By Harriet Levin Millan

In 2016, Harvard Square Editions published my debut novel, How Fast Can You Run: A Novel Based on the Life of Michael Majok Kuch. Michael is one of approximately 20,000 ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan, children who escaped genocide when state-sanctioned killers attacked their villages. As I interviewed Michael over a three-year period and learned about his experiences, I increasingly drew parallels to my own history. My four grandparents had been driven from their homes in Galicia because of pogroms. When they arrived in the US 1900-1912, they faced quotas and discrimination. Inspired by Michael, who longed to reconnect with his family (my novel is the story of how they found one another after a 20-year separation), I renewed my childhood obsession with discovering why my extended family is so small.

I had no idea that my entire conception of myself was about to change.

The first clue was my great-grandparents’ surname. Jack Nearby, the ship manifest read. I’d been searching for my maternal grandfather’s family for eight months. But Nearby sounded Irish, not Jewish.

“I think I found my grandfather’s mother’s maiden name,” I posted on one of JewishGen’s discussion groups. “Has anyone come across this surname?”

Within minutes, two members wrote back to me, each explaining that Nearby was an anglicized version of the name Nerubai. “In fact,” one member wrote, “there’s an entry on JewishGen’s family finder that someone named Ben posted. He’s looking for Nerubais from the same town as yours.”

Until my maternal grandmother died in 1994, I had bombarded her with questions about the old country. She’d immigrated as a child and knew little about her family’s life there. She didn’t know the name of her own town, only “Austria.” She meant the Hapsburg Empire which today is part Poland and part Ukraine. My grandfather emigrated in his teens from the Russian Empire, but he died when I was ten. I remember distinctly how Bubbie would laugh when I asked her the name of his village and to humor me, I’d assumed, she’d say something like Volodaka. I thought it was a name she invented—something faintly Yiddish, yet I must have asked her so many times, I remembered it. Frustrated all those months of searching, I spelled the name as well as I could and entered it as my grandfather’s birthplace: Volodaka. Miraculously, I was only one letter off. When Ben posted the name of the same town, he spelled it Volodarka. There it was!

I emailed Ben immediately and he wrote back that same day. When I explained that my great grandmother’s name was Pearl and that her surname must be Nerubai, he did a quick search and found her ship manifest. His own great grandmother, another Pearl Nerubai, was listed as her sponsor. He even recognized the address. Since children are named after the dead, it seemed realistic to assume that my great-grandmother was his great-grandmother’s aunt, both named after the same ancestor: Pearl Nerubai.

My family still lives in Philadelphia, as do Ben’s cousins, about fifteen minutes apart—yet unknown to one another, because both of our great grandmothers died before our parents were born.

Ben knew more about the family than I did. Besides his Philadelphia branch, another one of my great-grandmother’s siblings had settled in Mexico City, where they still live—and a few have gone on to make aliyah. Similar to today’s harsh immigration quotas, this Mexico City branch was refused entry into the US. They have grown to include children and grandchildren. Another sibling remained in Ukraine (Ben can recall his father sending packages to Kiev). I found more Nerubais from Voladarka, unfortunately, listed in Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names.

Because my grandparents immigrated decades before Nazi rule, and despite growing up in a completely Jewish neighborhood, I never believed that the Holocaust touched my life. However, my body went cold as I read the entries in Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names and learned that my great-grandparents’ siblings and hundreds of extended family perished in the Shoah, in particular my maternal grandmother’s and grandfather’s family, the Maimons and Nerubais. How did I not know this? Why didn’t my parents have this information?

My self concept enlarged as I began to see myself as an historical being, someone who exists because my great-grandparents left Europe and somehow, legally or illegally, made it to the US. How many other second- or third-generation Jewish-Americans do not know their grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ maiden names, or the names of the towns they come from, and as a result do not know their own history?

There are few Jewish Holocaust survivors. If internet research could reveal family who perished to me, who’d never known of their existence, wouldn’t most second or third generation Jewish-Americans share the same findings?

After talking by telephone for a few weeks, Ben and I decided to meet in New York City. By coincidence, a friend invited me to see the Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof that same day so I decided to combine trips. We met at the Museum’s Lox Café before I went to the show.

Harriet and her cousin in Andy Goldsworthy’s Garden of Stones, shortly after meeting for the first time.

When he walked in and we embraced, it was the first time since 1931 (the year of my great-grandmother’s death) that these two sibling Nerubai branches exchanged hugs. Needless to say, I wept all through the second half of Fiddler which depicts the characters’ escape from their home in Anatevka on the heels of a pogrom.

I wished my grandparents were alive to witness my meeting with Ben, particularly my Bubbie who had supplied the clue.

My mother, who is in her eighties, joined us via Facetime. Before Jack Nearby’s name appeared in my inbox, my mother didn’t even know her grandmother’s maiden name.

Harriet Levin Millan is the author of three prizewinning books of poetry and a novel. She teaches Creative Writing and is director of the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing at Drexel University. In August, she attended the annual conference of the Association of Jewish Genealogists in Warsaw, Poland, then traveled to Ukraine to Volodarka, Ozeryany, Tluste,and Zwiahel, the sites of her ancestral towns, along with her husband and another relative she located on JewishGen who lives in Israel. 

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