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WIC Israel trip sparks family reunion

(L-R): Chava, Isaac, Jacob, Maria, Rachel, Elisaveta, and Raya Sher in 1931 in Kirensk, a village in Siberia. (Shore Family)

The recent Weintraub Israel Center annual mission to Israel did not only build community bridges; it also mended a bridge between a local family and long-lost family members with origins in Russia.

(L-R) Long-lost cousins Irina Sher, Rina Chen, Olga Sher, Debby Shore, Ricki Shore, and Bonnie Shore-Dombrowski in Tel Aviv, Oct. 22.

Bonnie Shore-Dombrowski, a Tucson attorney, was joined on the October trip by her two sisters, Debby Shore of Washington, D.C., and Ricki Shore of Berkley, California. The sisters had made numerous fruitless attempts to track down a first cousin, Olga, they knew lived in Israel. They gave up on any chance of making a connection by the time they arrived in Tel Aviv on Oct. 15. It wasn’t until a week later, as the sisters were sitting around Gadit Sass’ dining table in Hof Ashkelon that they shared the family story and their attempts to locate their cousin somewhere near Be’er Sheva.  Sass grabbed her cell phone and accessed WhatsApp. It didn’t take long until the modern bush telegraph yielded results. Soon Bonnie had her cousin Olga on the phone, with Sass interpreting.

Back in Tel Aviv the next day, the last day on the itinerary, the sisters had a warm reunion in the Royal Beach Hotel lobby with Olga Sher, her daughter Irena, and Rina Chen, an old family friend also living in Israel. There were lots of hugs, tears, and laughter, often delayed by tedious translation from Russian to English or Russian to Hebrew to English and back again. The warmth and electricity between the women and indeed the love were tangible.

The family story has its beginnings two centuries past, in the Russian-Polish border shtetl of Vladafka, along the Bug River near Brest. It starts with the family of Abraham and Clara Sher and their children: Jacob, Max, Ida, Gussie, Rae, Irving, David, and Minnie. Abraham was the Shore sister’s great-grandfather.

Jacob, the eldest brother, was born in 1891. He was arrested about 1906  by the Czar’s Cossacks for chanting revolutionary slogans and sentenced to seven years of exile in Siberia. Along with thousands of convicts, he is said to have marched in shackles for two years along the “convict highway” to Irkutsk. He was indentured to a wealthy family as a servant for five years. In 1911 he met Maria, the daughter of another family in exile. Upon his release, Jacob and Maria married in 1914. They eventually settled in Kirensk and raised five children: Raya, Liza, Chava, Isaac, and Rachel.

Meanwhile, Abraham and the remainder of the family immigrated to the United States. Abraham, Gussie, and Ida went first, arriving in New York in 1906. At the port of entry, the family name, “Sher,” became “Shore.” Max and his little sister Rae, 13- and 11-years-old respectively, traveled next aboard the TSS Ryndam, sailing Dec. 24, 1908 from Rotterdam, arriving Jan. 15, 1909, according to the ship’s manifest, of which Bonnie has a photocopy. They were listed as “Hebrew” since they had no nationality. Clara traveled with Irving, David, and Minnie in 1909. Abraham and Clara later had three more sons in the United States, Mike, David, and Harold.

Freed from exile, Jacob renewed communications and exchanged photographs with his family in America at least until 1931. But those communications led to further tragedy for Jacob and his family. On Feb. 20, 1938, at 2 a.m., the NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB, invaded Jacob’s home. The letters and photos from America were enough to incriminate Jacob, and he was taken, along with 90 percent of the men in Kirensk. All but one disappeared.

While spying on the shackled prisoners held nearby, Jacob’s son Isaac saw and shouted to his father. Josef Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937-38 ordered the roundup of all dissidents. Isaac was spotted and thrown into a cell at the NKVD headquarters in Kirensk for a day but escaped and fled to the forest, surviving on nuts until he felt it was safe to return in the spring. Communications by then had ceased with the American relatives, fracturing the Shore’s only link to their last direct family in Russia.

“Under Stalin, every family had one or many members killed for no good reason at all,” says Bonnie. “Stalin decimated his people, not just the Jews, everyone. But the Jews were more vulnerable.”

