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Jewish World Review July 26, 2002 / 17 Menachem-Av, 5762

Lenore Skenazy

Skenazy
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Consumer Reports


Reunions that defy history


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | For 60 years, Warren Zorek assumed all 58 members of his family were murdered in the Holocaust.

Turns out he was off by one.

Ironically, Zorek spent the past dozen years volunteering at Project Search, a division of the American Red Cross that helps people just like him find out what happened to their families in World War II. But he never dared to search for his own family.

He was too busy, he says. And the forms looked long. Besides, he knew that most inquirers found their worst fears confirmed. They'd get a copy of the concentration camp log and come face to face with their dearest one's tattoo number. This would usually be followed by the numbing words, "There is no further record."

But every once in a while, Zorek saw, a miracle would occur. A sister would discover her brother had escaped to Australia. An uncle would find out his niece was living in Israel. Cousins, sobbing with joy, would be reunited. "And every time," says Zorek, "I wished it was me." Last week, it was.

Just 12 hours after he finally asked his fellow volunteer Linda Greenman to help him fill out the forms - forms that turned out to be surprisingly simple, after all - he got an E-mail from someone who recognized his name. One thing led to another, and soon a message arrived from Sao Paulo, Brazil.

It was from Zorek's cousin Werner. Alive. A grandpa now. Cousin Werner was turning 89 the next day, and Zorek had just given him his most remarkable present ever: News that the Nazis had not completely won.

As luck would have it, Werner's son was coming to New York on business, so he and Zorek met last Sunday, euphoric. "The last three weeks have been the most exciting of my life!" says Zorek, clutching his wife's hand. "I only wish I hadn't waited this long."

That is precisely the message the Red Cross is trying to impress upon anyone else unsure of what happened to their family members in World War II, Jew or gentile.

"Why are people looking?" asks volunteer Greenman. Some pray for Zorek-like luck, and an incredible 1,000 have found it. Others require records of their slave labor to qualify for war reparations. But truth be told, most are just longing for that coldest of comforts, closure.

"I got a call from an old man. His voice was quavering. He said, 'I was a little boy when we put my mother on the train and I never saw her again,'" recalls Greenman.

As a religious Jew, the caller wanted to say the special prayer recited on the anniversary of a parent's death. "I say it on the day we put her on the train," the old man continued. "But we want to know what happened to her, so for once we can say kaddish for her on the date she died."

Other calls are equally chilling: "Yesterday," says Greenman, "a woman said she had waited until her mother died to call, because her mother wouldn't talk about it. But she - this woman who called - had been subjected to Dr. Mengele's experiment as a child."

Josef Mengele was the madman who treated Jews as lab rats.

"She said, 'I want somebody to find some records about what happened to me.' So I sent her the forms, and we'll try to get the records."

If anyone can, it's the Red Cross, which opened its Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center in 1990. Project Search is its New York division.

Why then? "In '89, with glasnost, the former Soviet Union released their World War II documents," explains Linda Klein, national director of the center. "They had the Auschwitz death books," along with millions more documents, unseen since the end of the war.

Today, the Red Cross ascertains fates using archives throughout the world. The service is free and, as Zorek learned, the forms are painless. "Fill them out quickly," he pleads. As survivors die off, bad news only becomes more certain. Don't give the Nazis the last laugh. For more information, call (212) 875-2252.

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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