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Reporter’s Notebook: Discovering my family 75 years after the Holocaust

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But, there were two family members whose fate eluded me throughout the many years of searching for my family’s past: Judel and Basia Chernikov – my great-grandfather’s youngest brother and wife 

By ILANIT CHERNICK

It was a Tuesday night. Close to midnight. There were tears streaming down my face. After almost 10 years of searching, I’d found the family that my entire family believed dead for over 75 years.

It all started with a trip to Poland in 2010 while on my gap year. After returning, I had a revelation. I knew everything there was to know about my mom’s family but knew nothing of my dad’s side of the family. 

I called my dad and he too didn’t know much about his father’s family. My grandfather always seemed angry and my father said that all that he would say is that our family was from Lithuania and wouldn’t speak anymore about it.

And so my journey to discovering my family’s past began. My father always said that he thought the family had been affected by the Shoah deeply but wasn’t sure of the extent because nobody ever spoke about their past. 

So for years, I pieced together what was the puzzle of my family’s history and started to discover the dark and arduous events they had endured during the Holocaust.

But, there were two family members whose fate eluded me throughout the many years of searching: Judel and Basia Chernikov – my great-grandfather’s youngest brother and wife. 

So two years ago, on Yom HaShoah, I wrote a piece about how I’d been searching for years to find out what happened to my great-uncle Judel (Yehuda) and great-aunt Basia and whether or not they had actually survived the Holocaust.

Up until then, we believed my father’s entire family, originally known as the Chernikovs from a tiny shtetl called Shirwint, had been murdered in the Pivonija Forest massacre along with thousands upon thousands of Lithuanian Jews. From everything we were able to piece together, we believed the only branch to have escaped to South Africa some years before was my great-grandfather Shimon, his wife and children. His parents, aunts, uncles and siblings including Judel had remained in Lithuania.

There were many conflicting records about Judel (Yehuda) and Basia, some saying they lived and others saying they died, and no confirmation of anything after 1945.

All I knew is that they had been on the last train out of the Kovno Ghetto on July 8, 1944, just before it was liquidated and from there the trail went cold aside of an arrival record that Judel had been sent to Dachau.

I had many visits with Yad Vashem historians and was shown records of my family, which I never knew existed. There was even a closed case from the International Tracing Service that had been opened in 1945 by great-grandfather who too was searching for Judel. It was later closed in 1950 with the words UNSOLVED stamped across it. Eventually, they told me not to get my hopes up, other Holocaust experts said the same.

They told me Judel had either died in Kaufering, a subcamp of Dachau, in early 1945 or had somehow perished like many others after the camp was liberated or perhaps, if disease and hunger hadn’t taken him, had been murdered after returning to Lithuania while searching for the rest of the family, which they said often happened. It was then that I almost gave up hope.

In a last-ditch effort to find out information, I thought: “Hey I’m a journalist, let me write something about it for Yom HaShoah and maybe just maybe someone will know something.”

In the month that followed, which included several false starts, tip-offs and some help and encouragement from friends, I finally got a real lead. 

On that fateful Tuesday night, I came across a Facebook post by someone named Lior Chernikov. He had written a piece for Yom HaShoah 2019 and in it, he mentioned that his grandparents, Yehuda (the Hebrew version of Judel) and Basia, were the only survivors of the Chernikov family line.

His family believed just as mine had, that everyone had been murdered in the Holocaust. I sat looking at the post in shock. Not only was it close to midnight. It was the night before my best friend’s wedding. And I sat and sat and sat, tears streaming down my face until finally, I wrote him a message.

Fingers trembling, I messaged to ask if he knew anything about the family I’d been searching for for so long. It was late and I hoped he would see the message. The next morning, I got my reply.

With tears of joy and an explosion of emotion, he confirmed that we are family. That Judel and Basia were his grandparents.

The mystery was solved. 75 years later, we finally found each other and reunited in Israel. To this day, I still get emotional when I think of the journey we took, and that those before us took, to find each other, and to find out the truth.

We spoke for some time and he told me that Judel and Basia had lost two sons in the Holocaust. That they later found each other in a displacement camp near Munich, Germany, and started rebuilding their family immediately with their first child following the war being born in 1946 in the DP camp. They went back to Lithuania, and then in 1964, defying Soviet rule, the family including Lior’s father made Aliya as Refuseniks and settled in Hadera.

Lior sent me photographs of my family in Lithuania before and after the Shoah, and a few after they had made Aliya to Israel. He even sent me a picture of my great-grandfather Shimon – he strikingly looks like my dad. To this day, we have no idea how Judel saved those pictures.

So, today, as we mark Yom HaShoah, I choose to tell you about the great pain of losing most of my family in this terrible war, but I also choose to tell you about the great victory of my great-uncle Judel and my great-aunt Basia, how they chose life and how 75 years later, I gained a new family and discovered an entire archive of my family history I knew nothing about.

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