I N   T H E   N E W S
December 23, 2003
A Hanukkah Miracle

Apart for Decades, Found in Their Own Backyard




BNEI BRAK, Israel, Dec. 22 -- Call it the Hanukkah miracle, because it happened last Friday on the first night of the Jewish Festival of Lights. It happened as Beniamin Shilom was about to light the traditional first candle and the phone rang.

Somebody -- it was Mr. Shilom's great-nephew, though he did not know he had a great-nephew -- asked Mr. Shilom if his name was Shlomowicz.

"No," Mr. Shilom replied, a bit hastily, since Shlomowicz had been his name until he changed it years ago when he came to Israel.

"Do you have a sister named Rozia?" the caller persisted. 

"Yes," said Mr. Shilom, and felt a little shiver of anticipation, though his first thought was a dark one. He feared that this unexpected caller was going to tell him what he had long ago assumed -- that his little sister, Rozia, whom he had last seen in 1937 when she was 6 or 7 and he was 10 or 11 (their memories are a little hazy), had been murdered in the Holocaust.


Rozia November and her brother Beniamin Shilom each believed that the other had died during World War II. In fact, they had been living not far apart in Israel for more than 50 years. They were able to find each other through Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

"Would you like to talk to her?" Mr. Shilom's great-nephew, Nir Silberberg, asked.

That was Friday. The next day, for the first time in almost 67 years, Mr. Shilom, 77, was reunited with Rozia November, née Shlomowicz, 73.

"Did you recognize her?" he was asked.

"You know, she's not so young anymore," Mr. Shilom said. It wasn't a joke. It was the simple truth that you don't recognize somebody whom you have not seen for almost 67 years, not even a sister after she has become a grandmother. But, he continued, "I looked into the depths of her eyes, and I was convinced that it was her."

It was, and by now, pretty much everybody in Israel knows the story of Bennie and Rozia, the brother and the sister who, for what amounts to a lifetime, thought that the other was dead. And not only that. For almost half a century, both have been living not far from each other in tiny Israel, a country where there is rarely more than a degree or two of separation. But it is only now, amazingly, that they have found each other.

As the home of many Holocaust survivors, of course, Israel is a place where almost everybody has heard a story a bit like that of Mr. Shilom's and Mrs. November's. The search for long lost relatives has extended over decades and still goes on.

But the very length of time that Mr. Shilom and Mrs. November waited gives their tale a special measure of poignancy. In addition, it turns out that this particular brother and sister have lived lives that touched on an extraordinary number of the iconic events and people of the years of the war.

They were born in Warsaw, Mr. Shilom in 1926, and Mrs. November four years later, to a once prosperous Jewish family that had fallen on hard times during the Depression. There were two other brothers in the family, Shlamik and Savek.


Beniamin Shilom kissed the Auschwitz tattoo of his sister, Rozia November, when they were reunited Saturday in Israel.

As Mr. Shilom tells the story, their father left Warsaw when Mr. Shilom was just 7 years old, exactly why is not clear. After awhile, their mother went away also, and the children, left without anybody to take care of them, were dispersed in several orphanages, run by Janusz Korczak, the legendary doctor and educator who went to his death at Treblinka with 200 children he had tried to harbor during the war.

In the late 1930's, Beniamin was sent to an institution in Pinsk, in what is now Belarus, while Rozia stayed at a home in Warsaw. Once, Beniamin went to Warsaw on a field trip organized by his school, and he wanted to visit Rozia.

"I saw a beautiful girl carrying a school bag, and I recognized her," he recalled. " `Hello, I'm Bennie,' I said. `I'm your brother.' She got up on her tiptoes and tried to kiss me, but I was embarrassed and I didn't let her."

Mr. Shilom stopped for a minute.

"That's the last time I saw her," he resumed, "and now 67 years have passed, and for 67 years, it has pursued me that I didn't let my sister kiss me."

Because Mr. Shilom was in the Soviet Union when the war broke out he was able to become a soldier in the Soviet Army. He fought on several fronts, earning more than a dozen medals as commander of an artillery unit and finishing the war in Berlin, with the German defeat.

Rozia, who in Israel sometimes goes by the name Shoshana, had a harder time of it. Her father returned to Warsaw, divorced her mother and took Rozia to live with him and a new wife in Krakow. When the war came, her father was arrested (in 1947, Mr. Shilom received a letter from the Red Cross informing him that his father had been executed by the Germans in Warsaw). Krakow was the city where Oskar Schindler undertook his effort to save Jews, and Rozia met him, though she was not taken into one of his factories. Instead, at the age of 13, she was taken to Auschwitz.


Rozia November, above others, met Oskar Schindler, second from left, but did not work for him.

"Mengele put me into the children's line," Mrs. November said, referring to Josef Mengele, the doctor who was in charge of selecting who would live and who would die at Auschwitz.

"That was the line that went to the gas chambers," Mrs. November said. "They gave me a child to hold. There was an old woman and she told me that I had to stay alive and tell everybody what happened."

" 'But how can I get out of here?' " Mrs. November said she remembers asking.

" 'You have to,' " she recalled the woman saying, before pushing Rozia into a group of people not slated for immediate execution. She survived six months at Auschwitz, then she survived the death march, when the Gestapo evacuated the camps ahead of the Soviet Army and forced the prisoners to walk west. She ended up in a satellite of the Ravensbrück Camp, and she survived that, too. In 1949, after three years as a displaced person in Germany, she emigrated to Israel.

As it happens, Mr. Shilom was among the Soviet troops that liberated Auschwitz early in 1945. Mrs. November had already been evacuated, so she would not have been there if he had thought to look for her, which he did not. But it seems an eerie coincidence to them now that they had both been at the heart of the Nazi machinery of cruelty and death, and that in different circumstances, one might have saved the other.

Mrs. November married soon after she came to Israel; her husband died 13 years ago. She has two daughters. Mr. Shilom, who came to Israel in 1957, also married and has three sons, all of them now officers in the Israeli Army. Neither has ever heard a word about the fate of their two brothers and their mother.

About four years ago, Mr. Shilom visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, where he filled out forms giving information on his missing relatives.

Mrs. November had been to Yad Vashem several times to see if there was information about her family members, but there never was. Then, on Friday, a family friend from the United States who is making a documentary film about her life, asked her to go to Yad Vashem again.

"It was cold. It was raining. I didn't want to go," Mrs. November recalled. But she did go and, this time, a solicitous member of the staff wanted to do some research on her.

"I have nobody," protested Mrs. November, who had last seen a member of her family when the Gestapo arrested her father in Krakow.

"Don't say you have nobody," the staff member said, and she showed Mrs. November the form that Mr. Shilom had filled out four years ago.

"I saw that this can be my brother," Mrs. November said, "but I'm not sure." A few hours later, her grandson found Mr. Shilom's telephone number and called him, and the rest, as they say, is commentary.

"I didn't believe it," she said Monday. "I still don't believe I have a brother. It is impossible."