For several years, I had been working on a series of short stories about Jews in various states of exile: Eastern European Jews in America, New York Jews in Florida, Russian Jews in New England, Israeli Jews in New York, American Jews in Germany, Holocaust survivors in the Catskill Mountains.
In writing these stories, I drew on my own experience: I’d worked in the Catskills; I knew Russian and Israeli Jews who had come to America; I knew New York Jews who’d been displaced to Florida, and I myself, born and raised in New York, had spent most of my adult life in other places, such as the Midwest, Europe, New England. As much as I drew on experience, however, I drew more on an imagination nurtured and inspired by a childhood yearning: the desire I had to know what life was like for my grandparents, aunts and uncles before they had left Europe and come to America, and — a larger mystery — what it had been like for them to live in perpetual exile from a world to which they would never return.
Then, when the book was complete and ready for copy editing, I received a letter from Rachel Eisner, a college student, on behalf of her grandmother, Manya Gerlich Eisner, who had seen a newspaper article I’d published.
“This is a long shot,” the letter began, “but I can lose nothing, maybe gain a lot.” Manya said that she had come to the United States in 1947 and that she had spent three years in concentration camps, where she had lost her entire family. “My grandfather’s name was Mendel Gerlich,” she said. “He came from Rimanov, Poland.”
My grandmother’s maiden name was Gerlich, and she, too, like my grandfather, came from Rimanov, a small shtetlin what is now Ukraine but was then Poland.
Manya wrote that when she was a young girl, she had heard her grandfather speak of a sister in the United States who had married a man with an unusual name — Neugeboren — and that she never had forgotten the name.
She had seen my article, she continued, and “had always wanted to search into this matter, since there is not a soul left on my father’s side of the family.” Would I please respond “regardless of whether there is a connection or not.”
I telephoned Manya, and we talked at length. She lived in Ellenville, N.Y., a city in the Catskills about two hours from New York City, where she had made her home for more than 50 years (her husband, Herman Eisner, also a survivor of the camps, had been the rabbi at Congregation Ezrath Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Ellenville, from 1949 until his retirement in 1988; he died in 1995), but she was, by chance, coming to New York City the next day for a doctor’s appointment.
We met in the doctor’s waiting room. “Neugeboren?” she asked when she emerged from the doctor’s office and saw me sitting there. We embraced, after which she asked me to go back into the office with her so that the doctor could meet me — she had told him the story, just as, in the days, weeks and months that followed, she would tell the story to everyone she knew — and then we went downstairs to the hospital’s lounge and talked some more. After I had telephoned my children and several of my cousins the night before to tell them the story, I had gone through folders that contained information about the Neugeborens and Gerlichs, and so I brought some documents with me: a page from my “baby book,” in which my mother had written my grandmother’s name (“Bela née Gerlich Neugeboren”); a page from the 1910 U.S. Census that listed the names of my grandparents and their children and had provided data about them.
Like my father, Manya was one of nine children. She had been in Auschwitz for three years, taken there shortly before her 18th birthday, and liberated, in 1945, from Bergen-Belsen. She had met and married her husband the following year — he, too, had been in Auschwitz — and she was the only survivor in her family. All the relatives on her father’s side — aunts, uncles, cousins, and her eight brothers and sisters — were gone.
Both Neugeboren and Gerlich are rare names. Any Neugeboren I’ve ever met has come from either Rimanov or a nearby village, and the same, for Manya, was true of the name Gerlich. We talked, and we laughed, and we looked at photos (the only family photo she had was a single blurred image of her father, an enlargement taken from a group photo of members of her mother’s family), and we sat there, astonished — “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it,” she kept saying — as we tried to comprehend our story’s obvious, and wonderful, conclusion: Her grandfather and my grandmother had been brother and sister.
“Then we are second cousins,” Manya said to me as she had the night before, after which she talked, briefly, of the family she had lost.
“Well,” I said. “You have lots of cousins now.”
Jay Neugeboren is the author of 14 books, including two prize-winning novels (“The Stolen Jew,” “Before My Life Began”) and two award-winning nonfiction books (“Imagining Robert,” “Transforming Madness”). His stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The American Scholar, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ and The Virginian Quarterly Review. A new (and third) collection of prize-winning stories, “News From the New American Diaspora and Other Tales of Exile,” was published in May.