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My Father Was Not an Orphan After All: Building a Family Tree After the Holocaust

Oct 14, 2021 | Stories

by Sara Wenger

In 1988–89, I spent my junior year of college studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. My “History of Eastern European Jewry” professor assigned, as a final paper, a family tree written within the historical context of what we had learned during the class. I found myself severely limited because I knew only the names of my grandparents and my father’s birthplace (supposedly Łódź, Poland). I knew that my father had grown up in Hungary, after having moved there at a young age, and that he had survived Auschwitz as the sole remnant of his family.

Seeking more information, I called my father for additional details. Although he was always eager to answer my questions, I found a different voice on the other end.

“Why are you prying into my life?” he asked. “Stop asking me so many questions,” was how the conversation ended.

I do not remember exactly what I wrote. All I remember is feeling deeply disturbed at not knowing the most basic facts of my family history.

The end of the course marked the end of my year abroad and concluded with a class trip to Poland and Hungary. During a break in our tour of Auschwitz, I took the opportunity, together with my twin sister, who had also spent the year at Hebrew University, to visit the camp archives. Knowing my father’s tattoo number by heart, I submitted it to the clerk at the Auschwitz archives with the hope of obtaining some documented evidence that my father had, indeed, survived this G-d forsaken place.

The clerk produced several cards of data on my father. All the information confirmed what Dad had always told us—the city from which he was deported, the trade he made up and told the guards when he entered, and more. Much to our surprise, however, the name listed was completely and utterly different from the family name with which we had grown up and the first name by which we knew our father. The cards said Sandor Schweiger. We knew our father as Murray Kenig, which he had adapted from Moniac Koenig.

When we returned to Canada after this trip and approached our father, it immediately became clear that we had dug up a deep, dark, long-buried secret. The story he told us now was so matter-of-fact that we were sure he must be withholding information. According to our father, he had ended up in a displaced person’s camp in Germany after the war. He tried to enter British-mandated Palestine, but was refused. Desperate to leave Europe, he heard that Canada was accepting a limited number of war orphans. The guidelines stipulated that the orphan be no older than 18. Dad was already 20, but he managed to obtain illegal papers providing him with the identity of a younger survivor from Poland, which enabled him to apply to enter Canada. Early in 1948, he arrived in Canada—to a new home and a new language—with a new identity. He never told anyone his real background.

Upon our inadvertent discovery, my sister and I were sworn to secrecy. Our father implored us, “You can tell whomever you want after I die, but as long as I am alive, please don’t tell anyone!”

We could not understand the need for such secrecy. After all, the actions he had taken were entirely understandable. Nonetheless, we respected his request and kept his secret.

When my father died seven years ago [1998], genealogical research seemed beyond my grasp. I told myself that one day I would have the time to go to Hungary and research my father’s life and the lives of his family members. I thought that research could only be done there. The opportunity arose in an unexpected fashion—via the Internet and email.

A year ago [2003], I started to poke haphazardly around the Internet, armed with the most basic information on the Schweiger family (my father’s true surname) from Kiskunfelegyhaza, Hungary. I quickly found the Internet sites that became the pillars of my research. The Nevek-Klarsfeld database on Hungarian Jewry (www.neveklarsfeld.org) held a deportation record for my grandfather that revealed the maiden name of his mother!

I subscribed to the JewishGen Digest, and a fellow researcher in Salt Lake City spent much time and effort voluntarily researching for me the vital records of my family’s town in Hungary. In the span of a few weeks, I had started to build a family tree and had names of uncles, aunts and great-grandparents, none of whom previously were known to me.

With few expectations, I e-mailed a request to Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names—the repository for Pages of Testimony on Holocaust victims submitted by surviving family or friends. While I waited for the museum to mail me any Pages that may have been entered for the Schweiger family from Hungary, several family members and friends asked what I hoped to achieve by this research. One person even suggested that all I would find would be “dead people.” My answer was that I knew my father’s entire family had been murdered, but we didn’t know who they were. The least we could do as their surviving descendants, I reasoned, would be to know their names.

I was totally unprepared for what came next—an envelope from Yad Vashem with 30 Pages of Testimony. Five of these pages fit the details of my family. My grandfather and grandmother were among those persons memorialized. I scanned to the bottom of the page and saw that a nephew named Moshe Fisher living in Haifa had submitted the information. I quickly calculated that he was my father’s first cousin. Having grown up with the belief that my father was the only one of his family who had survived, I was in total and utter shock.

I frantically tried to find this individual. Having no success, I turned to a professional. Within hours she gave me the unfortunate news that Moshe Fisher was no longer alive, but she also supplied contact information for his widow. After an emotion-filled discussion with his wife, I also connected with his two daughters, my second cousins.

