Everyone appreciates a good game of Jewish Geography — it never gets old, and everyone is a winner. Who doesn’t love putting together that the neighbors down the block grew up with the second cousins from Cincinnati? But every once in a while, there is a game of Jewish Geography that is far more than the challenge of racking your brain for a name or the victory of uncovering a coincidence.
In the best games of Jewish Geography, we’re reminded of how small the world is, and how the Jewish people, despite it all, have managed to make their way all around it. With every dot we connect, there is a story — a bit of history that explains the present and offers a glimpse into the future.
Miryam Rosenzweig, Director of NEXTGen Detroit, had one such game in Phoenix. And you’ll want to sit down, because this is a story.
In Miryam’s words . . .
I was invited to visit the Federation in Phoenix this past February. They are working on making young adult engagement a major focus of their programming, and they’ve been looking to Detroit for insight and inspiration. A year and a half ago, 18 Federation CEOs and their NEXTGen Directors came to Detroit to learn from us. Phoenix was one of those Federations, and seeing how we operate and the success that we have had played a huge part in their desire to create a strong NEXTGen program there.
Since then, ten or so people from their leadership have come to Detroit twice to study our NEXTGen program. And, in an effort to learn more from our community, they asked me to come to Phoenix for two days of meetings with their professionals and lay leaders. More than happy to help another Federation, and thrilled to leave Michigan in February, I went.
Little did I know that while working to ensure a vibrant Jewish future, I would be swept back into my own family history, only to realize how deeply connected we are through Federation, through our community and through our own very personal ties.
One evening during my visit, there was a parlor meeting where I was introduced to Phoenix’s Campaign Chairs, Don and Esther Schon. We began chatting and Don mentioned that they were originally from Detroit.
“I went to Mumford High,” Don said.
“Everyone your age from Detroit went to Mumford High,” I joked.
“No, my wife went to Oak Park High,” he said. “But she’s originally from Canada.”
“My family is originally from Canada!”
“Where are they from?”
“How’d they get there?”
“Well,” I said, “my grandfather’s best friend from Auschwitz sponsored them to come into Canada.”
“Well,” said Don, “my wife’s family is Auschwitz royalty.”
I laughed, “What does ‘Auschwitz royalty’ mean?”
“Her uncle and her father were two of the men who blew up the crematorium.”
“Is her uncle Godel Silver?” I asked.
“How did you know that?”
“Because my grandfather was also one of those men, and Godel was his best friend. I’m Jacob Rosenzweig’s granddaughter.”
Don and I began to freak out at this point, having moved the conversation from Mumford High to Auschwitz in only a matter of minutes. Esther then came over to us, and after hearing our discovery she started to tear up.
“I was born in the DP camp,” she told me.
“You were born in Weisenhoff?”
“How did you know?”
“Godel and my grandfather were in the same DP camp. And my father was born in Weisenhoff,” I said.
“I was the first baby there in March of ‘47.”
“My father was born in April.”
Esther went on to tell me how she remembers seeing my family at simchas once everyone came to America. My grandfather and Godel remained best friends for their entire lives.
I could end the story here, and it would go down in history as one of the most amazing games of Jewish Geography ever. But wait. It gets better.
I have a photo on my phone of Weisenhoff on the day Israel became a state.
I always knew my grandfather’s Holocaust story, but I never really knew my grandmother’s. A few years ago, I began interviewing her about her life in the DP camp and doing some research. One day, I was looking through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s online archives and I found the photo. I thought for sure I saw my grandfather, my grandmother and my father. So I sent the photo to my aunt.
“Am I crazy?” I asked her.
“No,” my aunt said. “That’s Bubbe, and that’s your father.” She also recognized her sister-in-law and her baby in the photo.
I asked Esther if she wanted to see the photo, and as she looked at it she got even more emotional.
“This man in the hat,” she pointed, “is my father.”
Fast forward a few weeks to our EPIC Event in Detroit. When I see one of our NEXTGen Board members, Brian Schon, I ask if he’s related to Don and Esther in Phoenix, and I tell him the story.
“I don’t think we’re related, but those names do sound familiar,” said Brian. So he called his dad to ask, and sure enough, they are relatives.
From Auschwitz to Windsor to Detroit to Phoenix and back.
Another group of lay leaders from the Phoenix Federation are coming back to Detroit in May to continue our conversation and see first-hand how the leadership, the management and the volunteers here in Detroit all work together to strengthen and grow our young community. And I can’t wait to find out who I will meet during this visit.
I love stories like this, because they’re a reminder of how connected we all are, and that the work we do here at NEXTGen Detroit is creating connections for the young Jews of this generation. In 60 years, if the grandchildren of the young adults that we’re bringing together are swapping stories about us, well, then we’ve done our job.