Column: Best find

When you are at a birthday party and tell people you are into genealogy, the first question you often get is “How far back were you able to go?” If they haven’t lost all interest after hearing your stories about tracing some lines to the Middle Ages and getting stuck on some illegitimate children in the 19th century on other lines, a second question sometimes follows: “What is your best find?”

My best find isn’t even about my own family. I’ve uncovered wonderful stories, but nothing life-changing. But my research did change things for my friend Chawwa Wijnberg.


Monument at former transit camp Westerbork. Credits: Wikimedia Commons

In April 2010, a commemoration was held in honor of the liberation of Westerbork, a Nazi transit camp, then 65 years ago. Selma Wijnberg, the only Dutch person to survive concentration camp Sobibor, would be present for the event. She had returned to the Netherlands after the war but was expelled for having married a Pole and went to the United States. This would be the first time she returned to the Netherlands.

I wondered if Selma and Chawwa were related and tried to find the names of Selma’s parents in a search engine. I located an interview with Selma in which she describes how her parents ran a hotel in Zwolle. In the online collection of family advertisements at  the Central Bureau for Genealogy I found two ads about a Wijnberg family, who ran a hotel by that name. They had to be Selma’s parents. Thanks to Genlias [now WieWasWie], it was not hard to find the link: Selma was a first cousin of Chawwa’s father.

I asked Chawwa’s wife Marianne if they knew that Chawwa’s first cousin once removed was going to be in the Netherlands next week. “She’s no relation, Chawwa’s entire family on her father’s side was murdered,” was the reply I got. I got goose bumps when I realized what that meant. I carefully explained why I thought that this is indeed a cousin. This was too important, I could not be wrong. Marianne agreed with my findings and told Chawwa.

That same night Chawwa made an international phone call and talked to Selma. My conclusion was correct. They made an appointment and met each other a week later. Even Selma’s grandchildren were there. Chawwa found an entire family, 65 years after she thought that everyone had been murdered.

Chawwa, a poet, wrote about it in her own column:

Ik heb al dagen het gevoel van een kind, dat ik al een heleboel dagen achter elkaar jarig ben. Selma is familie. Selma heeft Sobibor overleefd. Selma heeft mijn grootvader ooit een keer ontmoet. Hij was aardig. Dus niet meer alleen: mijn grootvader werd doodgeslagen in Vught. Hij was aardig. Er is een verschuiving in mijn hoofd. Ik had een grootvader. Hij was aardig.

For days I’ve felt like a child who has many birthdays in a row. Selma is family. Selma survived Sobibor. Selma met my grandfather once. He was nice. Not just: my grandfather was beaten to death in Vught. He was nice. A shift takes place inside my head. I had a grandfather. He was nice.

This column first appeared in Genealogie, the quarterly magazine of the Central Bureau for Genealogy, in December 2012.
About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink, CG®, QG™ is a professional genealogist in the Netherlands. She holds the Certified Genealogist credential from the Board for Certification of Genealogists and has a post-graduate diploma in Family and Local History from the University of Dundee. She has been doing genealogy for over 30 years and helps people from across the world find their ancestors in the Netherlands. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.


  1. Te Stortelder says

    what a wonderfull story, Yvette!!!

  2. Keith Kooistra says

    Amazing story! Gives me chills. Excellent work!

    My best find was identifying the true name and birth place of my great-grandfather, whose name was terribly misspelled coming to America. For 100 years no one in the family knew our true roots until now!

  3. I enjoy finding myself related to well-known people. Which find is the “best” depends on what you think of them, I suppose!

    Recently I learned of a prominent scientist in the mid-20th century who was an early expert in continental drift. He was featured in a TV show and they said he was from Iowa. Since his name was Heezen–a name common in my mother’s hometown of Muscatine, Iowa– my ears pricked up and with very little effort I was able to add him to my tree. That always feels so good.

    But your story is awesome! To make such a difference in people’s lives!

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