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After decades, family unravels Holocaust mystery

 

Amos Cohen stands in front of the grave of his long lost relative Rose Kobylinski in Swierlany, Poland. Her fate at the end of World War II as a victim of the Germans was just recently discovered.

NEW YORK -- While Israel recently marked its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could still just be learning the fate of their loved ones from that tragic era.

But that’s exactly what happened to Amos Cohen, a shipbuilder living in Haifa, Israel. He only recently learned the fate of his long-lost relative Rose Kobylinski, who died in a German death march and was buried in a Roman Catholic cemetery in a small village in Poland.

For decades Rose was only a name circled in black on a family tree, meaning she had died in the Holocaust. 

The genealogical chart had been drawn up by Cohen’s mother, Rose’s cousin. Other than Rose’s name on the tree, all that Cohen, 64, knew about her was that she had lived in Berlin before being deported to a German death camp.

Nothing else was known -- there had been no news about Rose since the Holocaust.

Then, one day, Cohen received a call from Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.  

Israel came to a brief halt today as sirens echoed across the country marking Holocaust remembrance day. In Jerusalem, Secretary of State John Kerry laid a wreath at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

“We think we found your relative,” the caller said. “And she is buried in the cemetery of St. Anna’s Roman Catholic Church in Swierklany, Poland.”


The search for Rose began in 1990 when Cohen’s mother made a formal inquiry, hoping that Yad Vashem might have information about her fate. No information was available.

“It was sad that my mother died never knowing what happened to her cousin, Rose,” said Cohen.

When Cohen went to Swierklany, a small village in southwest Poland, in April 2010 he pieced together what had happened to her. He recited Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer, in the church cemetery where Rose is buried in a mass grave with nine others, all murdered by the Germans on Jan. 18, 1945.

Konstanty Dolnik, the local undertaker, buried the victims in the cemetery in defiance of German orders to bury them in a forest to erase their memories. Dolnik also recorded the numbers tattooed on their forearms.

In 1948, the town erected a monument with a cross to mark the mass grave. Only the numbers recorded by Dolnik identified the grave’s occupants. There were no names. 

The breakthrough in the search for Rose came when Yaki Gantz, a former member of Israel’s domestic security force (the Israeli version of the FBI), became involved. Gantz heads a project called “For Every Number There is a Name.” 

“Their relatives now know that their relatives didn’t just become ashes at Auschwitz,” he said in a phone interview. “They know there is a place where they can come to say Kaddish.”

The new plaque at the previously unmarked grave in Swierlany, Poland now reads: "In memory of the death march victims from Aushwitz-Birkenau," and lists the victims concentration camp numbers or names.

When Gantz learned about the grave in Swierklany, he sent the numbers to Yad Vashem with information from the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau museum.

The museum had just obtained documents that the Russian troops seized when liberating Auschwitz in 1945. This Auschwitz data recently obtained from Russia proved critical in matching many numbers to names.

Krystyna Manka, the now 75-year-old daughter of Dolnik, the undertaker, wept as she remembers the sub-zero January night when the prisoners arrived from Auschwitz during an ice storm.

“It’s hard for me to talk about that night,” she told NBC News through a translator.

Manka was seven years old in 1945 when the Germans, losing the war, began marching concentration camp prisoners in Poland to Germany in what are known as death marches.   

Wearing rags and clogs that bloodied their feet, the prisoners were often shot to death when they could not walk fast enough. They were guarded by German SS men and barking dogs. The Germans spent the night in the village of Swierklany. One of the female prisoners stayed in Manka’s home that night – although she doesn’t know if it was Rose.   

“I still remember her beautiful blond curly hair,” Manka said. “Her feet were torn by the wooden shoes and the long walk in the freezing cold.” They had walked 40 miles, the distance from Auschwitz to Swierklany, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Manka’s father applied ointment to the woman’s feet and dressed the wounds. Manka’s mother, fluent in German, convinced an SS guard that treating the wounds would make the woman walk better and not slow the march.

It didn’t really matter. The next day, 10 prisoners were shot to death outside the village, including the woman who had stayed in Manka’s home.

The residents of Swierklany mark this massacre with an annual remembrance service on Jan. 18, and also during religious holidays, most recently on Good Friday.

“The fact that the Jews are buried in a Roman Catholic cemetery helps us to recognize that we are brothers,” said Father Jan Klyczka, a priest in the village for the last 40 years, in a phone interview.

Local teenagers maintain the grave and learn about a massacre that’s hard for them to imagine, said their history teacher, Iwona Barchanska.

Gantz continues to scour the dirt roads and churches of rural Poland, seeking to restore the names of the murdered.

“When a person finishes life, he has a name. He is not a number,” said Gantz.

Now, beneath the 1948 monument where there were once only numbers, there is a new memorial plaque with names that include Rose Kobylinski.