World War II

Pages of Testimony

Portrait of Ilja BortzI’m sitting with a blank Page of Testimony in front of me. Seventy-six years after Hitler attempted to rid Latvia of its Jews, I’ve been asked by Yad Vashem to complete this form about my grandfather’s first cousin and his family.

In early July of 1941, the Germans occupied Riga. In the process, they shot several thousand Jews and by August of that year, the Riga Ghetto was established. Between 30 November – 9 December 1941, the Germans and their Latvian auxiliary counterparts murdered 26,000 Latvian Jews in the Rumbula forest, five miles from the Ghetto. About 4,000-5,000 Jews remained in the Ghetto; some organized resistance efforts but were discovered in 1942. By summer 1943, the Germans were deporting inhabitants of the Ghetto to Kaiserwald concentration camp, and they destroyed the Ghetto in December 1943.[1]

Records were not kept. Names were not placed meticulously on lists. The fate of my cousins will likely remain forever unknown, lost somewhere between the walls of the Ghetto and the trees of Rumbula. Before the war, 40,000 Jews lived in Riga. Approximately 1,000 survived, but not my cousins.

Today, as I complete the Pages of Testimony, I remember:

Chaim Elijah “Ilja” Bortz, born 3 February 1906 in Daugavpils, the only child of my 2nd great aunt.

Keila Malatsky, married to Ilja. Keila was born 2 June 1897 in Riga.

The children of Ilja and Keila:
•    Nechama-Lea, born Riga 16 December 1930
•    Esther Frade, born Riga 26 January 1937

Ilja’s father, Srol Bortz, born about 1875 in Druya.

 

[1] Dates and statistics from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
[2] Photograph cropped from Ilja’s confiscated passport, courtesy of Yad Vashem and the Latvia State Archives.

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Researching World War II Service: Beware the Unknown Unknowns

Irv Carl in WWII uniformMy great uncle Irwin “Irv” Carl served in the Army during World War II but that’s about all any family members knew. My search began with his enlistment data, and then I found a copy of his Application for a Headstone or Marker for a Military Veteran. That application matched the enlistment data, plus gave me a lot of new information. On most applications, you will find:

• Enlistment date
• Discharge date
• Service number
• Grade (rank)
• Medals
• Branch of Service, Company, Regiment and Division.

While these two documents were useful, I wanted to try and learn more, and placed a request for Irv’s military service record.

The service record request signaled challenges ahead: the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files, and 80 percent of Army records for personnel discharged between 1912 -1960. I was not surprised when I received a letter explaining that there were no records available for Irv, other than his final payment document. Something is always better than nothing!

The final payment roll confirmed the company, regiment and division. Or so I thought. I started to put together a report on Irv’s war experience based on the headstone application and final payment document, both of which placed him in “Headquarters Battery, 8th Infantry Division Artillery.” The 8th Infantry’s members wore a shoulder patch featuring an upward pointing gold arrow piercing a silver figure “8,” all on a blue shield.

I looked at dates, maps and locations, plotting where Irv might have gone or seen action. But then I received a box of photos from a relative. In that box were photos Irv had taken while in training and then in the European Theatre of Operations. A few images had information written on the back, some had identifiable landmarks, and others showed enough of Irv’s shoulder patch that the questions started.

If Irv was a member of the 8th Infantry Division, what was he doing wearing a patch for the 89th Infantry Division? The 89th Infantry Division patch is a distinct, stylized “W” inside a circle, black on khaki, nothing like the gold arrow of the 8th. There was no mixing up the two. Was he really a member of the 89th? If so, it would explain a few things: photos of Irv training in Colorado (the 89th trained at Camp Carson, Colorado), and some of the locations the 89th fought in Germany matched place names on the photos.

Why did the US military have the “wrong” information for the final payment roll and the headstone application? Actually, the information obtained in the two documents was accurate because at the end of World War II, Irv was briefly part of the 8th Infantry Division. Here’s why: when the war was over, the U.S. military in Europe needed to relocate more than 3 million service members, and get them back to a separation center close to the soldier’s final destination. It was a giant logistics puzzle. Attaching Irv to the 8th Infantry Division got him to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, a separation center about 130 miles southwest of St. Louis, Missouri.

Irv Carl with 89th Inf Div Patch

Irv Carl with 89th Inf Div Patch

Without the photos of Irv, and examining the shoulder patch, I would have identified his WWII service incorrectly. But at the same time, I would have been working with the documents and the evidence available to me. When researching the veteran in your family, beware the unknown unknowns.

On this Veteran’s Day, I’m doubling down on my effort to identify any of the people in the photos my great-uncle took, as well as share the photos in the collection of the Signal Corps at the National Archives. Follow this link and take a look.

There are more photos from the National Archives to scan and add to the collection, and the next step for the family photos is to geo-locate them. I also need to start digging through World War II Operations Reports to see if I can determine the company and regiment to which Irv was attached. Much more research ahead!

Do you have any old letters or documents? Part I

When I started working on my family’s history, I reached out to cousins of my parents‘ generation, interviewing them, asking them questions, and more questions. I also requested copies of photos that they had, looking on the backs of the images for clues. And I asked if they had any old letters or other documents.

One of my dad’s first cousins reponded to my document query with a note

[Your grandmother] sent me some correspondence from 1940 from family in the Ukraine which apparently requested some  money or clothing material or both. The correspondence is written in some kind of script, possibly Yiddish. I once had attempted to get someone to try to translate it, but not very successfully. However, I was told that the letter and a postcard were from “Sure” (which I was told meant Sarah) Mordche-Leibovna Schnaider ….. She may have been a sister-in-law of [my grandmother], or possibly a sister of Samuel.

Wow. 70-something year old letters from a heretofore unknown relative. This cousin was kind enough to scan all the letters, envelopes and bit of paper. I had them translated from Yiddish, and they were an eye-opener.Yiddish postcard August 1940

The letters detail requests for money and goods to be sent to Sore Mordeche Leibnova Schnaider on Rakovaya Street in Medzhibozh, Podolsky Gubernia [present-day Medzhybizh, Khmelnytskyi Oblast, Ukraine].  Sore addressed the envelopes in English, wrote the return address in Cyrillic, and the text of the letters in Yiddish, indicating that she had the ability to write, and possibly understand, at least two languages.

Comparing the data in the letters along with other family information, I determined that Sore was a sister to my great-grandfather.

Meanwhile, Sore’s sister-in-law responds to the requests, sending both a money order and a package of wool suit and coat fabrics, but the letters indicate the package did not arrive.

According to the translator, the letters sound pleading. A widow of 21 years, raising her children on her own, the notes seem to indicate a woman a little desperate and forgotten at a time when most of Europe is moving closer to chaos. The letters were sent from March through December 1940. Whether she sent additional letters is unknown. The Nazis arrived in Medzhibozh on 8 July 1941, placing all the Jews in a ghetto. The ghetto was anihiliated beginning on 22 September 1942, with the liquidation lasting three weeks.

Why Sore chose not to leave Russia, or if she had a choice, is unknown. Her fate, and the fate of her children are also unknown. I have initiated an International Tracing Service search through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Perhaps someday, I will have the answer.