If it’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, then Jimmy Cygler and Paul Leventhal are plenty tough.
When both were infants, they were taken from their mother, Rebecca Kaufman, and raised worlds apart without knowing of the others’ existence. With the help of 23andMe, the brothers recently found each other and were able to meet in person in early 2015.
Jimmy traveled from his home in Sao Paulo, Brazil to spend a week with Paul in Florida. There the two men got to talk about their lives. Paul shared with Jimmy the little he knew about their mother, a brilliant but troubled woman. Jimmy was able to share with Paul a little about his improbable life.
“Stories of this kind, they are hard to believe,” Jimmy says. “Do you know the book ‘Life of Pi?’ A fantastical story, but it is nothing compared to my life.”
Paul downplays the drama in his own life – the separation from his mother, spending his first five years in a foster home, and growing up in a house where his father and stepmother were distant. Paul has one fleeting memory of sitting on his mother’s knee – almost everything else he knows about her comes from what he’s gleaned from relatives. It wasn’t until Paul turned 18, after his father’s death, that he learned he’d been the product of an affair.
At first Paul pushed this information out of his head, but a few years later as a young man, a relative confirmed it was true.
“My life was turned upside down,” Paul said.
He had to live with not only his mother abandoning him but her family cutting ties with him as well. Jimmy thinks that Paul having to endure their mother’s abandonment and rejection may have been harder than the physical abuse he suffered. Paul’s not so sure, but he knows that it affected him.
“I was angered by the fact that her brothers – two doctors and two lawyers – didn’t step up to the plate and save me from going to a foster home,” Paul said. “I must have been quite an embarrassment to them and my maternal grandmother, who was still living at the time.”
Rejected by his mother and her family, Paul spent years trying to find his biological father. That’s part of why he eventually got his DNA results with 23andMe. While he hasn’t yet found the identity of his biological father, Paul did find his brother Jimmy.
“My father had no idea who his mother was and finding his brother finally helped us solve that puzzle,” Jimmy’s daughter, Orly, said. “Now we know who she was.”
Her father agrees that it has helped. “You know Nietzsche, ’that which does not kill us makes us stronger?’” Jimmy asks from his office in Sao Paulo. “Well, it is true for me.”
Paul disagrees with his brother on this point. What doesn’t kill you might make you stronger or it may damage you for the rest of your life.
Jimmy survived years of abuse as a child, life at a kibbutz, four wars, and three marriages. But he doesn’t feel damaged.
“I’m a rebuilt human being,” Jimmy says. “Really all the conditions of my life were anything but normal or positive, but the art of my life was to become a good human being.”
But it wasn’t easy. When Jimmy first went to Israel at the age of 13, he began getting psychological help to work through his childhood trauma.
“When I came to Israel I was a pile of wreckage, and I had to do something to these broken pieces to reassemble a human being,” Jimmy said.
But not having all the pieces about his life made that “reassembling” a life-long process.
“The story with Paul is part of it, but just one part of it,” said Jimmy. “I’m one of nine brothers and sisters. I’m the only brother (related to) all of them and I spent my whole life searching for those missing pieces.”
Jimmy mentions connecting this process with what psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote about in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.
“He says a person who has meaning can bear almost anything,” Jimmy said. “So this search for meaning became important to me.”
Part of that search has included trying to learn more about who he was, where he came from and to whom he is connected.
“First I had to gather all the pieces and then you start putting the puzzle together and you try to find meaning in the picture that emerges,” Jimmy said. “You might have the whole picture or, like me, just parts of it.”
Jimmy said he also learned that one small piece of information could change everything. Recently a relative in London found a travel document Jimmy’s father had used when Jimmy was a baby. On it was the name James Maurice Goldberg.
“That’s my name (from his birth certificate, before his father changed his last name), but I’d never known it before,” he said.
The name also helped him find out more about his father, Izrael Aron Goldberg. Jimmy’s father fled Poland before the start of World War II and settled in Peru. There he married a woman and had two children, a son Lucho and a daughter Alina, and converted to Christianity. He would later say that all the family he had in Poland died in the Holocaust. After experiencing financial troubles, Izrael left his family in Peru and moved to New York City.
“I do have a business card of his from his time in New York,” Jimmy said. “It says ‘I. Aron Goldberg, specialist in furs.’”
It was in New York that he met Rebecca Kaufman, who already had two sons, Paul and Jay, who were several years older than Jimmy.
Paul ended up in foster care and Jay was taken by Rebecca’s first husband. Rebecca was unable to care for Jimmy when he was born in 1949, and she was subsequently placed in an institution. Izrael, alone with his infant son, asked his estranged wife in Peru to come to New York with their two children.