My research had reached a point that I never had expected in my wildest dreams, and I clearly realized the potential of the Yad Vashem database as a genealogical tool. I went to Yad Vashem several times in person in order to find more Pages. Through the Pages that I found, I directly and indirectly located cousins in Australia, Canada, Hungary, Israel, Romania and the United States. I found two women in Israel who remembered my father from grade school in their small town. One of these women even sent me a picture of their first grade class. Another woman had shared an apartment with my grandmother in the ghetto and remembered clearly her climbing into the cattle cars upon their deportation to Auschwitz.

I was on a mission, and the obsession was all-consuming, always hoping that I would find just one more piece of information. My dream was to locate a relative who actually had known my father before the war. All of the cousins I had found so far were children of the previous generation and had very little first-hand knowledge. I became overwhelmed with the intensity of the research. Every phase was filled with yet another once-in-a-lifetime finding.

I began a dialogue by e-mail with Robbie, my newly found cousin in Romania. Having only one picture of my grandfather and another of my grandmother, I asked cousin Robbie to send me any pictures he had, and I was fascinated to receive numerous scanned photos by e-mail. I froze as I scrolled down to one of the last pictures. The woman in the picture whom I was staring at on my computer screen was the same woman in the only picture that my father had of his mother. I had recently been pondering what was written on the back of that original photo. I just had it translated, and the inscription implied that it was not actually his mother. Though cousin Robbie also didn’t know who she was, the name on the back of his picture, together with my research from the LDS (Mormon) Family History Library, allowed me to identify her as an aunt. The fact that my cousin and I both had a picture of the same person in our possession and lived halfway around the world from each other dispelled any doubts as to our true relationship.

After a couple of months of researching the Schweiger family, I wanted to switch efforts to my grandmother’s side—but I did not know her maiden name. I commissioned a professional researcher in Budapest who dug through the Kiskunfelegyhaza newspapers from the few years before my father’s birth. In the June 1926 edition, he found an engagement announcement for my grandparents. Ferenc Schweiger was to be married to Rozalia Katz in Kecskemet, February 1926.

With two months of genealogical experience behind me, it didn’t take long to put my grandmother’s family together. Always having identified with my father as an orphan and an only child even before the war, it was hard to grasp the magnitude of the facts unfolding before me. My grandmother was one of nine children with between 20 and 30 aunts and uncles. Theirs had been a huge and prominent family.

I returned to Yad Vashem to find yet more Pages of Testimony of cousins. This time, however, the results were closer to what I had wanted. Alive in Budapest, Hungary, I found Istvan Katai (née Katz), my father’s first cousin. Dad apparently had spent summers with Istvan when they were children. After the deportations and the war, they never saw each other again. Istvan had assumed that his cousin did not return from Auschwitz. It was at this point that the realization hit hard. My father had died an orphan at the age of 70, never having reconnected with any of the family members I was currently locating.

As fate would have it, Istvan turned out to be an avid genealogist! On the beautiful handwritten family tree he sent me, our branch ended with my father. After corresponding with me, he was pleased to continue my father’s branch and add 15 new leaves. In addition to the tree, Istvan also sent a priceless family photograph, one that illustrates the greatness of this huge family. At the head of the table sat Uncle Aharon Katz, Chief Rabbi of Budapest, 1935.

When I was growing up, a search to find surviving relatives of my father was never discussed. Dad apparently had applied to the Red Cross after the war and came up empty-handed. It was an accepted fact that no one but him had survived. Perhaps Dad didn’t want to continue looking, for psychological reasons, or perhaps, because of his new identity, he was afraid of being sent back if his real name were discovered. It is impossible to know his reasons. What is obvious, however, is that modern technology allowed me to do in six months what my father would not have been able to achieve in 60 years. Online databases, e-mail and the Internet in general were my main tools for putting together a family about which I previously had known absolutely nothing.

Looking back on my research, the printed words of Avotaynu’s Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy ring loud in my ears:

Two major events shaped Jewish life of the past two hundred years: migration and the Holocaust. Few Jews today live where their ancestors lived a century or two ago. As a result many Jews believe they cannot trace their family roots because:

  • My family name was changed
  • No one in my family knows about the past
  • No one is left alive to tell me about my family’s past
  • All the records were destroyed in the Holocaust
  • My town was wiped off the face of the map

Every one of the myths above applied to me until just over a year ago [2003]. Having started my search with the wrong family name and country, and having no one alive to give me any direction, I succeeded in building a family tree with the names of hundreds of individuals and in making contact with new/old relatives all over the globe. The fulfillment in discovering who my descendants were, as far back as 200 years, has been an experience unparalleled in my lifetime.

Sara Wenger has been actively researching her family history since October 2003. She became interested in genealogy when she discovered that her father, a Holocaust survivor, had changed his name and identity to gain entry to Canada after the war. Her research has led her to information resources and family in Hungary, Canada, Israel, Australia, Romania and America. Her most recent research resulted in tracing her mother’s family back almost 300 years through England and originally Holland. She is Director of Administration of ATZUM Justice Works in Jerusalem and lives in Beit Shemesh, Israel, with her husband and four children.