Caption: Lorraine Meehan’s Maternal Grandfather, Yitzhak Doverman
By Lorraine Meehan
Growing up, our family had secrets.
Mom and Auntie always whispered privately, their heads together, abruptly stopping when I entered the room. I was forbidden to know Mom’s age or maiden name and punished for asking. Family photos were not displayed, no other maternal relatives existed. This left a dark hole in my picture of “family.”
When I returned from a cultural program at Hebrew University as an ardent Zionist, Mom was agitated and alarmed at the change in me. She then began to confide her secrets, a word or hint at a time, a process spanning the next 30 years. At the age of 19 I learned I was Jewish. This is my story, my family’s story.
Illegal Jewish Immigrants Feared Deportation
My grandfather, Itzik Doverman, fled Russia in 1903 after the Kishinev pogrom. His death in 1917 left the family penniless and, when the children came of age, they couldn’t find work or housing, due to the anti-Semitism of the 1930s, the Hitlerism which had reached US shores. They finally consulted a Yenta-type Jewish fortune teller on the Lower East Side who prescribed new identities: she gave them Gentile names and younger birthdates. But she could not change the fact that they were never naturalized and thus illegal.
And so began the concealment of their true selves. Many blamed the Jews for the War and afterward, for communism and the Cold War. This was the era of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg and McCarthyism—all the more reason to deny identity. With the constant threat of deportation, they lived in the shadows and kept their secrets. A brilliant piece of the plan to “pass” involved attendance at a local, German-speaking Lutheran church. What better place for a Jew to hide after WW2 than in the midst of hundreds of German Lutheran refugees? I still have memories of singing choir songs in German and wondering why so many of the adults had strong accents. And I’ve often wondered how many of those adults were true refugees or escaped Nazis, with their own dark past to hide.
Civilized Societies Are Not Immune to Jew Hatred
But the fate of my family in Europe remained unknown, and I resolved to learn their stories. Sadly, funding is required to translate and post online the mountains of recovered records. So a group of us at the Jewish Genealogy Society twice hired a Ukrainian researcher fluent in Cyrillic, Hebrew, and English. Vladimir located 55 records giving me names, dates, and clues. USHMM and Yad Vashem data revealed the horrific fate of many relatives in Ukraine during what Fr. Patrick Debois calls the “Holocaust By Bullets.” Two cousins, Yefim and Khaim Doverman, were among thousands of conscripts pulled out for execution by captors as the Soviet Army advanced on Nazi POW camps. Other relatives were forcibly removed to Kazakhstan and the Soviet interior. Ye Doverman is listed simply as “murdered: shot, with 9 additional family members.” Eliahu and Mania Doverman never left their hometown—a neighbor attested to their murders, whether through roundups or community violence is unknown. Ruchi Tileman was burned alive. Yet the majority remain nameless and faceless, their stories repeated 6 million times in the tragedy of the Shoah.
Why do I continue searching after all these years? Having been denied family knowledge for so long I now seek to give each relative a name, a face. Indeed, all Shoah victims deserve to be remembered. Knowing their stories provides meaningful connections and confirms my kinship with all Jews in our collective past. Lastly, Holocaust research is a reminder that yes, it can happen here, that even the most cultured and civilized societies are not immune to the evil of anti-Semitism.
Caption: SS men forcing Jews to pray in the streets of Ukraine