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Long Lost Brothers

March 28, 2012 | by Rabbi Gavriel Horan

When they posted a photo on a Holocaust victims’ database, they never imagined where it would lead.

Dorit Korenblum grew up thinking she would never know much about her father's family, most of whom perished during the Holocaust. The only known surviving relic was one photo of his mother – Dorit’s grandmother – taken in Warsaw before the war.

When Dorit visited her aunt Chela-Chinka in Paris in the early 1980’s, she was amazed to discover dozens of perfectly preserved photos of the Korenblum family. When the Nazi’s invaded Poland, Chinka, as she was called, escaped to Russia with her two brothers, taking the valuable photos with her for fear she would never see her family again. Dorit was particularly fascinated by one specific photo of her grandparents and their children, including her father Yaakov with his siblings.

Yaakov was the youngest of five children born to Tuvia and Bracha Korenblum in Warsaw. During the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Yaakov escaped to Russia with his older brother Nachum and his sister, Chele-Chinka. The rest of the family perished at the hands of the Nazis, with the exception of another sister Sarah Leah who was living in Paris before the War.

“I knew that photo of my grandparents and their children would play an important part in our family's future,” Dorit recalls. “Although I had no idea how.” She insisted that her aunt let her keep the photo, though only several decades later would its significance be understood.

Runaway Brothers

Tuvia Korenblum was a successful bookbinder in pre-war Warsaw, known far and wide for his golden hands. Bracha Korenblum was pregnant with her first son, Nachum, during World War I. Due to malnutrition caused by poor war rations he was born disabled, unable to walk. At the age of seven he was finally sent for treatments and was healed. From that day on, however, Nachum refused to walk—instead he preferred to run everywhere he went. He quickly became a leader and his younger brother Yaakov became his trusty follower. The two were inseparable. "The degree of love in their family was much stronger than anything we find today," says Dorit.

Germans guards tried to convince them to return to Poland.

When the Nazis invaded Poland, the two youngest Korenblum children, Yaakov and his sister Chele-Chinka, followed their older brother Nachum across the border into Russia. The Germans tried hard to convince escaped Jews to return to Poland by distributing brochures at the border checkpoints, insisting that they didn't intend the Jews any harm. Many Jews succumbed to these empty promises, believing falsely that the Russian winter was a much greater enemy than the Nazis.

The three Korenblum siblings stood at the crossing, unsure what to do. On one hand, they had been forced to leave their parents behind, who were too old to flee home. On the other hand, the stories of Nazi cruelty during the early days of Hitler's rise to power had already reached their ears. The Korenblums decided to watch the Nazi soldiers who were stationed at the border to see what they were all about. After a while they concluded that returning to Poland was suicide.

"I wasn't about to put myself into their hands," Yaakov recounted years later. "The Russians may have been violent at times, but the Germans were extremely cruel. We weren't going back." Nonetheless, Chele-Chinka returned to Warsaw one more time to attempt to convince their parents to follow them into Russia, to no avail.

Brothers at Arms

In Russia, Chele-Chinka was adopted by a poor Kazaki family who cared for her in return for housework. The two brothers decided that the best way to survive as refugee orphans was to join the Red Army. The two were stationed in Outer Mongolia, to thwart the Japanese expansion into Mongolia and lower Siberia. For five long years during the war, they never left each other’s side. Suddenly in 1944, just as the war was ending, Yaakov and Nachum were recruited into different units and they completely lost all contact with each other. They never found each other again.

After the war, both brothers – unbeknownst of each other – made their way back to Poland in search of surviving relatives. Neither reached his destination, however. Yaakov's money was stolen by a fellow soldier in Stanislavov, Ukraine, and he was unable to continue his journey. He ended up staying in Stanislavov, where he married and stayed for over a decade.

Nachum, on the other hand, was lacking certain papers and was unable to go further west than Kiev. That’s where he stayed and got married. For years the two brothers searched painfully for each other, but the Red Cross in Russia – either uninformed or uninterested in helping survivors – provided no answers.

In 1957, Yaakov managed to get exit visas to Israel for himself, his wife, and two children. They left the Soviet Union via Poland. Only once they had entered Poland were they able to track down their two surviving sisters and reunite, Chela-Chinka who had immigrated to Paris, and Sarah Leah who fled from the Nazi invasion of France to Morocco.

