This month, I am launching a search for anything and anyone related to my maternal grandfather, Michael Berl, who died in the Holocaust. What’s worse (if that’s even possible) is how little is known about him.
There is no photo of him. I’m not sure what he did for a living. There is not even a single known relative we’ve been able to identify. My mother last saw him when she was two-years-old. She has no memory of him. It’s as if he never existed.
That he did exist was verified by birth and marriage certificates retrieved from Polish records several years ago. Michael Berl was born in Brzesko, Poland on July 9, 1909. He married Eidel (Adele) Zollman in March 1937 and the young couple moved to her hometown in Bochnia, near Krakow. They give birth to my mother in January 1940 and named her Rose.
After the Nazis sealed Bochnia’s Jews in a ghetto, Michael and Adele placed their little girl into the care of a Polish (Catholic) family in a desperate attempt to save her. She stayed with them (raised as a Catholic though she knew she was Jewish) until she was twenty-one. Like Michael, Adele did not survive the war.
After my mother reconnected with her maternal relatives and left Poland, she made several unsuccessful attempts to locate information on her father before becoming absorbed with her own new life in America, including her marriage and my arrival.
From my earliest childhood memory, I’ve always had a special relationship with the grandfather I could never know. It is as if he lives within me. I’m told that he was a storyteller and certainly my own love of story and writing binds us closely. Yet my feelings for him seem to run much deeper than that, in ways I can’t even explain.
Strangely, during the eighteen years that my mother and I worked on The Rose Temple, a book about her life story (in which Michael Berl obviously appears, even if mostly for his absence), we made some inquiries about possible relatives, and even said kaddish in the place where we learned he likely died, but we never launched a sustained genealogical search.
For my mother, coming to terms with long repressed emotions (“Why did he give me away; why didn’t come back for me”) evolved over the course of our work. For me, since I already felt his spirit within me and believed I already did know everything I needed to know about him, there was no compelling reason to undertake such an effort. And, truth be told, I did not want to be disappointed by what I might find.
Then I ran across an article by journalist Jennifer Mendelsohn (her brother, Daniel, is the author of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million) about her own family genealogical search. The article inspired me to take the steps I am taking now.
Yes, I still cling to the notion of my grandfather’s spirit living within me. And matters of spirit take center stage in the hearts of my mother, myself, and our work.
But our tradition has never discounted the value of human life on earth, struggling and seeking elevation within our material confines.
Michael Berl may be spirit now, but he was once a man— a loving husband, father, and soul whose life was inexplicably extinguished. That life deserves to be explored, to be remembered.