(N.J. Jewish News) — Marlene Stevens says she gets goose bumps when she thinks that very soon she will meet the daughter of the sister she lost 70 years ago during the Holocaust.
Her sister Frima died in 1984 before they were able to reconnect, but thanks to Marlene’s son Robert, a Russian television program and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Frima’s daughter Gulnora Jurajeva is due to arrive from her home in Uzbekistan in late December for a long-awaited visit.
“I don’t know how to describe my feelings,” Marlene, now 72 and living in Short Hills, N.J., told NJ Jewish News. “It’s wonderful, but it makes me so sad that my parents and my sisters aren’t here to share the joy with me.”
The saga began in Siberia in 1941 when Marlene, then Malka Lancman, was about 2 years old. Her family, who came from eastern Poland, was being sent by train from one forced labor camp to another.
At one of the stops, seeing his mother’s futile efforts to breast-feed her starving baby, 9-year-old Chaim went in search of scraps of food. When he didn’t come back and the train was about to leave, 16-year-old Frima went to look for him. The train left before either of them came back. Later that day the baby died.
“Can you imagine, losing three of your children in one day?” Marlene asked.
As little as she was, she remembers seeing the candle-lit shadow of a hammer rising and falling as her father made a coffin for the baby.
Her parents, with their five surviving daughters, did everything they could to trace Chaim and Frima. The search continued through the war years and after in the displaced persons’ camp, and then after the family came to the United States in 1948.
In recent years, Marlene’s son Robert, the youngest of her five children, made it his personal mission to track them down.
Robert, who lives in Union County, N.J., and works for a large pharmaceutical company, also is a writer. After trying every channel he knew, he finally made contact with “Wait for Me,” a reality show on Russian television that matches long-separated loved ones.
Last year, five years after he first contacted them, producers told Robert that a viewer in Uzbekistan had come forward with a story that almost exactly matched his mother’s.
As Robert explained in a story that appeared in the New Jersey Jewish News in June 2010, there were a few discrepancies. But when the viewer, a 51-year-old grandmother named Jurajeva, sent photographs from her mother’s later years, there no longer was any doubt.
“She looked just like our father,” Marlene said.
It seems that Frima, Jurajeva’s mother, lost track of Chaim. After the Soviet army put Frima in an orphanage, she was adopted by a Russian Orthodox Christian family and stripped of her Jewish identity. She eventually married a Muslim man. Frima raised her six children as Muslims in a small, remote village, but shortly before she died, she told them that she was Jewish.
Robert, who has spoken almost weekly with his cousin with the help of a friend who speaks Russian, said Jurajeva took the news in stride and told him that she feels Jewish inside.
The first call, he said, was “was full of emotion — lots of tears, excitement, etc.” It was the fulfillment of a promise for Jurajeva, as it was for him. “She said she promised her mother on her deathbed that she would find her family.”
Like Robert, among all her siblings Jurajeva has been the one most committed to re-establishing the family connections.
But locating Jurajeva wasn’t the end of Robert’s struggle.
Jurajeva was turned down twice by the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, trying to get a visa to come for a visit. Robert asked his congressman, Rep. Leonard Lance, to help. Lance’s office tried but eventually told him that the State Department said that too many people have claimed this kind of connection fraudulently to get into the United States, and that Jurajeva did not have sufficient proof.
Robert and his wife, Dara, became parents earlier this year, yet he continued to pursue one avenue after anther. He had his cousin send a DNA sample, and he sent it, along with a sample from his mother, to the DNA Shoah Project, which maintains a database of genetic material from Holocaust survivors and their immediate descendants. To his disappointment, he said, after more than a year, the organization still has not been able to provide the completed analysis of the DNA samples.
Finally he turned to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society for help. Mark Hetfield, the senior vice president for policy and programs at HIAS; immigration attorney Kelsey Breckner; and Mark Levin, executive director of the National Council on Soviet Jewry, all worked their contacts, eventually bringing the case to the attention of Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.
Last month the visa was granted. Robert and his siblings bought the airline ticket for Jurajeva, and she is scheduled to arrive Dec. 24 for a three-week stay.
In an e-mail response to the New Jersey Jewish News, Hetfield said, “This was a very difficult case because consular officers have near-absolute authority and discretion in the issuance of visas. Given Gulnora’s situation in Uzbekistan and her ties to the United States, it is understandable that the consular officer in Tashkent denied the application multiple times before and after HIAS intervened on her behalf.
“However, this is a particularly heart-wrenching humanitarian case and Gulnora has credibly asserted that she intends to return home,” Hetfield said. “HIAS is grateful that in light of these circumstances, and with the encouragement of …Hannah Rosenthal, the consular officer revisited the case and overturned the denial.”
Robert told the newspaper that “giving up was never an option.”
“My parents’ surviving the Holocaust was a result of their internal fortitude to never give up; the same will was instilled in me at an early age,” he said. “I made it so far with the search that I wasn’t going to let frustration or roadblocks deter me from doing this for my mother.
“I am so incredibly happy that I was able to bring a sense of closure to what was, in essence, a 70-year mystery. I am very excited to meet my newfound cousin and participate in this emotional reunion.”
But the process isn’t over. Given how he found his cousin, Robert is hoping word of the reunion might bring about one more miracle — a connection with his uncle Chaim.
“We know Chaim survived the war,” he said. “I received a record from the tracing service of the International Red Cross that in 1946 there was a Chaim Lancman who was searching for family in Argentina and the U.S., but we’ve never been able to find out anything else about him.”
Robert also wants to help other separated families. To that end, he has established a nonprofit networking website, “I am a link,” or www.iamalink.com. The site will enable genealogical searches for survivors and their descendants — and hopefully bring about more joyous reconnections.