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The Other Raphael

By Jean Arbeiter

"I found another Raphael," I emailed my cousins.

My message generated excitement among us amateur genealogists. We'd been working for years on my paternal grandmother's line, the Fayans family from Minsk, Belarus, who called themselves Feins in the United States.

But we'd long been fascinated by the original French-sounding name and its reference to a well-known type of pottery. Perhaps our family came from France, perhaps they were crafts persons, artists. Like most researchers we hoped to find something or someone grand.

A few years ago, on, a wonderful website that has made much material available, we found a genealogist who was able to research the name "Fayans" in the Belarusian records held in the Mormon Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

To our amazement, he was able to trace our family back to 1795 in Minsk, practically as good as the Mayflower for heaven's sake. We learned that the names Fayans and Feins were interchangeable, even in Belarus. And we discovered that our family tree was loaded with the name Raphael.

The most recent Raphaels were my grandmother's brother, the first Raphael on American soil, and his grandson, who now lives in Manhattan.

We cousins enjoyed conjecturing about the earlier Raphaels. And the more Fayans antecedents we found, Raphaels or no, the greater our interest in finding more.

One day I entered the name "Fayans" into the search engine of the Yad Vashem Database of Holocaust Victims. And that's where I found our "new" relative -- Raphael Fayans, 35 years old, killed in Auschwitz. His birthplace was listed as Minsk, Belarus, his place of residence, Paris, France.

Once we got over our excitement, my cousins and I pondered the meaning of this information. What could have brought our new Raphael from Minsk to Paris? Could it have something to do with the family business we'd always imagined, the connection to pottery or works of art?

Perhaps there was some back and forth movement of the Fayans family. Minsk, the capital of the province of the same name, boasted a population of 300,000, fine boulevards, grand public buildings, many churches and synagogues. An important city, it might have had commercial ties to Europe that enabled the Fayans family to set up an outpost in Paris.

A few months after my discovery, a cousin vacationed in Paris and visited the Memorial de Shoah, a museum and research center that opened in January 2005, 60 years after the opening of Auschwitz itself, its founding motivated, perhaps, by the sad history of French collaboration with their Nazi occupiers.

But that was then, this is now, and staffers at the museum were kindness itself, spending much time with my cousin and Xeroxing pertinent documents for her.

These Xeroxes list the profession of our "new" Raphael as peddler, not exactly the glamorous career we'd envisioned, but although we had to scale down our expectations, we welcomed him nonetheless. It couldn't have been easy pushing a cart around Paris; it must have been tough being a foreigner.

In the early 1940s, being a foreigner got tougher. Non-citizens were the first target of the roundups of Jews carried out by the Vichy government under orders from Berlin.

On April 29, 1942, our Raphael was rounded up along with 248 other Jewish non-resident prisoners. According to Inspector Koerperich of the Police of Jewish Questions (PJQ), who recorded the list of names, all did not go well with this operation. In a letter of May 1, 1942, addressed to the deputy director in charge of Foreigners and Jewish Issues at the Prefecture of Police, he complains of the bad treatment inflicted on two prisoners in particular and the fact that the prisoners' valises were kept. In fact, when all the prisoners were sent off to Drancy, a camp located in a suburb of Paris, it looks as if only seven had their goods and supplies in tact.

Drancy, which had served as a police barracks before the war, was a grim place, a stable for human beings where they slept on rotted straw in crowded conditions, ripped away from their families and haunted by an uncertain future.

Our Raphael and his companions were among the first residents. They probably got there when the straw was fresh, the rooms not too crowded, still there could not have been any sense of comfort.

I can visualize our Raphael, exhausted from his journey but unable to sleep, unable to breathe, for even in spring, the air becomes damp and threatening at Drancy. It's not perfumed with light like the rest of Paris. The people there are in darkness, cut off forever from their adopted city, soon to be amputated from life itself.

In coming months, there would be thousands more of these amputees. When the roundups really got going in September 1942, not a single Jewish soul the police could lay hands on was allowed to go free.

