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Seeking Kin: From scrawls behind a photo, a family tree grows

This photo from Jan. 1, 1959, taken on Pamela Graff Wolfson’s second birthday, helped reunite her with Israeli cousins she never knew existed. (Masha Poplinger)

This photo from Jan. 1, 1959, taken on Pamela Graff Wolfson’s second birthday, helped reunite her with Israeli cousins she never knew existed. (Masha Poplinger)

The “Seeking Kin” column aims to help reunite long-lost friends and relatives.

BALTIMORE (JTA) — Round faced and wavy haired, the little girl in dark overalls is standing on a traditional easy chair in her family’s Chicago apartment on Winthrop Street. She is cradling a doll — perhaps a newly opened gift for the second birthday she is celebrating.

The black-and-white photograph from New Year’s Day 1959 is significant now for a mundane scribble on its back.

“Pamela Beth Graff,” her father, Irving, had written before enclosing the picture in a letter to his first cousin living in Haifa. Recently it helped reunite the family’s long-separated Israeli and American branches.

The photo’s recipient more than a half-century ago was Mordechai Fridman, a carpenter who in July 1939 had gathered his wife, Doba, and daughter, Masha, and left Stawatycze, Poland, less than two months before Germany invaded. The family rode out the war in Russia and Uzbekistan, returned to Poland in 1945 and ultimately immigrated to Israel on Sept. 1, 1948.

Masha Fridman Poplinger, now a 75-year-old grandmother of nine, remembers walking at age 11 with her father to the post office on Haatzmaut Street near Haifa’s port to pick up packages of clothing and food items mailed by Graff, the son of Anna Sturmer Graff, whose sister was Mordechai’s mother, Gitl Sturmer Fridman. Gitl, along with her four other children — two daughters and sons Yehuda and Herschel — and their families were killed during the Holocaust.

“After the war, after losing everything, those items were important and we appreciated them,” Poplinger said of the packages from Chicago, which she remembered had bedsheets once. Mordechai, who died in 1983, had exchanged “so many letters” with his American cousin, she said.

Six months ago, Poplinger decided to move with her husband, Aryeh, who has Alzheimer’s disease, from a second-floor apartment in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Bialik to a ground-floor home on Kibbutz Shamir in northern Israel, where their daughter lives.

While packing for the move, she discovered old photographs, including the one of little Pamela. That day, Poplinger listened, as is her wont, to the Israeli radio program “Hamador L’chipus Krovim” (Searching for Relatives Bureau). She heard the show’s host, Izi Mann, say that “Seeking Kin” helps with searches for callers’ long-lost friends and relatives living in the United States.

Poplinger contacted Mann and was interviewed on the air, but had faint hope of locating her cousins because she knew only the names of Irving and Pamela and their being Chicagoans. She also knew that Irving had two older sisters, but not their names.

Shortly after speaking with Poplinger last week, “Seeking Kin” found Irving Graff’s July 2000 obituary in the Chicago Tribune. The article mentioned his two daughters, Pamela and Marti, and two sisters, Sarah and Paula.

Subsequent interviews with Pamela Graff Wolfson and Paula’s daughter, Karen Greenberg, confirmed that they were Poplinger’s long-lost cousins. They had never known they had Israeli kin.

Wolfson said she figured that her grandmother Anna had likely sent or at least initiated the sending of the packages to Israel in the late 1940s and early 1950s, since it would have been “uncharacteristic for [Irving] to have done so.”

“I don’t recall him having anything to do with his family,” Wolfson said.

Wolfson said a pattern of alienation, disputes and grudges permeated the generations of her grandparents, father and now her own to the extent that she has long been estranged from her sister and their paternal cousins living in Chicago and California.

As a result, Wolfson said, nearly all the family photographs are in her sister’s possession.

Upon opening the five pictures Poplinger had emailed to “Seeking Kin,” Wolfson seemed to gasp.

“Oh my God,” she said, viewing the images on her desktop computer.

Wolfson quickly identified Anna and her husband, Hyman, both wearing formal clothing and dour expressions at the dinner table; herself as the girl standing on the chair; her mother, Evelyn, holding her as an infant; Paula and her husband, Arthur Schwartz, standing under a tree; and Irving posing in a garden.

“I am so glad to have these pictures now,” Wolfson said, adding that “it would be wonderful” to establish contact with her newfound cousins.

In Israel, Poplinger expressed delight in her search’s successful climax.

“If they’d be willing to meet with me, I’d love to see them,” she said. “They are the only relatives on my father’s side. He lost everyone [else] in the war.”

No pre-Holocaust photographs survive, either, Poplinger said.

Perhaps her Chicago cousins have some to share. Such pictures, and the accompanying stories, would constitute a modern-day, equally cherished trans-Atlantic care package.

(Please email Hillel Kuttler at seekingkin@jta.org if you would like “Seeking Kin” to write about your search for long-lost relatives and friends. Please include the principal facts and your contact information in a brief email. “Seeking Kin” is sponsored by Bryna Shuchat and Joshua Landes and family in loving memory of their mother and grandmother, Miriam Shuchat, a lifelong uniter of the Jewish people.)

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