My daughter, Gilah, and I are on a mission to visit places of our family’s roots. Last summer it was Russia and Belarus. This year it was the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The specific target was Satmar, Romania.
My mother-in-law, Rochel Kletenik, was born in 1925 and grew up in Satmar, a mid-size city, in what was then Romania. Her father, Ephraim Leherer, passed away when she was just 6 years old. As a teenager, she, along with her mother and siblings, were taken to Auschwitz. By the end, she was the sole survivor, exhausted by pain and with headspace only for survival and moving forward. We had few stories about her family, but we knew one detail: her father was the rabbi of Turka.
Our mission was to explore Satmar, walk the streets, see where the ghetto had once stood, visit the synagogue, and imagine what life there had once been.
In advance of the trip, we contacted the local Jewish community of Satmar. A representative met us at our hotel, and walked us through the former Jewish quarter and to the offices of the Jewish community. There we learned of the cemetery and burial records of the community. Since Rochel’s father died before the Holocaust, we thought that it was worth a try to search for his name. Though not hopeful, we began. To our dismay, there was no one by the name Ephraim Leherer in either of the large ledger books. But we did find an “Ephraim Lerner,” and we had come too far not to give it a try. The next morning we headed out to the Jewish cemetery in search of the Ephraim Lerner gravestone. Could this be the one?
The groundskeeper led us over to the section of the grave, but the inscription was unreadable. With a red clay rock we begin to scrape. Slowly, words appeared. “Rabbi” — good. “Ephraim” — check. The year — yes! And then: Turka — yes! This was it! We began to cry. We had found it: a grave not visited for over 70 years.
We are here. We did not forget you. This is your great-granddaughter. She looks just like your daughter, Rochel. We have returned. Or zaru la’tzadik: light is sown for the righteous. You are blessed. We bring you word of your two grandsons, their 11 children, and your 16 great-grandchildren, all proud, devoted Jews.
We could barely believe our eyes. Leherer had become Lerner in a scribal error.
We continue scraping, and there is more. Etched on the stone are poetic, heartwarming epitaphs not only for Grandfather Ephraim, but for Ephraim’s ancestor, Rabbi Tzvi Charif.
Wait. What? Who knew? A puzzle piece that we had not even known was missing. A new chapter for our family’s story, lineage restored, identity revealed. Rabbi Charif — his name means “sharp” for his genius and acuteness — was rabbi in Brigidau, Galicia, and later became the rosh yeshiva in Brody, and authored the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.
So much had been taken from my mother-in-law: family, home, security, and well-being, and now we know that her own family story had also been torn away. Two boys grew up without their story — without knowing of their descent from a famed scholar, a noted author, and as we are learning, quite the colorful figure with an illustrious family tree.
In Vienna, just days before, we had stood at the Judenplatz Holocaust memorial, the “Nameless Library” designed by Rachel Whiteread. It is a large concrete structure depicting walls of books with spines facing inward, hidden from sight. The titles are unknown, and the content of the books remains unknowable.
As we stood in the cemetery in Satmar, at this stone, we felt somehow we had reached into that hard concrete and pulled out a volume. Now we are beginning to read a new chapter in our family’s story.