“Yom HaShoah: Six Million–Minus One”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This year on the 27th of Nissan, which is Wednesday evening, April 15th through Thursday, April 16th, Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day will be commemorated. In lieu of a message for parashat Shemini (for past Shemini messages, please access the archive), I am sharing with you a rather incredible story that was written more than twenty years ago, by Avi London, a former member of the Lincoln Square Synagogue Beginners Service, and was first published in the Tishrei 5755-September 1994 Bereishith Beginners newsletter. I hope you find it as meaningful as I did.

As the Hebrew year 5754 (September 1994) comes to a conclusion, I realize how many new beginnings were given to me and my family during this very special year. It’s not just that my life and the lives of my entire family have been made richer because of this year’s surprising events–it’s that G-d’s hand was so evident and so abundantly generous.

To begin, this past June, I married my wife Betsy. For many, marriage is an expected event in one’s life cycle. But to all of our friends and family our marriage was a veritable miracle, since I took a bit long to finally set the date for the wedding. I won’t tell you how long, but calling it a “miracle” is hardly an understatement. On June 12th, I happily assumed the role of husband.

A second miracle was that after more than 50 years, my family was reunited with a half-sister we assumed was long dead.

In the 1930s, my father married a Jewish woman from his shtetl in Poland, and shortly after, they moved to Israel. My father’s wife found life too harsh in Israel, and two years later they divorced and she returned to Poland. Upon her return, she discovered that she was pregnant. My father learned of the birth of his daughter, Sarah, from his sisters who still lived in Poland, and who actively cared for the child. After the war, my father searched for his former wife and his daughter, but was told that they were dead.

Several years ago, my father’s sister became obsessed with the idea of finding out the actual fate of the child. She went back to Poland to conduct a thorough search, but found nothing. Upon her return, she remembered that a letter containing a picture of the child had been sent to the family. She searched desperately, and shortly after the picture was found, she died.

It was at that time, two and a half years ago, that my sister Nili (from our father’s second marriage, of course), decided to search for our sister, operating under the assumption that perhaps our sister had assumed a new identity in order to avoid the Nazis, or perhaps she was smuggled out of the country. Because of Nili’s tireless efforts and never-ending determination, this past April, our sister “Naomi” was found living in Israel.

Sarah, at the age of three, had been smuggled out of Poland, first to Vienna and then to Yugoslavia. From there she was taken by ship to Argentina where she lived in a Jewish orphanage. At the age of five, she was adopted by a Catholic Uruguayan family, who renamed her “Naomi” after their own daughter who had died. Although she was raised as a Catholic, at age 16, as her mother lay dying, Naomi was told she was Jewish, and that she was expected to marry a Jewish man!

To the dismay of her adoptive Catholic family, Naomi fell in love with a Catholic Uruguayan medical student, whom she married in a Catholic ceremony. For two years her family refused to have anything to do with her, until her husband, Ariel, converted to Judaism. The couple was re-married in a synagogue, and their son and daughter were raised as Jews and sent to Hebrew school.

At age 15, their son was recruited by the Israeli intelligence to spy on the Nazis living in Uruguay. When things got too hot, they were advised by the Israelis to leave the country, and twelve years ago they moved to Israel where they now reside.

My sister Nili’s efforts to find Sarah through conventional means proved fruitless. In desperation, we turned to holy men and psychics who directed us to Israel. Finally, we placed an ad in an Israeli newspaper containing as many of the factual details we knew. Naomi’s family pointed the ad out to her, and she responded. When we received a picture of Naomi, we knew immediately that we had found our long-lost sister–-she looked like a twin to Nili. DNA testing confirmed the relationship!

Meeting our long-lost sister was, for us, dramatic and heartrending, and, of course, a wonderful addition to our family. For Naomi, it was much more. At the age of fifty-seven, she discovered a family she never knew existed. For the first time in her life, she met her father this past April, as well as her sister and me. She had always felt an emptiness inside of her, a sense of being incomplete. Now that the questions of who she is and where she was from have been answered, there is a feeling of being whole. Finally, a sense of tranquility.

When Nili and Naomi were reunited in Israel this past April, they made a trip to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, to remove her name from the list of the dead. It was the first such case.

As 5755 begins, the London family has much to celebrate. We look forward to getting to know Naomi and her family better. But most of all, we thank Hashem for answering our prayers by giving us our sister Naomi to love, and to share a future with us, a future which no one even dared to dream would ever exist.

Avi London, now retired, was the Assistant Plant Operation Manager of Hot Sox Co.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, is observed this year on Wednesday night April 15th, and all day Thursday April 16th, 2015.