By Franklin Gaylis
SAN DIEGO — Several thousand years of Jewish history has been extremely well documented. What about our personal family’s history over the past few hundred years?
This is the question I asked myself when our children were born in the USA after my wife Jean, and I emigrated in 1982 from South Africa. Suddenly the importance of knowing our family’s history became a priority in my life. A visit to the Kotel in Jerusalem made me think more about our family’s history in the diaspora, over the past 2000 years. That is when the following questions evolved:
Where did the family live prior to their emigration to South Africa? How did they get to South Africa? Who came first and why? What would I tell our children about their family’s past?
I knew so little, however, I quickly learned that most of my family, even the seniors whom I questioned, knew little more than I did.
All that was known were a few names of the shtetls in Lithuania and Latvia where our family had once lived. My grandmother’s sister, Aunti Cilla, attempted in vain when I was a young medical student to tell me the family’s history in Lithuania. The memories of how she had saved her sisters from the eventual annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry suddenly resurfaced in my mind. This amazing woman who lived to 102 years of age saved many members of our family and in doing so paved the path to South Africa. She also selflessly returned to the family’s shtetl Kruk, in Lithuania to save her sisters, including my grandmother. How I wished that someone had listened to her stories and acknowledged her courageous actions during her lifetime. Was it possible there were any family members remaining, I asked? Fortunately, we hadn’t lost any family in the Holocaust, or so we thought.
My quest for information prompted extensive research on the Jews of Lithuania and together with family we planned a trip to the old country. Jean and I together with four cousins (Lorraine, Richard, Uncle Dave and Jill) visited the family shtetls in Lithuania and Latvia hoping to find any relic from our family’s past: a home of one of our great grandparents, a tombstone or anything that could possibly connect us to our past. Lithuanian and Latvian Jews had migrated to these areas 700 years prior and we knew absolutely nothing about our family’s history in these countries, other than the names of a few shtetls.
During our week visiting the shtetls with the help of local and national guides, we were fortunate to find surviving family in Ludza (Latvia), which had been my great grandfather’s home. It was currently inhabited by Mrs Lotzov ( my grandfather was Frank Lotzof). A family tree from the Riga archives detailed seven generations starting in the early 1800s. I learned that I had been named Franklin after my grandfather Frank Lotzof, however, it was clear from the family tree that his name originally was Afroim and this Yiddish name must have been changed to Frank in South Africa ( My Hebrew name is Ephraim). In Ludza we found a desecrated shul, a shtiebl, with an Aron Kodesh, a Bimah, hundreds of rotting machzorim, a shofar, and breast plate from a Torah as well as many other religious artifacts.
In the Ludza forest we saw the memorial to the 833 Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and local accomplices in August 1941. A prominent memorial to six Lotzof cousins, murdered and buried in the Jewish Cemetery answered this question: about whether we had lost family in the Shoah.
In Kruk we learned that one of the five sisters, Sossa, had never left for South Africa and had been killed with her five daughters. I was greatly saddened to learn of these members of our family who have never had the Kaddish prayer recited for them. They had never been remembered. We were fortunate that Aunty Cilla and my grandfather Frank Lotzof returned to bring out many of the family prior to the Second World War. I felt some comfort that we were finally piecing together some of the family’s recent history.
Our parents, the next generation were born in South Africa. They lived good lives, were successful professionals (doctors, lawyers, businessmen….) in contrast with their parents who had acquired little formal education. My grandmother Mina who spoke only German, was chaperoned to South Hampton in England at the age of 16 or 17 years. Then she was sent to South Africa by boat never to see or speak to her parents again. What prompted them to send a young daughter on her own to a distant land never to see her again? I could only imagine how difficult life must have been for Jews in the Baltics. They obviously envisaged a better life for her in South Africa.
Several years later during a trip back to South Africa with my parents, I was again impressed how little knowledge we had of our family’s past: Anti-Semitism was rife in Heilbron where my mother Rhoda Gaylis (nee Lotzof) was born. Afrikaners who were supporters of the Nazis in the war, created similar fascist groups like the Ossewa Brandwag and Greyshirts. They had every intent in doing the same as the Nazis to the Jews of South Africa when Hitler prevailed in Europe. The fact that none of the family were aware of details of our past was perplexing to me. When interviewing my mother who was a gifted pianist and musician, she recalled an Afrikaner family who were fond of her as she played songs for the Christians in their church. At the age of six they told her, “Rhoda, when Hitler comes we will hide you in that little chest” When she replied with “ What about my mammie and pappie?” they said “Only you Rhoda.”
How fortunate we are as a family that Frank and Cilla and their parents had the foresight to do what they did. Similarly, my parents encouraged my wife and I to emigrate to the USA in our early 20s to provide a safer future for our children. What will be the future of our children? Will there be a fourth continent that we move to in just over 100 years? At present we are fortunate to have almost 70 family members living here in San Diego. We meet regularly once a year for Shabbat at the La Jolla Cove. The valiant efforts of some family members to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our family indicates an ongoing core commitment to Judaic values and principles. The same values and principles continue to maintain the family bonds here in San Diego.
This experience researching our family’s past has given me a greater appreciation for:
- the secular and religious freedoms we have in the USA
- the importance of family
- the need as Jews to be ever vigilant
- the central role Israel plays in our lives.
I believe the freedom and prosperity that we Jews have enjoyed over the past 60 years is directly related to the establishment of the state of Israel.
Gaylis is a physician based in San Diego. He will tell about his travels and genealogical research in a presentation called “From Shtetl to Shtetl” at 7 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 19, in the Astor Judaica Library at the Lawrence Family JCC.