Inmates of the Rothschild Hospital were placed under arrest regardless of their condition and no matter how recently they had been operated upon. Five thousand children over the age of three were separated from their mothers, about 5,000 of them herded together in three school buildings. According to a newspaper report, quite a number of the smaller children were unable to give their names and therefore could not be officially identified.

Eventually, 64,759 Jews were shipped to Drancy and from there deported to Auschwitz. Our Raphael was among the first deportees. He went on June 6, 1942 in the second of 61 eventual convoys. The French record of his fate says "mort." "Yad Vashem says "perished."

The French records, despite their craven bureaucracy, bring Raphael to life, induct him into our family. He's the first Holocaust victim I "know" personally, the first to be a relative.

But just as I've welcomed him, my cousin sends an email.

"I meant to point out there was another Fayans in the museum records, too, a Maurice Fayans."

I look through the Xeroxes again and there, indeed, is Maurice Fayans, profession, nurse, born in 1889, the same year as our Raphael, and sent to Auschwitz from Drancy a few months after he was. The entry says that Maurice was born in Warsaw.

It seems likely that the two Drancy deportees were related and knew one another in Paris, yet they were born so far apart. In all our family stories about the Minsk, we'd never heard of Polish relatives.

I return to the Yad Vashem Database where I first found our Raphael. This time I discover that there are actually two records for the same Raphael Fayans born in 1889, "mort "in Auschwitz. One record, taken from the French list, notes his birthplace as Minsk, Belarus. The other, taken from a list of Auschwitz victims, notes his birthplace as Minsk Mazowiecki, Poland, located near Warsaw. The second listing, provided by an Auschwitz survivor who knew Raphael, is probably the more accurate. The survivor provided additional information, too, like the name of a wife.

I imagine Bella, alone in their small apartment near the Pere La Chaise Cemetery (that's where the kind staffers at the museum told my cousin Raphael had lived) sobbing, pacing the floor, wondering what was to become of her husband after he left to report to Inspector Koerperich and his minions. Cousin Maurice, if cousin he was, must have been among the people she called, maybe if only to see if he, too, had received deportation orders, maybe if only to hear another Polish-speaking voice.

Minsk Mazowiecki, can there really be such a place? Surely our grand Minsk, the Minsk of my grandparents, is the only one worthy of the name, yet, there it is on the map.

Minsk Mazowiecki is a substantial town in central Poland, near Warsaw, which today has a population 37,138. Before the war, Jews accounted for about 30% of the inhabitants.

The Jews were often involved in trade and, in the 1930s, resentment against them resulted in a boycott which ruined the economic life of the town, a Polish joke.

The summer of 1936 saw a pogrom, followed by ceaseless persecutions, which caused many Jews to emigrate. Some went to Palestine, others to France. Undoubtedly, our Raphael was part of this latter group.

Probably, the family business in Minsk Mazowiecki was in shreds. Pushing a cart through Paris, he was starting over, competing with other refugees for scraps of business, sending money home to his parents, David and Miriam, who, like the rest of the remaining Jewish population would eventually vanish in the flames of Treblinka.

This ending would solve forever the difficulties the residents of Minsk Mazowiecki had with Jewish commerce.

But just as I become involved with the Fayans family of Poland, I pull myself up short. I have to admit that "their" Raphael was not "our" Raphael after all. He can't be added to our list of relatives or can he? Perhaps being found by mistake was really no mistake but an expansion of connectedness. Perhaps I've done what the Mormons claim is possible, created family relationships after death.

Arthur Miller's play "All My Sons" concerns a manufacturer who pressured to meet a contract deadline during World War II, knowingly produces defective airplanes that cause the deaths of many airmen. At first, he argues that his duty was to his family, but eventually, he realizes that the dead could be viewed as an expanded family, as "all my sons." "And I guess they were," the father concludes, "I guess they were."

I don't need a museum's records to tell me that the other Raphael was mine all along. If only he could push his lonely cart down the streets of my safe suburban town right now, where peddling is needless to say not allowed, I would buy whatever he was selling. I'd make him a cup of coffee, though he might prefer tea; I would ask how Bella was and the children he will never have. I would take him into my arms and into my heart where he and six million others are forever sealed by the most tragic of genealogical charts.

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from the July 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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