My parents were Holocaust survivors. Most of my mother’s family lived through the horror of World War II in Europe. Most of my father’s didn’t. The devastating loss of his family, the destruction of the world he had known, and the years spent hiding in the woods of Poland severely traumatized my father until the day he died.
My father came from a small town outside Warsaw, Poland. By April 1945, my father, one brother, and a nephew were all that was left of what had once been a large family. He rarely spoke of his life before, during, and immediately following the war. Despite my interest in my father’s life in Poland, encouraging him to speak about anything prior to his immigration to Germany and then to Israel was out of the question. Nightmares frequently plagued him, and I refused to satisfy my curiosity at the expense of my father’s fragile peace of mind.
He died in 1990, and I never even knew the name of the village where he grew up. But all that changed one morning in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Thanks to the staff at the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center, I had many of my questions answered and walked away with a few surprises, as well.
Disclaimer: Our sincere thanks go out to Visit Fort Wayne for their generosity in hosting us, and to the Genealogy Center for filling in many blanks in my family history. All opinions are entirely my own.
An Unexpected Opportunity
The itinerary for a hosted press trip to Fort Wayne offered my husband and me the opportunity to tour the Genealogy Center. As part of our tour, I was invited to send Center Manager, Curt Witcher, what little information I had about my parents’ families. This gave us a firsthand look at how the center functioned. I pulled together all the information I had and crossed my fingers. On the one hand, I looked forward to the prospect of unlocking some of the mysteries of my father’s past and the extended family the Nazis stole from my children and me. On the other, there was an underlying feeling of trepidation. Was I about to open a Pandora’s Box? “Well, in for a Penny, in for a pound,” I said to myself, and packed my bag.
On our first morning in Fort Wayne, we headed for the second floor of the Allen County Public Library, home to the largest public genealogy center in the United States. The facility houses an ever-growing collection of 1.2 million physical items, 4 million searchable records online, 70,000 family histories, and provides full access to Ancestry and other genealogy-related databases. All this is free for the public to use.
The Genealogy Center contains 42,000 square feet of family histories, public records, newspapers, microfilm, books, periodicals, and other resources, all related to genealogy around the globe. It also houses state-of-the-art computers and scanners. But the center’s most valuable resource is its staff of dedicated genealogists who assist visitors in connecting with their past.
When we visited the Genealogy Center, the library, as well as other similar institutions, were still closed due to Covid-19 concerns. We were fortunate to have had the privilege of touring the facility with Curt. We were even more fortunate to have learned what Genealogy Center researchers Sara Allen and John Beatty, who had researched my family, had discovered.
Shedding Light On My Roots
By the time we sat down to learn what Sara and John had unearthed about my family, we had already gained a deep respect for the Genealogy Center. The materials available to individuals wishing to learn more about their heritage were truly impressive. Sara handed me an inch-thick binder filled with printed documents, handwritten notations, and a compilation of resources for further research. She and John then walked us through the materials, answering my questions as we went along. What they were able to find, and how they found it, was stunning.
One of the first pieces of my father’s family history Sara revealed to me was my grandmother’s maiden name. Through a library in Germany specializing in Holocaust records, she had traced my one surviving uncle’s movements from his escape from the Warsaw Ghetto through his flight to Bavaria, where thick forests offered places to hide. From Germany, my uncle emigrated to Boston after the war. I had only known about the last leg of my uncle’s journey. I learned that he had been sponsored by his aunt, Leah, who had been living in the Boston area since 1881. Her sister, Perla, was my father’s and uncle’s mother, so in finding Leah’s maiden name, Sara also found Perla’s. The same line of research also yielded the name of my father’s home village of Kolbiel.
John and Sara traced my father’s family back as far as 1806 to his great grandfather, Szulem, a furrier by trade. Perhaps it was through Szulem that my father inherited the skills to become a fur cutter in Montreal, where he and my mother permanently settled in 1953.
We spent less time delving into my mother’s family, as most of them survived the Holocaust. I knew my maternal grandparents, uncles, cousins, and a whole slew of distant relatives.
Although some who dig into their family histories end up wishing they hadn’t, this was not my experience. There was no Pandora’s Box, no ax murderer, no family scandal. Piecing together the story of my father’s family allowed me to replace the black wall in my mind with the names and imaginary faces of those whose genes I carry. I am truly indebted to Sara, John, and Curt for opening a window to my family history I believed to be forever closed.
Since our trip to Fort Wayne and the Genealogy Center, I’ve done a bit more research. If we travel to Poland, Kolbiel will top my list. Perhaps I’ll sense the presence of my lost family, who, like millions of others, deserved to live, but instead died at the hands of true monsters. I regret not having prepared myself emotionally for my journey into the past. The mixture of grief and anger that welled up in me sometimes overwhelms me still. Maybe the experience was a Pandora’s Box of sorts after all.
Tips For Visiting The Genealogy Center In Fort Wayne
Before traveling to Fort Wayne and embarking on a physical search at the Genealogy Center, you might want to access the Center’s online catalog first to give you a head start.
The center only charges for paper copies. If you bring in an external drive or memory card, you can scan the information you uncover and take it with you at no charge.