April 12, 2024
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High-Tech Unites Shoah Survivors

Facebook and online genealogy platform lead to reunion with Holocaust rescuer’s family in Belgium.

In the decades after the Holocaust, this is how survivors tried to locate friends and members of their families who had disappeared during World War II: they visited their hometowns, spoke with former neighbors, combed through survivor lists compiled by Jewish organizations, ran ads and letters in local newspapers, filed their biographies with Yad Vashem and various landsmanschaft organizations, and went to meetings of fellow survivors. Occasionally, they benefited from miracles, like someone noticing a tattooed number in the same sequence as the number on a survivor’s arm.

Sometimes, reunions with long-thought-dead relatives resulted.

This is how Lionel Rossler, the son of a Holocaust survivor, brought about a reunion last year with the descendants of the man who had saved his father and grandmother in wartime Belgium: he went on Facebook.

Rossler’s father David (he was born with the surname Langa, but later took the last name of his Auschwitz survivor stepfather) lived in Brussels when anti-Jewish persecution began after the German Army’s occupation in 1940; he was a toddler then. He and his mother found temporary refuge in a convent, moved to other locations of hiding, then spent about six months in 1944 in the home of Georges Bourlet, a Catholic, and his four children in Auderghem, a Brussels borough in the country’s southeast corner.

Belgium was freed in February 1945; Rossler’s father and uncle, arrested earlier by the German, were never seen again. The Bourlets’ two hidden Jews were still alive.

David’s mother remarried after the war, moved to Austria, and lost contact with the Bourlet family; Georges died five decades ago.

Rossler’s father searched for years, with no success.

Rossler, who grew up hearing the outline of stories of the Bourlets’ heroism – and the risks they took in giving refuge to Jews – took up the cause.

Now 50, Rossler, who works in the medical sales field and lives in Rebecq, Belgium, says he spent several years looking for the Bourlets using the traditional, lower-tech methods.

He found no trace of Georges or his children.

Where were the Bourlets?

“I didn’t give up,” Rossler says. “I didn’t give up hope.”

He wanted to thank the rescuers, or their descendants, and document his father’s experiences. “I wanted to meet the family, and tell them what Georges had done … at great risk.”

“Nine people were saved because of what he did,” Rossler says, in a telephone interview, of Georges – “my brother, myself and our children would not be here today if not for his courage.”

A year ago he figured that turning to social media might help. It was “a final act of desperation, not expecting a response,” a reporter wrote when Rossler’s effort bore fruit.

Soon after he posted a notice on Facebook – “I am looking for the descendants of the Bourlet family … This family was composed of the father, two daughters and two sons,” his message in French read – he heard from Marie Cappart, the country manager in Belgium of myheritage.com, an Israeli-based genealogical platform. She reached out to Rossler, optimistic that she could help.

She could. She used her genealogy knowledge to help a stranger. “I had all the resources.”

Searching the MyHeritage online archive of 16 billion records, Cappart tracked down one of Bourlet’s grandsons and other descendants – some of whom still owned the home in Auderghem where the two endangered Jews had been sheltered.

She suggested that the Bourlets and Rosslers meet in the Auderghem home, a three-story, stucco-façade building. Both families agreed – four members of the Rossler family and five members of the Bourlet family gathered there two months after the Facebook posting. Georges’ children heard the full story of their father’s bravery for the first time. “They were astonished,” Rossler wrote in a blog.

“It is a day I will never forget … an incredibly emotional day for us,” he wrote. “My father … had the incredible opportunity to personally thank the descendants of his rescuer for all they did.”

Rossler’s father, now 84, formerly served as president of a Hidden Children chapter in Brussels.

Rossler called the reunion “a culmination and a relief. The survivors of the Holocaust will soon disappear and it is essential to try to make sure that they can witness moments like this.”

***

The Rossler-Bourlet story, one of a fast-diminishing examples of such successful meetings of Shoah survivors and their family members 78 years after the end of World War II, takes on special poignancy on Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust commemoration day marked this year on April 18.

