Selma Spieler wished she knew more about her father.
She knew he came from Russia, was generous — regularly bringing food to neighbors and sending money to a cousin in Israel who was studying to be a doctor. And she knew her father worked hard, toiling at night in a bagel factory in Brooklyn after he immigrated to New York in the 1920s.
But there was a lot she didn’t know about him. Before she could learn more, her father, Abraham “Avram” Leib Greenberg, died. Selma was 14. It was 1946 and at that moment it sunk in that she’d never be able to ask him about his past, about the seven siblings he left behind in Russia and Poland, or how his family was able to survive pogroms, the violence of World War I and the Russian Revolution.
Selma thought she lost all that family history with her father, a man born in the 1800s, who survived world-shattering changes that swept through Europe before he came to America. She was sure that the history of his life vanished with him. She thought that all the family he left behind was gone too, swept away in the violence that came after her father immigrated. Now in her 80s, she’d long ago given up on finding out anything more about her father and his family.
“My mother just assumed that they had all died in the Holocaust,” her daughter Risa Rubin said.
It’s an experience many Jews with family roots in Eastern Europe can relate to — large parts of their family history erased by the Holocaust and the upheaval of the Second World War.
But more than seventy years after her father died, Selma learned with the help of 23andMe bits about her father’s history that she never knew before. She and her daughter Risa discovered the fate of his siblings. Some were indeed lost in the Holocaust but others survived. And most astounding of all, for Selma and her daughter, is that using 23andMe they were able to find some of her father’s family in Israel and travel to meet them in person including meeting Selma’s first cousin Fania.
“If my mother and I had not done this we would have never known,” Risa said. “She was so emotional, she cried when she found all this out… this has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life.”
This journey of discovery started when Risa and her brother Eric joined 23andMe. Risa was interested in learning more about herself and her ancestry. And then when her mother also used 23andMe, Risa helped her connect with a previously unknown relative named Ayelet, who lives in Israel.
“I noticed that my mom and Ayelet shared DNA, including a segment that was completely identical,” Risa said.
Before that moment, Risa and her brother had assumed that all of her Grandfather’s family had been killed in the Holocaust. But she quickly learned that she had dozens of living relatives on that side of her family, who mostly live in Israel. Ayelet has a brother who had already done an extensive family tree and it proved to be a goldmine for Risa and her mother. Together with the help of Ayelet, Selma’s cousin Fania and another cousin named Naomi, they began filling in the pieces of their missing tree including finding the children and grandchildren of Selma’s uncles, her father’s brothers as well as the children of her aunt. They also learned more about Abraham’s life before he came to America, and that all but four of his siblings had survived the Holocaust, many of them had immigrated to Palestine before the war or wound up in Israel after it. Ayelet’s great grandfather was Selma’s father’s brother. Ayelet’s had even known of Selma’s father — his Uncle Abraham — but he’d been told that Abraham had never made it out of
Russia. Selma’s cousin, Fania, however was told that Abraham had made it out and wound up in America, but she knew little else.
Their relatives in Israel were able to offer documents, photos and family history for Selma — information about her father that she never knew. About where he moved in Russia and then Poland, before he immigrated to America. Her cousin Fania recognized the photo of her grandparents that Risa and Selma had brought with them. Selma also learned more about his siblings, Moshe, Haya, Isaac, Slova, Rachel, Yaakov and Shlomo. The trip allowed Risa and her mother to connect not just with family in Israel, but others in the US and in Russia, a total of more than 50 relatives in all.
“The process of finding our family has been an amazing experience. It was bashert – meant to be,” Risa said. “Thank you 23andme for finding my family.”