Iris Tzafrir, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, summoned the courage to dig into her family's history when her son, Avi, asked her to speak on the subject at the Amos and Celia Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School. Tzafrir never would have believed the revelations, and the connections, that would come out of her search.
Until that time in 2010, the St. Louis Park resident had seen the back story as too painful to bring up. Both of her parents lost their nuclear families. However, Tzafrir found that sharing the story was a healing experience.
Since then, she has talked to other school groups. Her three children are her cheerleaders: They "see how I struggle through and continue to do this. It's another demonstration of determination, how important it is to tell the history, to learn from it," she said.
Tzafrir started trying to piece together the past events that had torn her family apart. She and her dad, Yehoshua Tzafrir, and her three siblings, Ouri, Assaf Tzafrir and Ora Aoudi, went to Poland and Germany in 2010. They visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buna-Monowitz concentration camp sites, and they followed his route in the Death March from Buna-Monowitz to Buchenwald, Germany. For Iris, it was a watershed moment: "I determined that this was going to be a very important part of my life," she said.
She began writing a book, "Touching Our Trembling Places." The title alludes to how "we have these places within ourselves that, when we talk about them or think about them, we come to tears," almost inexplicably, she said. "We are very moved."
As she did research, Tzafrir ran into a wall. It was unclear what happened after her father's family was forced into the Nazi-created Kraków Ghetto in Poland in 1941. During the two-year period that followed, his family disappeared. She contacted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which investigates queries. She submitted 12 names of family members. Little information surfaced for anyone except Schiendel Lea Lieblich, Yehoshua Tzafrir's older sister. More than 50 documents popped up for her, including a "displaced persons card" indicating her postwar residence.
Tzafrir was stunned, and figured it was a mistake. She forwarded the documents to her siblings, who live in Israel, where she grew up. "You know the feeling when you find out something exciting, you feel like your insides are trembling. That's how I was feeling," she said.
A family reunion
Tzafrir's parents had met in Israel, at the Kibbutz Mishmar-Hanegev, a communal settlement where her 87-year-old father still lives. Her mother, Shari Tzafrir, died five years ago at the age of 80. (Tzafrir came to Minnesota 20 years ago for grad school and has been here ever since.)
Tzafrir made an amazing discovery: Lieblich had lived in Israel with her husband and two children, a mere 200 miles away from Tzafrir's dad, for several decades. Neither of them ever knew it. Lieblich died in 1974 but Tzafrir and her siblings were able to track down their now adult cousins.
The families reunited at the kibbutz last November. After talking, poring over photos and looking at writings of her dad's, everyone walked over to the Holocaust memorial in the kibbutz, which listed family members who had been murdered. One of the names was Schiendel Lea Lieblich, believed by her brother to have been killed. For Lieblich's children, who are living proof of her survival, "It was powerful to see her name there," Tzafrir said.
While the reunion was "an incredible joyous event overall," she said, everyone also felt sadness "that our dad and his sister lived so close together and never knew."
Because Lieblich never talked about the past, Tzafrir's cousins "didn't know my father's name, or how many brothers and sisters he had."
In conversations with her cousins, Tzafrir has been able to find more family members in the U.S., as well. That includes a cousin in New York with whom she and Avi stayed during a recent trip. Now, the whole family is in constant communication. "We talk on Skype and the telephone like we've been together forever," she said.
Laura Vento, a Holocaust museum researcher who helped Tzafrir extensively, was pleasantly surprised to hear about the reunion. "I don't feel responsible for providing the documents, but it's amazing to be a messenger in a sense — to find those documents for her and her family, and relay them to her and have such an amazing thing occur as a result," she said.
'Touching Our Trembling Places'
In her book, Tzafrir explores what it means to be a second-generation survivor of the Holocaust, including the lessons she's learned from her parents. To begin with, "the word 'survivor' is very powerful." The book shows how "out of trauma, 'here's what comes out of it, difficult things and strong and beautiful things.'" she said.
In one chapter, she discusses her family's "extreme feeling of being alone in the world." Tzafrir delves into her dad's experience on the Death March. It's an intense, desperate feeling, knowing that one's family members and friends have been murdered, and not having anyone around to help you, she said.
All these years later, in her family, that theme of aloneness "is no longer valid. It's an amazing wonderful feeling. I have family to share emotions, successes and failures with," which might seem ordinary to many other people, she said. "It's possible to build a life after this," she said. Her parents had courage. They "always looked at what is, happiness for what it is." It would've been easy "to concentrate on the fact that they lost everyone and everything dear to them, and to then wither away, but that's not who they are," she said. The message to the reader is about "never giving up."
Tzafrir hopes to find a partner, either an organization or an individual, to complete and publish her book, to build educational materials based on it, and create a movie.
A powerful testimony
Jon Kahle, an English teacher at Eden Prairie High School, said his sophomore students learned about the Holocaust and Elie Wiesel's story, "Night," an autobiographical book about his experience in the concentration camps. "When I heard from Iris that her father was in the camp with Mr. Wiesel and marched out of Auschwitz with him at the end of the war, I immediately invited her to come in," he said.
Her testimony brought context to the book. It was enlightening for the students who "have no real clue about what this time in history was really like," he said. Kahle's students wrote thank-you notes to Iris after her visit. "Their takeaways were incredible," he said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance journalist. She can be reached at email@example.com.