When I began my genealogy research in 1988, I never expected to find a cousin living in Sochi, Russia in 2021, asking, “Am I Jewish?”
The most insignificant-seeming notes, which I kept recorded in my family tree program, about cousins unknown to me and whom I never expected to find, became an invaluable link to an otherwise unsolved family mystery.
In October 1991, my cousin Polina Tenenbaum, z”l, emigrated from Chudnov, Ukraine, the birthplace of many of my ancestors, including my father, to live in America. Polina’s mother was my father’s unknown first cousin who lived her entire life in Eastern Europe.
Polina and her husband settled in Owings Mills, Maryland, and eventually contacted our cousins in California. My father’s first cousin in Los Angeles suggested Polina call me.
Soon after, Polina, who taught history and home economics in Chudnov, and her husband, Mikhail, an electrical engineer, took a bus trip to New Jersey to meet their extended family. It was as if we had always known them. Polina sang Russian nursery rhymes to our baby at the time, and she and her husband stayed at our home overnight.
Throughout the next 15 years, we visited the couple several times, celebrated smachot with them, met their children and three of their five grandchildren. We stayed in touch with Mikhail after Polina passed away at age 80 in 2009, until his passing in 2016. They were such good people, with voluminous family news to share.
Every time we got together or spoke on the phone, I worked through their broken English to add missing pieces of our extended family tree puzzle. While archival materials are rapidly becoming available on the internet, accessible via all forms of social media, I have been passionately researching the entire ancestry of my children for over 33 years. There is nothing like the personal family notes I’ve kept.
With help from HIAS in 2007, I helped Polina find our cousins living in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the surrounding area. She had many memories of her first cousins, my more distant relatives, from before the war. She shared pictures of them, which I recorded in my family tree program. Those pictures would one day come in handy.
It wasn’t until 2021, with interest from cousins on both sides of the ocean, and a WhatsApp connection, that I could communicate easily with a descendant of those cousins living in Sochi.
When the 1850 census, then the 1816 census from Chudnov became available online, I found out instantaneously through membership in a Facebook group. A man posted that he was seeking information about family he had discovered once lived in Chudnov. I suggested he join the Chudnov Children Facebook group started by my friend and fellow Chudnover, Marvin Kaleky.
Each time a new census became available, he posted about it on our page. More impressively, he speaks the language and scrutinizes the revision lists. He uncovered the names of some of my relatives, taking me back to the mid-1700s in my paternal family history. One of the family names he found is the one for my cousins living in Sochi.
We thought there were no surviving records of this time, and for sure no accounting of the Jewish residents of Chudnov. Through WhatsApp, I forwarded the information to my cousin in Germany. He rendered a unique interpretation of the records of our family history. Raised in Ukraine, he speaks fluent Ukrainian, Russian, German and, lucky for me, English.
After posting on my website at sharonmarkcohen.com about my incredible family tree finds, my cousin in Sochi sent me a message, written in Russian. I forwarded it to our mutual cousin in Germany for translation. I asked him to contact her, and we began our dialogue.
After a few days of back and forth trying to fill in more pieces of the puzzle, our cousin in Germany surprised me by revealing that our cousin in Sochi speaks English. With that knowledge, my WhatsApp thread grew. Now, we can send questions, as well as photographs, back and forth firsthand.
Thanks to Polina, we have matching pictures of relatives from before and during their military service in WWII in Ukraine. My cousin in Sochi has telltale images of the same relatives. Her paternal grandfather had three brothers who lived to adulthood and three sisters. I have notes on all of them. Our family tree is bursting with more photographs of extended relatives.
Some of my records are from Polina, while others are from my father’s first cousins. One of those cousins escaped Chudnov and ended up in a DP camp in Germany, then moved to Israel before settling in Los Angeles in 1958, until her death at age 90 in 2013. The other was her sister, the grandmother of our cousin in Germany. She lived until 2004, age 90, in Ukraine.
A simple fact that I recorded, noting Polina told me her mother took her grandmother to the hospital in Leningrad for a problem with her legs where she died, gave my cousin in Sochi the necessary information to procure her burial grounds. My records were the key to finding my father’s paternal aunt Eida Moshkovna (Moshkovna refers to my paternal great-grandfather, from the tribe of Levi), Kaya buried at the Jewish Preobrazhenshkoye graveyard of Leningrad in 1933.
Then, there’s the story of Eida’s eight children. One, added by my cousin in Sochi, was not in my records. She explained that he died young. Another, Eida’s youngest child, her son Lova, aka Leonid, was a flier in WWII. My records showed he was killed at war, unmarried.
My cousin in Sochi informed me that Leonid was a military pilot who fought in Leningrad and Finland and died in Finland. It turns out that he was married, and his wife was pregnant when he was killed. “Leonid has never seen his daughter,” my cousin wrote. “They were in the evacuation. He knew that Galina was born, wrote letters to her mother, Valentina. All her life Valentina had her surname Kaya.” His family is seeking Leonid’s place of burial.
My cousin in Sochi has met our cousin Galina, her children and grandchildren. She added, “Our meeting with Galina was thrilling. And Galina is on the same wave[length] with us.” As I filled in the complete birthdate of Leonid, relayed by his daughter, I expressed my excitement, “It’s just amazing to fill in these details over 100 years later—details we thought were lost forever!” My cousin remarked, “I agree with you.”
She added to our story, “Galina is a lucky grandmother. She has many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.” I replied, “So wonderful that our family grew exponentially!” The greatest joy was adding pages to my family tree with the full names, dates and places of birth, and more of Leonid’s many descendants.
The story is all miraculous, incredible. A culmination of over 33 years of intensive research to fill in our family history is now easily documented in real time by cousins living across the world. As my cousin Harry Langsam, z”l, born in Strzyzów, Poland, whose family were then followers of the Bobover Rebbe, implored me, “Learn from where you come to know where you are going.”
Harry, a great family historian, who married my father’s first cousin and lived to age 93, beckoned, “Tell ye your children of it and their children, another generation let tell (Joel 1-3).” With his wise words, I now impart my knowledge to my cousins, who questioned whether their ancestry was of Jewish heritage.
By Sharon Mark Cohen