Because of Jacob’s arrest, all of his family members were labeled “enemies of the state,” making them targets of the government.  When the Russian Army conscripted Isaac in World War II, he received no weapons or training and was assigned heavy duties, often made to stand at attention for hours on end. In his tasks with a team of artillery horses, a runaway horse broke his arm, kicked in his teeth and injured his leg, leaving him limping for the rest of his life.

It became Clara’s dying wish that the family locate her first son Jacob. At every family reunion in America, the missing Jacob always came up. It was Max’s son Jack, the Shore sisters’ father, who finally found the missing link. With the advent of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, records and information had become more available in Russia. In 1987 Jack contacted a colleague of his wife, Barbara, at the University of Pittsburgh, Joseph Eaton, Ph.D., who was traveling to Russia for a seminar in Moscow. Jack enjoined Eaton’s assistance to reach out for family connections. Eaton was said to be itching for an excuse to visit the KGB intelligence office and took on the task with gusto.

Deterred by officials in Moscow, Eaton met someone at the seminar who was headed to Irkutsk and entrusted him with transferring the information. The courier connected with the foreign relations officer in Irkutsk, a Mr. Bondarev, who took up the cause, quickly locating a Sher family in the city. Jeffrey Miller, the mayor of Eugene, Oregon, was visiting Irkutsk, Eugene’s sister city, and took a letter for Eaton in Pittsburgh, who relayed it to Barbara and Jack. Disappointingly, the family timelines didn’t match. At Jack’s behest, Bondarev broadened the search and within two months located his first cousin Isaac. Isaac sent a copy of the same 1931 family photograph his father had sent to America decades before, and the match was confirmed. The link reestablished, communications resumed.

But the mystery of Jacob remained. After the Soviet Union’s dissolution, historians estimated victim totals from Stalin’s era ranged from 3 to 9 million.

Isaac had been called to the KGB in 1956 to receive a document stating that his father Jacob died from pneumonia in a prison camp on March 12, 1942. The family had its doubts, especially after a mass grave of unidentifiable bodies near Irkutsk was discovered and exposed in 1989. Isaac assumed his father probably was among those victims. Isaac remembered being at a synagogue with his father as a lad and knew he was Jewish. In Russia, under Communism, it was forbidden to practice any religion. But Isaac took dirt from the site and said Kaddish at a synagogue.

In 1990 the KGB presented another document to Isaac stating that Jacob was shot and buried in a cemetery in Irkutsk. The family found no grave there. But, most critical was the Rehabilitation Certificate received with that notification. It posthumously reversed the “enemy of the state” stigma for the entire family, retroactive to 1938.

Finally, in December 1990, 83 bodies were discovered under the old NKVD building in Kirensk. This is where Jacob initially was held, and Isaac had been locked in a cell overnight. Among 80 men and three women found murdered there, one died of a knife wound, seven were shot, and the remainder were beaten to death.

Isaac easily identified a photo of his father’s body among those victims who were buried and well preserved in the permafrost.  Jacob had never escaped the village and died in 1939 near the family’s home in Kirensk. The 83 bodies were reburied and memorialized with dignity and procession in May 1991.

Jack and Barbara visited cousin Isaac, his siblings, and families, in Irkutsk in 1991. They learned that Isaac’s family thought their American relatives had abandoned them, says David Shore, brother to the Shore sisters. Isaac and Olga later visited the Shores in America.

When Isaac’s children Olga and Victor immigrated to Israel in 1999, another link was broken. Bonnie had lost contact in 2001, until the sisters’ trip last month.

Jack Shore died in 2001, having made reconnecting the family his life’s work. “He did a lot of genealogy,” says Bonnie. She still recalls her grandfather Max spinning stories in his heavy Yiddish accent about their experience in the shtetl along the Bug River in Belarus. Jack recorded his findings, the source for most of the detail relayed in this story, in a video he and Barbara produced at the University of Pittsburgh in 1991.

“It was really so moving to make the connection with these relatives,” says Debby. “I was so struck how our cousin Olga looked so familiar. I know that my father would be so happy that we found our relatives in Israel.” Ricki added, “Now that we’ve found one another again, these family ties will continue to be nourished and maintained.”