The Great Garbuny-Gorbunov Hunt
by Carole Garbuny Vogel
This essay was originally published in Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, Volume XIII, No. 4, Winter 1997.
For most of my life I believed that my paternal grandfather, father, uncle, two sisters and I were all that were left of the Garbuny-Gorbunov family from Vitebsk, Belorus. My grandfather, Efim Garbuny, had moved from Vitebsk to Germany in 1905, shortened his name and sought his fortune. Little did he know then that he would never return home to his parents and six siblings. After the Communists took control of Russia my grandfather feared that a visit to Vitebsk might trap him there forever. Then when Hitler came to power my grandfather confronted more immediate worries—how to get his wife and sons out of Europe.
His sons solved that problem. In 1938 my father Max Garbuny, armed with a doctorate in physics from the Technical University of Berlin, and his younger brother Siegfried with a doctorate in economics, were deemed worthy of admission to the United States. Once in this country they struggled to establish themselves professionally and rescue their parents. They succeeded by early 1940.
In America, my grandfather focused his worry on his siblings in Russia. At war’s end he learned about the fate of the Jews in Vitebsk. Einsatzgruppe B, one of four German killing units dedicated to the extermination of Jews, had swept through Belorus and the Jewish population of Vitebsk had been decimated.
Grandpa never spoke to me about his family or his losses. I sensed that he was a lonely man and especially missed the companionship of his sisters and brothers. My occasional probing was always rebuffed in angry tones. Even though Grandpa lived to be 106, I was never able to break through his barriers.
My father and uncle were more open but of little help. They could identify my grandfather’s siblings in a family portrait from the early 1900s. And they remembered that Grandpa’s sister, Frieda, had died of a strep infection the night before her wedding. They also mentioned that the family was well-educated. My grandfather’s favorite sister, Rachel, had become a physician, specializing in bacteriology, and married a doctor of German-Baltic descent. This sister had had a daughter. My uncle told me that for some reason my grandfather believed that Rachel had survived the war and had perhaps gone to Sweden. But I knew deep down that if Rachel had gone to Sweden she and my grandfather would have found each other. Still, I wondered what had given my grandfather hope. Then one day my uncle remembered.
“There was a letter from Grandpa’s brother Samuel that arrived after the war,” said my uncle. “He reported that their brother Solomon and sister Rachel had survived the Holocaust. Samuel lived in Moscow and said that every member of the family lives well. He had a son who was an academic and a captain in the Russian army. Samuel also wrote that Solomon’s wife had run away and that Solomon had at least two children. He also mentioned that the Nazis murdered Grandpa’s sister, Zlata, but I don’t know what happened to the youngest brother, Lev. Your father must have that letter because after Grandpa’s death I couldn’t find it.”
My father knew nothing about the letter. Although Dad had married in 1947 and had three daughters, his life’s focus was on physics with a specialty in lasers. He was awarded at least 40 patents, and wrote a book called Optical Physics. During the Vietnam War, Dad served as a consultant to the Scientific Advisory Panel of the U.S. Army. He used to joke that he probably had cousins serving in the same capacity in the Kremlin.
In 1989, two years after Grandpa’s death, Dad mentioned that in the 1940s Grandpa occasionally visited a first cousin in Newark, NJ. The cousin was named Mamie Axel and she had four sons. At least two of the sons had lived in Lakewood, NJ. Although the trail was more than 50 years old, at least there was a trail.
No Axels were listed in the current Lakewood phone book. So on a hunch I wrote a letter to the rabbi of Temple Beth Am, a Reform congregation in Lakewood. I asked if perchance anyone in the congregation might have known the Axel brothers. Well it turned out that Sol and Herbert Axel had been founding members of the temple. Although Herbert had died, his wife Ruth still lived in Lakewood, as did Sol and his wife Lil. They had unlisted phone numbers!
The contact was made, and soon I met the Axels face-to-face. They welcomed me warmly and filled me in on their branch of the family. I was amazed to learn that there was a large number of scientists in the family. The Axels also told me that my grandfather’s grandfather was Chaim Gorbunov, a cattle merchant, who was killed by a train when his oldest son was 13. Chaim had had six children, Abram, Reuben, Nehemiah (my grandfather’s father), Bessy, Frieda, and Hershel. The Axels had descended from Abram’s line. And they knew a Herbert Gorbunoff of Edison, NJ, who was the grandson of Hershel. Herbert was able to fill in some more family history, and told me about the Wittensohn/Pistanowitz branch of the family that had apparently descended from one of Chaim’s daughters.
The next year, Sol Axel forwarded to me a letter he had received from his long- lost first cousin, Pessia Gorbunova. Pessia was a newly arrived Russian immigrant in Israel and she was able to tell me about many of the family branches who had stayed behind in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, she knew nothing about my grandfather’s family.
A few years later, more Gorbunov cousins left the Soviet Union. These cousins settled in Brooklyn and Pessia told them how to find me. These cousins told me about themselves and about the family of Chaim’s son Reuben. Again there was an amazing number of scientists in the family. But there was no information about my grandfather’s siblings. A letter to the International Red Cross Tracing Service seeking information about the family proved fruitless. I was beginning to think it was hopeless.
