A Relative I Didn’t Know Existed

The wedding photo of Itzhak Maron’s parents . . . shown to him by a relative when he visited Lithuania

He opened the battered rusty metal tin and started to reveal faded and sometimes crumbled black and white photographs, one after another. My heart started to pound harder and harder as each photo was placed on the table. The crescendo increased and sounded like African bongo drums getting louder and louder as each photo appeared.

Then the cymbal clanged in my ears: the hairs on the back of my neck and on my back stood up. I was at fainting point.

My head was pounding and a tear appeared. Why had I come here?

I was in a foreign country, sitting in an apartment of a family with whom I have no connection. I didn't know them. Had I lost my mind?

The language was strange; I had never seen the people here. Why had I come here? How could I get out of here?

Could the ground open up and allow me to escape?

Rewind back three months . . .

My wife and I were rummaging in our storeroom and suddenly she exclaimed, "Look! Here is a picture in this old newspaper – a Mr. Morris Joffee (not his real name) is standing in front of a house in Kamaier Gatwe that his parents bought from the leather merchant Krok. Didn't your parents and grandparents live in Kamaier?"

"Sure," I replied.

That evening I called the first Joffee listed in the phone directory. Providence was on my side.

"Yes, sure that's me. I will send you a video of my recent trip to Lithuania. You will see everything is documented".

Indeed, it was my grandparent's home with the green slatted wooden walls, peeling from age and time. The spark was kindled.

"Why don't you go, look and see?" my wife suggested. "You are going to Germany and Israel for an international convention next month. Your boss is paying for the trip, so consider it as an 'add-on'. You will have to pay only for the Lithuania leg of the journey. It will cost you peanuts."

"Not that easy," I replied. "It's early 1990's, and the Iron Curtain has just fallen, and I don't fancy flying in one of those ancient aircraft that use rubber bands to keep the propeller going."

But indeed I went and investigated my roots thoroughly, and yes, it was my grandparent's home on Kamayer Gasse.

For the last three days, I was in Vilna and made a point of attending mincha (afternoon service) at the world-renowned Khoir Shul which was in the process of restoration, scaffolding and all.

What an experience to see this magnificent building in all its glory. It was saved from destruction as the Gestapo found it suitable to be used as a stable for the horses.

At the shul, I was treated as a "wonder from the other world" and given much attention – "a gast fun yener velt" (a visitor from the other world).

On the second night, a gentleman dressed in a drab suit that had seen better days, a remnant of yesteryear, bobcap faded with age, approached me and invited me to a friend's apartment. I was reluctant to go, even to the point of advising my hotel receptionist that "If I'm not back by midnight please call the polizei".

We travelled along the cobbled road, heavily pitted with potholes, the road getting narrower and narrower and I was getting more nervous by the minute as darkness approached.

We arrived at the apartment building, walls peeling, needing a good coat of paint. An ageing man with glowing and saddened eyes welcomed us, offered a hand calloused with the evidence of hard work. He introduced me to his wife, a charming lady, his beautiful daughter and a son-in-law.

Why did I go? His name was similar to mine . . . Maronais.

As he took out each photo, I recognized one uncle and then another. As he flipped each picture there was another uncle and another uncle and then the uncles together. You've guessed it . . . he was part of a long-lost family which I had not known existed.

My dad was the oldest of seven siblings and his father had been the youngest. All the family had emigrated to South Africa and a sister went to Brazil. My dad passed away when I was ten so I don't recall any uncle or aunts except those whom I had known in Cape Town and they had all passed on.

What was the final picture that caused the cymbals to clang in my ears? The wedding photo of my parents, my mother splendid in her wedding gown, my dad – as if in shining armor in his dinner suit.

To Lithuania, where I find a member of my family I didn't know existed. 



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Friday, 26 February 2021

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