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Finding Lea

Beckoned by the Dark Eyes in a Photo, a Los Angeles Judge Tries to Solve the Mystery of the Woman's Fate, and of the Child in Her Arms

November 18, 2001|KATHERINE MADER

As a little girl I was prohibited from wearing black boots: They reminded Dad of the Nazis and gave him nightmares about Lea. He never spoke of his older sister, and I learned not to ask him about the aunt I would never meet, to accept the mystery that we had "family who disappeared in the war."

With every passing year, my curiosity grew. Dad died in 1980 without saying much about Lea. I often visited or spoke with his last living sister, Jenny, who returned to Vienna after surviving the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Aunt Jenny was always thrilled to hear from me--but reluctant to speak of Lea. The only evidence Lea had ever existed was a photo of a young woman Jenny identified as her eldest sister, posed with an infant. For years I stared at the picture on my living room wall, haunted by the same dark eyes that I shared with my father. Who was the infant? What was the baby's name? What happened to them?

Over the years Aunt Jenny dribbled out a few more details: Lea was married and had three teenage sons. Her husband's family name was Marfeldt.

My father escaped from Vienna to Switzerland in 1939 with his brother, Ello. Ello married a Swiss. His only child, Anita, is my lone first cousin. Although she lives in Switzerland, we are as close as the siblings neither of us had. We shared the pain of learning we had lost three cousins, the boys who vanished with our aunt. Jenny died in 1996 without adding to our slender list of facts about Lea.

It seems impossible in our information age that all record of a family could disappear. I searched the Internet and other electronic databases. I leafed through Red Cross documents, lists from Holocaust libraries and synagogues, concentration camp records, Jewish newspapers. I found no Marfeldts. I learned this was not unusual. Where the Nazis failed to incinerate an entire family, they often succeeded in wiping out many of its branches. I was determined, however. I wanted to record for future generations that these people had lived, that they mattered to our family. I hired a Jerusalem private investigator to search Israeli records. He fared no better than I.

Last December, I visited Anita in Switzerland. She had uncovered a small clue. My Uncle Ello, who died in 1961, had left voluminous personal papers. In them was a postcard from Lea, with a 1942 postmark from Tarnow, Poland. We had always assumed she lived in Vienna! Lea wrote that she appreciated a package she received from relatives and needed warm shoes for her son Fritz, with whom she hoped to remain.

So we had a cousin named Fritz and he lived in Tarnow during the war. His last name was not Marfeldt but Marfeld. Further digging in Ello's papers yielded more postcards from 1943. Fritz wrote that he had heard nothing from his parents and brothers in six months and thought of them constantly.

I spent the 2000 winter holidays in Egypt and Jordan with my husband and children. At the last minute we decided to spend the final two days in Israel. While my family toured the Negev, I visited the library at Yad Vashem, a Holocaust memorial site in Jerusalem. My last shot, I thought. I found a database called Pages of Testimony with the names of millions of Holocaust victims. Everyone with knowledge of Holocaust deaths is urged to contribute, each swearing their testimony is correct. Eventually this database will be accessible via the Internet.

I typed in "Marfeld." A name appeared on the screen: Lea Marfeld. A miracle! Her page said she was from Tarnow and died in a concentration camp. There were pages for Fritz, dead at age 20, for Martin, dead at 18, and Simon, dead at 12. All lived in Tarnow. All died in concentration camps. I was more stunned to learn that each of my relatives had been entered into the Pages of Testimony on May 24, 1999, by a Jacov Zedon. I had never heard of this man. What prompted him to enter the Marfelds? And why so long after their deaths?

Zedon's telephone number was on each page. I used the library phone to call. A woman answered. I do not speak Hebrew. In the fractured German of my youth, I explained what I wanted. After a long silence she said, "I am so sorry. But my husband, Jacov, died last week. I never heard him speak of the Marfeld family. I had no idea that he entered their names at Yad Vashem." All she could offer was the phone number of Jacov's cousin.

I took it, sure that Jacov Zedon had taken Lea's story to his grave. A man appeared at my elbow. "I overheard you on the phone," he said. "My German is as bad as yours." This was Tommy Lamm, a professional researcher searching for Nazi war criminals on behalf of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. He urged me to keep digging. "Just when you think that you've reached the end of the road, another road invariably opens up," he said.

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