“The interesting part of the story is that he didn’t tell her that he had a baby, me,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy’s half-sister, Alina, was almost 10 years old at the time. His half-brother, Lucho, was about eight. His sister remembers holding Jimmy as an infant, and falling in love with him. But it would be the last she’d see him for almost 55 years because the family quickly fell apart.
Jimmy doesn’t know all the details but is aware that his father fought with his wife. She stayed just a few months before returning to Peru with her two children, leaving Jimmy and his father in New York. Izrael took Jimmy to Brazil shortly thereafter. Jimmy thinks his father suffered from survivor’s guilt and wanted to somehow reconstruct the family he lost in the Holocaust, which might explain why Izrael had three children from two different mothers. Jimmy’s father took the name Israel Cygler when they moved to Brazil. He also quickly remarried and that’s when Jimmy’s life turned into a nightmare.
“I thought I had a ‘normal life,’” Jimmy said about what things were like after his father remarried. “I had a father, a woman whom I thought was my mother, and four younger brothers. I was raised Christian, studied with the nuns at school and went to mass on Sunday. Had a first communion. That was my life. But what I thought was normal at the time was not normal at all. “I was maltreated and tortured as a kid.”
His stepmother once punished him by putting him in a hole under the house for a week without food. Another time she smeared hot pepper juice “on all the holes of my body.” And after getting caught playing with matches as a seven-year-old, his mother placed his hand into a gas fire to punish him. He was burnt so badly that it took years of surgeries and skin grafts before he could properly open and close his hand.
“My mother did that to me,” Jimmy said. “She was the real villain in this, but I didn’t know that. I didn’t know she wasn’t my mother, if I had known I could have dealt with that. But the only conclusion I could draw from those punishments was that I was a monster, that I deserved that because I was a monster. That was me at 13.”
Then the trajectory of his life changed when his father became critically ill and a stranger shared with him some surprising news.
“Out of the blue this young lad appears, speaks with me for half an hour and tore down the basis of my life,” Jimmy said. “He tells me ‘I’m your brother from another marriage. I’m from Lima, Peru. You also have an older sister, and your mother is not your mother. You were born to a woman in New York.’”
Jimmy was stunned. His father then told him it was all true.
“’Well son, now that you know you are a Jew, you are going to the land of the Jews, which is called Israel,’” Jimmy recalled his father saying. “I didn’t know anything about that country or those people. I didn’t know anything about the Jewish people. ”
He arrived in Israel in October 1962, and stayed for the next 27 years. “The country embraced me,” Jimmy said.
He lived in a special area of a kibbutz for teenagers who didn’t have parents. They were from 30 to 40 different countries and many had been orphaned or displaced by World War II. Jimmy received good care, including intensive psychological treatment to help deal with the emotional wounds from his stepmother’s abuse.
“That’s why I say I’m a rebuilt human being,” Jimmy said.
He served as a soldier in four wars, was married, has two sons and a daughter, divorced, married again, and had another daughter, and then divorced again.
“And then I met a Brazilian girl and fell in love and went to Brazil,” he said.
Jimmy reinvented himself – the twice divorced veteran who was a father of four went to college, married again, started another family, and now he runs a very successful business. But he was always looking, “desperately looking,” he says, for the pieces to the puzzle of his life. He was able to find his four half-brothers from his father’s family in Brazil. His stepmother told them he died in the war. With the help of a Peruvian businessman, Jimmy tracked down the phone number of a woman in Lima he thought might be his sister, Alina. He called her, said his name was Jimmy and that he was from Brazil.
“My dear little brother Jimmy, I have been looking for you all my life!” she replied. Jimmy pauses to control his emotion as he recounts meeting his sister.
“From this moment I felt love for her,” he said.
Jimmy traveled to Peru to get to know his sister, and she shared a blurry old photo she had of him being held by his biological mother. She also told him her own memory of holding him as an infant. She never forgot that and spent her life looking for him, never knowing how she could find him.
“She kept that memory her whole life, always wondering what had happened to me,” Jimmy said.
She also told him about their father, his financial problems in Peru, some of his history fleeing Poland and losing all of his family in the Holocaust. And he learned about being born in New York, but he still didn’t know anything about his biological mother. Jimmy says he and Alina became very close.
In 2013, his sister was diagnosed with cancer, a year later she died.
“Alina was a wonderful woman,” he said.
Losing her so soon was a huge blow to Jimmy. Jimmy’s story took another turn in early 2015 when his daughter, Orly, got her 23andMe results. She saw a match with Paul, thinking he was a cousin. But when she shared with Jimmy Paul’s date of birth and how much DNA he shared with Paul, they concluded that Paul and Jimmy were brothers.
In that first meeting, both men were overcome as they hugged and shed tears.
“It was very emotional,” Jimmy said. “We’re kind of old guys and I could see in his eyes how much he had suffered. I know what I went through and I came out a real strong person – a leader, a teacher and a family man. We both survived.”