Today is Yom HaShoa. While this day, and the study of the Holocaust in general, has always been meaningful to me, it has even more meaning today.
Many of you may remember that last year on Yom HaShoa, I met my neighbor, a Holocaust survivor from the Marmarosher region of Hungary/Romania.
We had brought her a banana bread to be neighborly, but quickly discovered that we are more than just neighbors. Her late husband was a distant cousin of mine.
Over the last year, my neighbor has become a “tante” to my children. Visiting with her is my favorite part of Shabbat afternoon. She is an absolute treasure.
And she is a gateway. A gateway to dozens of relatives I have in Cleveland that I never even knew about!
Let me step back and explain: My parents are Clevelanders. They were both born and raised here; I was even born in Cleveland, although we moved away when I was not quite a year old and only came back a few times before my grandparents eventually left the city as well.
I often heard stories about my great grandmother, Esther, for whom I am named. She and her husband Benjamin (Benny), along with their daughter — my grandmother Adeline — moved to this country before the second World War.
(This is Esther, Adeline and her younger brother Sidney.)
Since neither set of my grandparents, nor any of my great-grandparents, lived in Europe during the War, Holocaust stories have always felt once removed to me. I went to hear survivors’ testimonies and of course read Night as a child. But unlike many of my friends growing up, I didn’t have a bubby with an accent and a harrowing story of survival.
When my husband and I decided to move to Cleveland two years ago, it was clear we would daven at Green Road Synagogue. This was, in large part, pragmatic. Green Road is the largest modern Orthodox shul in our area, where most of my kids’ school friends daven.
But part of picking Green Road as our shul went deeper than pragmatism — deeper than I ever could have realized.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a group of immigrants from the Marmaresher region of Hungary/Romania founded a self-help society in Cleveland. As more immigrants came, the society grew in size and function. It was officially called the Anshe Marmaresher Congregation (although everyone just referred to it as the Marmaresher Jewish Center).
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Holocaust survivors — many of them also Marmaresher — immigrated to Cleveland, the shul adopted and absorbed them. It became their new home — their new family.
Then in the early 1970s, that community moved to its current building on Green Road — and was renamed Green Road Synagogue.
Here is a picture from the 1972 hachnasat sefer Torah ceremony. (Sorry about the flash spot in the middle.)
Do you see the man in the front left of this photographer? Clapping his hands, with glasses on? That is my Poppy, Benjamin Katz.
While I never attended this shul as a child, davening here as an adult feels a little bit like a homecoming. Like it connects me to my great grandparents.
When we first came to town, I checked out all the memorial plaques, certain I’d see something with my great grandparents’ names on it. After all, I’d heard all these stories about what ba’alei batim they were. Benny was a carpenter, who built shtenders for the shul. Esther cooked for the kiddushes and hosted the annual picnic.
But I didn’t see any signs with the name Katz on it — and so began to think that perhaps family lore was a bit exaggerated.
Then a few months later I met my dear neighbor with a banana bread, and she shared with me the gift that I have “a ton” of family in town.
My father has just one brother. My mother is an only child. So, it couldn’t be, I told my neighbor, that I had family here I didn’t know about – let alone a ton.
But indeed, she was so right. My great grandmother’s maiden name (which somehow I never knew) was Simon. All those Katz plaques I was looking for were there. Only in the name Simon!
Esther was the oldest of ten children. She and two of her brothers had moved to the United States with their families before the war.
Her father died before the war; but her mother, four of her siblings, their spouses and children, all died in Auschwitz.
The picture at the top of this post is of my grandmother’s family in Europe. The fair little girl in the middle was my Grandma. She is surrounded by many of her cousins and aunts and uncles — a last photo before she moved to America.
Adeline grew up safe in Cleveland; but most of the souls in this picture did not survive the Nazi Holocaust.
After the war, two of Esther’s siblings who survived moved to Cleveland, along with three nieces, whose mother, Zeisel – Esther’s next closest in age sister – was murdered in Auschwitz.
These siblings and nieces, together with the two brothers who came before the war, created a legacy in Cleveland. A Simon Legacy.
There are tens of Simon children, grandchildren and great grandchildren living today in Cleveland. (Some have left town, but more have stayed. Or come back – like us!)
These precious souls are my third and fourth cousins. Over the last year, I have met and connected with many of them; others I am still trying to track down. (It’s kind of weird to just call someone out of the blue and say, “Hey, I’m your cousin!”)
One of these descendants is a teacher at my children’s school; two families have kids in school with my kids. In fact, one of Esther’s great, great nieces is in my son’s 4th grade class.
With only two first cousins, an uncle and an aunt, I always grew up feeling somewhat rootless. So these connections — even the ones I haven’t made yet because I’m too shy to call them — are all the more precious to me.
I feel a tremendous sense of honor bringing my children — five generations later — to the shul that my great grandparents helped to create. The shul that became like family for the orphans, widowers and bereaved parents of a generation we must never forget.
Today, on Yom HaShoa, I will be honoring my Bubby Esther’s beloved mother, her sisters and brothers, and her nieces and nephews who were murdered by the Nazis. And I will be thanking Hashem for the connections I have made — and hope to continue to make — with those who survived.