Unfortunately, they were never able to track down Nachum, who was still living on the other side of the Iron Curtain. They mourned the loss of their brother all their lives – certain that he was still alive somewhere. Shortly before Chele-Chinka passed away in 2006, she held Dorit's hand and said, "look for Nachum, look for Nachum."However, even after the fall of communism, the searches were always in vain, due largely to the fact that Nachum’s last name was changed to Koramblyum in the Ukraine.

Nachum remained separated from the rest of the surviving family members for the rest of his life. “He didn’t have any family,” Nachum’s oldest son Anatoly said. “He searched all his life for them and was very disappointed to never find them.”

Yaakov and his family eventually settled in Haifa. Dorit, their third child, was born there a few years later.

The lost brother, Nachum, remained in Kiev, also raising three children. His family relocated to the United States in 1991, after the fall of communism. Both Yaakov and Nachum continued the family business of bookbinding, over a thousand miles away from each other – Yaakov in Haifa, and Nachum in Kiev. They were both famous for their golden hands, just like their father.

A Living Testament

In 1958, shortly after Yaakov moved to Israel, he entered a “Page of Testimony” for his deceased parents in Yad Vashem's Database of Victims' Names. In 2004 this database of over 4 million names went online. In 2006, Dorit's older sister, Bracha, decided to update details on her grandfather's Page of Testimony. She uploaded a copy of the family photograph that Dorit had taken from their Aunt Chele-Chinka in Paris two decades earlier – a photo that included the inseparable young brothers, Yaakov and Nachum.

Five years later, in the fall of 2011, Nachum's grandson, Igor Korenblum of New York, conducted a search on the Yad Vashem database and found the Page of Testimony submitted for his great-grandfather Tuvia Korenblum. Until this point, the descendents of “lost brother Nachum” never had any connection with the rest of the family tree.

They were suspicious of an email from a “long-lost cousin.”

When Anatoly saw the photographs, he was shocked to see that one of Tuvia's children bore a striking resemblance to the photos he had seen of his father Nachum as a young man. Only then did he realize that the post must have been made by his very own cousins. "I couldn't sleep for a week, it was so exciting,” he recalls. “This was the first time I had seen the faces of my father's family. My father would mention that I looked like his younger brother Yaakov – and now I saw it was true!"

When Dorit and Bracha received an email from Anatoly claiming to be their long-lost cousin, they were suspicious. "It's a good Jewish quality," Dorit said. "We have to be suspicious to survive in a world that sought to destroy our ancestors. We asked for proof."

Anatoly responded by sending a photo of his father before the war and another of his aunt Sarah Leah and her husband in Paris.

"This is him!" Dorit exclaimed. "I couldn't believe it."

"Since I was a little boy, I remember my father telling me that he had a brother," Nachum's son Gennadiy recalls. "'He is somewhere,' he used to say.’I always held him in my hands. I never let anyone separate us.'"

Gennadiy's oldest son Yvgeny received a bris at age 13 when they arrived in America. At the bris he was given the Hebrew name Yaakov, after his grandfather's "lost" brother.

Coming Full Circle

Nachum died in 1996. Yaakov died five years later in 2001. Now, more than a decade later, their children were united at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Amazingly, their first contact by email took place on the yartzeit memorial of Yaakov’s death. "We are happy to find our cousins, but we are sad that our fathers never had a chance to find each other in their lifetimes," Anatoly said. "Maybe our fathers in heaven made it possible for us to find each other this day."

The new cousins continue to stay in touch regularly and are planning more transcontinental trips to spend time catching up with each other.

"I am sure our fathers are happy now upstairs seeing us all here together," Gennadiy says. "This means everything to me."

"A circle has been closed,” said Yaakov's only son Rafael Korenblum. “There was something unresolved all these years. It lingered, and now there is closure."

Cynthia Wroclawski, the manager of Yad Vashem's name recovery project, explained that similar breakthroughs happen on a regular basis. Increased discoveries are being made more and more nowadays, thanks to the internet, as well as to greater openness among aging survivors to tell their stories and the curiosity of their tech-savvy descendents.

"The lock is being opened by the younger generation,” she says. “They have more intuition and more interest. That's the power of the database. The torch of memory is being passed."

Efforts are continuing to collect names – primarily in Eastern Europe – where Jews were often rounded up, shot and dumped into mass graves without any documentation. On the other hand, the names of Jews killed at German death camps are recorded in the meticulous Nazi records.

Yad Vashem encourages survivors and their descendents to fill out pages of testimony for those killed, before their names and stories are lost forever.

"There is still much more to do," Wroclawski said. "For these families, the rift of the Holocaust is getting smaller. Some kind of healing is taking place."

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