They Died During the Holocaust

Last year I wrote about Dad’s mysterious grandfather, Leon. I am happy to report that I have made a lot of headway regarding what happened to him and his family thanks to a cousin who contacted me after locating Dad’s family tree on

I learned that Grandpa Leon was the youngest of at least four children. Two of his siblings as well as their spouses and children all died during the Holocaust, presumably in the gas chambers. A brother, David, died in what Dad’s cousin referred to as “hand-to-hand combat with the Nazis.” There is so much tragedy in Dad’s family.

Dad knew his grandmother—a woman named Anna Schussheim. She died when he was a young boy and lived not far from his family in New York. Anna and Leo were divorced sometime after 1940 and he was never part of the family after that.

According to Dad’s new relative, Leo remarried and Leo’s death certificate (Yes, girls, I collect death certificates!) stated that he remarried a woman named Manya. So not only did he have an elusive grandfather, he also had a secret step-grandmother.

A mysterious fact regarding Leon is that his last name, Schindler, was the maiden name of his mother. Why did he not take the name of his father like his other four siblings? Perhaps we will never know, or maybe Dad’s cousin will have an answer one day.

Little by little I am knocking down his family brick walls.

Check out the testimony of Dad’s great uncle regarding what happened to his daughter Sofia.

Returning Those Pictures Home

Last year when I drove to New Jersey, I took the opportunity to check out the storage unit, which was filled with  boxes placed there after the sale of Grandma’s house. Some contained familiar dishes, glasses, holiday decorations, and lots of old photos. You all know which boxes I grabbed.

I spent a lot of time after that trip making amateur-ish attempts to market my book, so I had hardly looked at the contents.  In March, I had my hip surgery, so suddenly, I had lots of time on my hands to really examine those old albums. Many are falling apart, so I am hoping to remove many of those photos and place them in a new one in time for my July visit.

There is one album in particular that I have been having a lot of fun viewing, because it contains labeled photos of her World War II pen pals. How sweet! Since most are just random people rather than family, I decided it would be fun to return them to the men in the photos or their relatives. They would be more meaningful to them than to me or Grandma.

Using the tools I use to build my family tree, I set to work. If the person was deceased (which I could find using the Social Security Death Records on, I usually was able to find an obituary, which almost always listed the surviving family. Most were on Facebook, and when I reached out to them and explained that I possessed wartime photos of their father/grandfather/brother, all wanted the originals. No one asked how I found them, which I thought was especially interesting, particularly when the names did not even match.

The Boonton Facebook page—You Just Might be a Boonton-ite If…—was very helpful in locating family members. Six matches were the direct result of that page.

One match was a daughter of Grandma’s pen pal, who told me that my cousin Billy was her seventh-grade boyfriend.

Another picture was sent to the daughter of Grandma’s eighth-grade boyfriend. She was thirteen and he was fifteen. His daughter had never seen any pictures of her dad and that age. He grew up to be a brilliant man who has been honored on the Boonton High Hall of Fame. Grandma recalled that Uncle Rich didn’t like him because he was so smart.

A second album contained mostly family members . I found a living first cousin of Grandma, whose parents died when he was very young. I was contacted by his daughter on Facebook after posting a note to his wife. When I initially sent the digital pictures, she showed them to him and she told me that “He is sitting there crying with emotion.”

Apparently he had a massive stroke, so I was told that “He just gets very emotional now and he is touched someone remembers him.” Grandma enjoyed hearing about her long-lost cousin, and she shared a few memories of visiting him after his parents divorced.

The album from Grandma and Grandpa’s courtship through their return from their honeymoon contained the photo of a couple and their one-year old daughter, who had recently died. Her obituary lead me to her sister, who informed me that her dad was still alive and living not far from Grandma.

He and his wife met Grandma and Grandpa in Texas when they both were called back to service during the Korean War. Joe is 93 now, and in great shape. I told him where Grandma was living, and one day, he and his daughter paid Grandma a surprise visit. Although Aunt Ar worried that Grandma would not recognize him, that was not the case. Grandma told me that Joe hadn’t changed much—“he has the same nose.” Joe told his daughter the exact same thing about Grandma. We both thought that was very cute.

So about once a week, I return to those old albums looking for more matches. I found two more this week! It is a win-win project because I am cleaning up my house and, at the same time, making someone happy in the process.

Thanks for the Help and Encouragement

I would like to thank all of you for putting up with me during the last seven years while I wrote the book about Grandpa. You all had to tolerate me, particularly Dad, while I disappeared into my dark hole of writing and researching while I tried to uncover the details of Grandpa’s life—all stuff I could have learned if only I had sat down and really talked to him years ago.

If I could roll back time, I would ask him how he and his siblings felt when they learned they were moving from New Jersey to Russia. You were unhappy when we moved to North Carolina, so I am sure that gives you an idea how they felt—just so, so much worse.

“Tell me about the trip,” I would ask, now knowing that they traveled on a luxury liner from New York to London.  Then I would ask about the remainder of the trip as they journeyed on a small Finish steamer stopping first at Copenhagen and then Helsinki.

I want to know exactly what the living conditions were like in that apartment that they shared with a Communist party member. I am interested in knowing precisely what it was like to be an American boy growing up in the Soviet Union.

Then I would question him about the long ride home across the Soviet Union on that train. What did he eat, and who did he hang out with on the Trans-Siberian Railway? Was he scared to be returning to New Jersey alone—only twenty-two years old–during a time when much of the world was at war?

I would wrap up the conversation inquiring about all those years trying to get the rest of his family home, and ask if he really spoke with the Secretary of State on the phone. It was clear from the letters I found at the National Archives that Secretary Hull knew Grandpa.

So many unanswered questions that I never asked but spoke about in my book. I wrote it from Grandpa’s perspective to try to put you all in his shoes. I wish he could read it and tell me if I did a good job telling his story.

Now it’s done. It’s out there and I feel proud, relieved, and fearful. It is like the naked dream, because while my book was sitting on my computer, I was safe. Now my words are exposed and that is a scary feeling, but I have no regrets.

I am grateful to your suggestions on what changes to make on each revision. You encouraged me when I had doubts about continuing. You all have busy lives, which makes me all the more thankful for your help.

So it’s available on Kindle now and in paperback tomorrow. (Don’t worry. I will give you each a copy) In a month or so, it will be available online at other booksellers such as Barnes and Noble and Books a Million.

Do Svidanya Dad- The Story of an American Family Trapped in the USSR

The End!