In May 1997, my parents decided to leave their home of 30 years and move into a condo. While packing, my mother found a box containing what was left of Grandpa’s belongings. Inside the box was a letter written in Russian. I could make out the word Moscow and the date 1947. I knew it had to be Samuel’s letter.
One of my newly-found Russian cousins in Brooklyn translated the letter.
Moscow, January 15, 1947
Unexpectedly I got your letter. It was a great event for me. I haven’t had a letter from you in 16 years. We learned only from your letter to Solomon that you had escaped the claws of the German fascists. We haven’t seen each other for more than 40 years. In that time we have become old. I am a grandfather now. Too bad our families don’t even know each other and you don’t even know the names of our kids. I am very happy for your children. It is very hard to get a Ph.D. in our times. Now we know that you and your family are well. It is very important. We often speculated about how you were and where you were. I had already given up hope about receiving a letter from you.
My daughter Tamara is a doctor at a health resort. Her husband is an agriculturist. They have a five-year-old daughter. They live well. My son Seva returned from the front in 1946. He was there for four years. He served in the tank division. He got six medals and many commendations from headquarters. In 1941 he graduated from high school with honors. He was soon sent to the front. Last summer he turned 22. Now he is studying at the college of radio and television.
When Seva was at war we worried a lot. Dasha worried more than all of us. She looked brave on the outside but on the inside she was not very strong. I am working as an engineer in a factory. In 1938 I earned a degree in chemical engineering. It was not easy because of my age.
Rachel, Lev and Solomon live in Moscow. Rachel has a good job as a sanitary inspector. Her daughter Frieda is a student at the medical university. She is 19 years old. Lev has a job in the industry corporation. His wife has a good job too. They live well. Their daughter Rika graduated from the medical university this year. She works in the institute of professional diseases. Solomon works at his old job. I rarely see him. Zlata died during the evacuation. The fate of our relatives who lived in places overrun by the German fascists was awful. All of those who were in Vitebsk and other places were killed by Hitler’s gang. Nahum Tomarkin and his wife, the son of Zlata Tomarkin and his whole family, Abram Rivkin, the three Mosarky families, and many others were killed. The end of these Fascist brutes you know. We broke their necks.
It is time to end. I am saying hello to you Liese, Max, and Siegfried. Rachael and Frieda send their regards too and wish you the best. Say hello to all who remember me.
My address is Moscow 23, Busheninovskaya St., 30.
My cousin offered to place an ad in the Russian language papers in New York and Israel so see whether anybody knew Seva, Tamara, Frieda, or Rika. She did and three weeks later we got our answer. The best friend of Tamara’s daughter had immigrated to Washington, D.C. He recognized the family and immediately telephoned my Brooklyn cousin. Within a few hours, contact had been made with my Russian relatives.
Samuel and the rest of my grandfather’s siblings had died years before. But Samuel’s son Seva–my father’s first cousin–was alive. Now in his early seventies, Seva was the father of two men in their thirties. One was married and the father of a four-year-old girl. Seva’s sister Tamara had died of hepatitis in 1950. Her daughter, Tanya, had been raised by Samuel and his wife. I learned that Solomon’s two children had died at ages 7 and 11 during a diphtheria epidemic. Of my father’s other remaining first cousins, Frieda and Rika, both were alive and delighted that my family had been found. All of the family members lived in Moscow. They made it clear that we were the long lost-cousins. They had tried to find us. A friend of theirs had visited New York in the 1960s but was unsuccessful in tracking us down.
My older sister Vivian deemed the discovery of our Moscow family a miracle. The next week when she discovered in her safe deposit box several mature Israel bonds which she had forgotten about, she decided that was a miracle too and promptly cashed them in. She then bought roundtrip airplane tickets to Moscow for the two of us.
In September Vivian and I met our Moscow family. Their warm greeting was like walking into a giant hug. We clicked instantly and tried to make up for lost time. Among the amazing things we found out, was that Samuel had been given the Stalin award, one of the Soviet Union’s highest honor, for his contribution to Russian science. His son Seva it turned out had worked in a scientific field similar to my father’s. So my father’s musings that he had a cousin who was his counterpart in the Kremlin weren’t so far off. Grandpa’s sister Rachel had actually worked in the Kremlin. Her training as a bacteriologist was put to use as Stalin’s official poison tester. Every bite of food that Stalin ate had to be approved by her. Apparently every time Stalin or one of his colleagues came down with a stomach ache, Rachel worried that she would be thrown into a gulag! I also learned that my grandfather had grown up next door to Marc Chagall and his family in Vitebsk and that his sister Zlata had been good friends with Chagall’s sister.
As Vivian and I basked in the love of our newly found family, and as we drank numerous rounds of vodka with them, toasting our good health and theirs, we made sure to toast genealogical pursuit and the miracle it had wrought.