The 2022 reunion is the new face of Holocaust reunions (or of determinations of the fate of its victims, or of the owners of Shoah artifacts), a high-tech trend boosted primarily by social media, which enables hard-to-locate individuals to be found and DNA matches (pioneered in the Jewish community by myheritage.com and the DNA Reunion Project of the New York-based Center for Jewish History) to be made.

Before these pair of techniques emerged as accessible tools for genealogical research, survivors on the trail of people from the Shoah frequently came to a dead end when using the then-extant means. Ubiquitous platforms like Facebook, and DNA matches, now open new trails.

Think Reunions 2.1, following the ease that search engines like Google earlier brought to survivors’ work.

Facebook and DNA “are definitely two game changers in the quest for finding lost relatives,” and heroic rescuers and liberators, says Sara Vanunu, director of public relations at myheritage.com; its blogs frequently profiles men and women it helped bring together.

(And Zoom, serendipitously, also plays a role in this: Associated Press reported that two survivors from the same city in Poland, who had not seen each other in seven decades – one now lives in Philadelphia; the other, in East Brunswick, N.J. – found each other in 2020 when the former heard the latter’s familiar name while watching a Zoom Yom Kippur service during the Covid pandemic.)

MyHeritage is an 20-year-old online Israel-based genealogy platform that offers web, mobile and software products and services. It supports 42 languages and its more than 50 million international users have built some 52 million family trees. The platform, which contains extensive records from European countries, operates like the Utah-based ancestry.com internet genealogy research company, which focuses on North America.

With access to extensive Israeli archival records, MyHeritage calls itself “the Israeli equivalent of the famous ‘Ellis Island’ immigration database for the United States.”

In 2016, MyHeritage launched a genetic testing service called MyHeritage DNA.

How many Holocaust reunions has the platform been responsible for?

“It’s hard to put a finite number on this,” Vanunu says. “There are those we hear about that happen, those we actively help make happen, and there’s all the rest we don’t know about.

“MyHeritage is seeing an increase in success stories of people discovering either long-lost relatives, or relatives they never knew they had,” she says. “DNA tests … increase the chances of people finding matches with relatives around the world. Likewise, the digitalization of historical records [means that] … people are able to discover more things faster than ever before.”

“You don’t have to be a genealogist or detective to find answers,” Vanunu says.

“Anyone can do this,” says Cappart, who is trained as a family historian, and specializes in “cracking hard cases.”

People thought lost during or after the Holocaust are still possible to find, Cappart says. ‘Even 80 years afterwards, it is possible right now.”

Today, survivors are increasingly logging onto Facebook and swabbing their cheeks; as a result, social media and advanced DNA-tracing techniques, familiar parts of the aging survivors’ grandkids’ world, are making possible tearful meetings that were unthinkable a generation ago.

Like the Rossler-Bourlet reunion.

Rossler still doesn’t know all the details about his father’s survival story. Bourlet probably agreed to shelter the pair of Jews because of his “connection to the Church,” at the suggestion of the Mother Superior of the convent where they had hidden, Rossler says. In the Bourlets’ house, they never ventured outside, for fear of being seen and denounced; the Bourlet kids helped care for young Rossler.

Bourlet, a surveyor who had become a widower a month before opening his door to Rossler’s father and grandmother, spent his workdays at a café in the last days of the Nazi occupation, rather than going to the office and taking the risk that his secret would be discovered, Rossler says. And, he says, Bourlet arranged for young Lionel to crawl through a hole in the rear garden to a sympathetic neighbor in case of a German raid.

At the reunion, Rossler shared these stories with Georges’ children. They cried and they hugged. They showed each other family photos.

The families still keep in touch. Last summer, Rossler hosted a barbeque. “There were 35 of us.”

“The lesson – never give up. It’s never too late,” he says.

Rossler, whose successful search for his family’s rescuers “has given me a renewed perspective on the importance of this essential work of digging into one’s family history and memory,” says he has nominated Boulert for recognition by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile.

Yad Vashem has honored 1,787 Belgians with that title, the fifth-highest total of any European country.

The Yad Vashem designation would be nice – but it is not necessary to prove Boulert’s heroism, Rossler says. “We do not need official recognition. Our family knows.”


Steve Lipman was a staff writer at the Jewish Week from 1983-2020.

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