is a longtime arts and culture journalist in Israel who turned to genealogy as a way to seek out his own family history — and then found he had a knack for it.
The only pieces of information Rachel could offer were Esther’s birthplace — Lodz — and her family name, Hauszpeigel. (Hall changed his name from Hauszpeigel when he emigrated to the United States.) Oryan worked from these two facts and capitalized on the relative scarcity of the Hauszpeigel surname.
Oryan’s first step was to find all Hauszpeigels who lived in Lodz and the surrounding towns before the war using primarily JRI-Poland, an online database of over 4 million Jewish records and documents. He then built an expected family tree based on the premise that so many people sharing such an uncommon surname in such close geographic proximity were related.
Finally, Oryan cross checked his findings with every documented Yad Vashem testimonial that featured a mention of the name Hauszpeigel in or near the city of Lodz. Eventually, he came across the page written by Wolf Hall and on that page, the name of Rachel Vered’s mother Esther.
Wolf Hall looks through picture albums of his sister and his sister’s family. (Photo: Eric Nusbaum)
“I found you an uncle.”
Vered was drinking coffee with her daughter at a mall in Tel Aviv when Oryan called and asked if she was sitting down.
“I found you an uncle,” he told her.
Vered, who had only hoped to learn a little about her family history, was shocked. Her mother was 90 years old, barely holding on, and now somebody was telling her that she had a living uncle?
Vered and Hall soon had their first phone conversation The Hall family had been convinced by Oryan’s research that Vered may indeed be family. Their first phone conversation confirmed it. After a tear-filled greeting with her cousin Esther Gothelf, Hall’s daughter, Vered asked Hall her mother’s birthday. He didn’t remember, but identified the year as 1921.
Vered then asked Wolf about his father’s profession — a question she had recently asked her mother, and the only question about her life that Vered’s mother Esther, her guard having lapsed due to dementia, had ever willingly answered.
He was a shoemaker, Hall told her.
Rachel then emailed a picture taken just after the war, featuring her father, her father’s sister, and her mother. Hall identified his sister Esther immediately.
In the ensuing correspondence, Hall heard what Vered knew of her mother’s story. He learned that Esther had been married in a labor camp during the early part of the war. He learned that she was in Auschwitz at the same time as his wife Freida and was forced to work as a nurse for Dr. Joseph Mengele. He learned that she too lived in Germany immediately after the war.
The discovery came a few years too late: Just four or five years ago Esther Bielski would have been able to understand she still had a brother. She would have been able to talk to him. According to Hall, it could have happened even sooner.
Holocaust survivors in postwar Germany often lived transient lives, moving from one refugee camp to the next. Wolf and Esther could have been in the same place, or in near proximity, and never known it. Hall thinks part of the problem is that when he sought his sister in the registries, he did so under her maiden name of Hauszpeigel, not her married name Bielski.
“You could be living in the same place and not know each other,” Hall said. “After all, I saw her the last time in 1939 or 1940 and I didn’t even remember her face until they sent me pictures from ’45.”
In addition to the time they both lived in Germany, Hall said he visited Israel eight times — including for the 1981 World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. He searched for relatives at Yad Vashem.
Vered believes the effort Hall put in, both in documenting his story and in searching for his family, would have paid off if not for errors on the part of Yad Vashem. Her mother Esther, for example, was listed in their database among the missing — not the living.
“My mother gets her rent from the Germans,” Vered said. “Dead people don’t get rent. Only living people.”
Had Esther been registered properly, the connection could have happened not just years but decades sooner. She wonders how many more mistakes have been made and what they have cost.
“The tragedy is not what happened in the Holocaust, it’s the missing years,” Vered said.
At the Hall home in Bellevue, Rachel Vered shows her uncle some of his sister’s belongings. (Photo: Eric Nusbaum)
“Was she as stubborn as my father?”
After the meeting in the baggage claim, Vered and her husband were shuttled to Wolf and Freida’s Bellevue home, where they would be staying. The family mingled over lunch as any might: Adults sitting in the living room and on the patio catching up and talking business; kids watching television in another room; host and hostess offering up water, soft drinks, coffee, and tea.
“It feels blessed but it doesn’t feel as strange as I thought it would,” said Esther Gothelf, Hall and Freida’s youngest daughter. “It’s funny, everyone feels very comfortable with each other.”
The family hashed and rehashed the details of their miracle, with the help of Oryan, who came on the trip as well to film a documentary about the experience. The cousins compared their respective parents’ disciplinary techniques and discussed the family’s genetic predisposition to red hair.
“Was she as stubborn as my father?” asked Charles Hall, Wolf and Freida’s son.
“I don’t know your father, but when [Esther] said no…” Vered shook her head and smiled.
Vered also brought some of her mother’s belongings — candlesticks, glassware, a tablecloth — for her relatives to see. She shared family photos both new and old, and a clipping of the story about them that appeared in the popular Israeli newspaper Yediot Acharonot.
Vered and her husband stayed in Seattle for six days before leaving to visit his family in Florida. They toured the area, but mostly they made up for lost time. At one point Oryan, who comes off himself as a family member, played videos he had recorded of Hall’s sister Esther.
“How much can I describe it?” Hall said of the visit. “You couldn’t find a happier guy than I am…. I’ve become an uncle now.”