|Our New Relatives From Vilna
by Peter Geffen
Our family tree has bloomed again
I had the most extraordinary and deeply moving experience erev Shabbat. In the last several weeks we had discovered the existence of Geffen cousins living in Vilna. Friday night, Eugenijus Gefenas came to Shabbat dinner. He is the grandson of Shalom Geffen, Zeydeh Tuviah’s brother. This brother, Shalom, corresponded with Tuviah in Atlanta for many years, and our family genealogist, Marjorie Goldberg found letters in Tuviah’s papers from Shalom and to Shalom. She also found letters from Shalom’s son, Eugene’s father, Yaakov, written to his uncle, our grandfather, in Atlanta. Yaakov was our parents’ first cousin. His son, Eugene, sitting at our table last friday night is our second cousin, previously completely unknown.
Eugene is a medical doctor with a specialty in bio-ethics, and he was here attending a bio-ethics conference in Schenectady, NY and then in Hastings, NY. He is a lovely, gentle man who knew that he was a descendent of a great rabbinic family, but he and his family are Catholics, not devout it would appear, but Christmas and Easter observing Catholics. He has had a little Jewish contact through some colleagues here in the states, but this was his first Shabbat table. He willingly donned a kippah and listened with attentiveness as I chanted Kovno melodies to kiddush and to some zemirot. It was truly an astounding scene.
Eugene's father Yakobus's escape to Russia during the war, was motivated as almost the only way to survive. "It was the last or one of the last trains from Lithuania to Russia my father managed to get in." He joined forces fighting the Nazis. His father Shalom, decided to stay in Lithuania... Shalom was killed by the Nazi’s in the 9 th Fort in Kovno in 1942. After the War and throughout his life under the soviets Yakobus was a Jew (even though inter-married). Yakobus had two known sisters. The sisters had moved to Germany, in the twenties, prior to the rise of Nazism and fled to Moscow as the Nazis came to power. Their descendants continue to live in Moscow. Yakobus, regularly corresponded with his sister Vera (Devorala) until she passed away in 1985. Vera had visited the family in Lithuania with her husband and granddaughter. Eugene had tried to make contact with the relatives in Moscow on a trip he had taken and will call again on his next trip.
His wife is a computer technology department head at Vilnius University (I think I got that right) and his 16 year old son is a flutist and goes to a music academy and his daughter, 19 is studying public health.. It was wonderful being with a new cousin from our “hometown.”
When I recited the b'raha…boreh pri hagafen…I told him that this verse is literally and formidably about wine and grapes as is our name. But I pointed out the poignancy of sitting with him in our home and giving thanks for the “fruit of the Geffen…” the progeny of generations of our grandfathers and mothers and great-grandfathers and mothers. It was a big wow moment.
I drove him back to White Plains after sitting with family pictures, Joel’s wonderful family tree…and all the stories that we had to tell each other. My trip to Vilna and Kovno this summer was even deeper and more meaningful than I had imagined.
May we all participate in restoring our heritage in some way to these wonderful blood relatives whom we did not know….
December 20, 2004
Marjorie Goldberg reported the following to Eugene’s daughter a few weeks ago:
In the course of my research, in about 1999, I was working with an archivist