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.
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.