• History

A Young Holocaust Victim Left Behind a Clue That Would Reunite Her Family Decades Later

8 minute read

Fourteen-year-old Karoline Cohn’s good luck charm was not enough to protect her.

A Jewish girl born in Germany in 1929, she is believed to have been deported to the Minsk Ghetto on Nov. 11, 1941. About two years later, the ghetto was liquidated and the Nazis sent the 2,000 Jews there to the Sobibor extermination camp. At some point during that period, her triangular pendant engraved with “Mazel Tov,” a Hebrew phrase meaning “good luck,” her birthplace (Frankfurt) and her birthday (July 3, 1929), was dropped on a pathway that Jews were forced to walk to the gas chambers.

What exactly happened to her remains a mystery. But it would turn out that the pendant would bring her family a certain kind of good luck, more than 70 years later, and in a way she couldn’t possibly have expected.

Archaeologists excavating the camp’s site announced last January that they had discovered her pendant. Shortly after, an amateur genealogist who just happened to see the news coverage took up the case. Now, on Monday, a family reunion of about two dozen people who were previously strangers will be held at the last place Karoline probably lived before she was deported. As part of the ceremony, they will unveil a stolpersteine, one of the many stones laid across Europe to remember Holocaust victims at their last known addresses.

The tribute is a powerful rebuke of the Nazi cause, which sought to rid Europe of Jewish people and destroy all evidence that they ever existed. At Sobibor in particular—where up to 250,000 Jews are estimated to have died between March 1942 and October 1943—the Nazis paved over burial grounds with asphalt after a prisoner uprising, hoping to leave nothing to dig up. Now Karoline, one of the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust, is one more who will not be forgotten.

Finding a family

When Jerusalem-based entrepreneur Chaim Motzen is not developing renewable energy projects in East Africa, he’s helping family and friends trace their Jewish lineage. In fact, when he saw news coverage of the pendant’s discovery, he coincidentally had just taken a week off to find a photo of his great grandfather for his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor.

Researchers associated with Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, had traced the item to Karoline after plugging the birthday and city into a database of Nazi deportation and transport lists, which is supported by the Claims Conference. Motzen was able to pull up testimony online that Karoline’s mother’s first cousin had submitted about her family to Yad Vashem in 1978, in Zurich. Over the next 10 months, he traced out the shape of her family tree—and then began to reach out to the living branches.

First, he connected with the grandchildren of Karoline’s uncle Michael, whose wife and two sons had survived. Then he realized, “Michael’s great-grand-daughter worked with a friend of mine,” Motzen tells TIME. “Same thing happened on the father’s side, the great-grand-daughter of Sigmund, Karoline’s father’s older brother, was Facebook friends with another friend of mine.”

Within just a day after reading about the pendant’s discovery, he was on the phone with children of Karoline’s first cousins in Dickerson, Md.

It was Martin Luther King Day of this year when Mandy Eisemann, 46, got that call from Motzen telling her the story of her father’s first cousin. “I got chills, I did cry, as I tried to scribble really quickly on scraps of paper around me names of people I had never heard of before,” she told TIME.

She called her father Barry Eisemann, 72, in Arlington, Va., who hadn’t heard of Karoline either. All he knew was that his dad had left Germany in the early ’30s — late enough that he probably knew Karoline — and, though he tried to help the rest of his family get out of the country as Nazi persecution increased, he had been largely unsuccessful. He ended up being the only one of his six siblings who survived the Holocaust. And, though Eisemann had developed an interest in the family’s story after moving to Israel to play for a basketball team in the late 1960s, his father had died before he could pass on the full story of what had happened during that period.

Hearing about what Karoline must have gone through “made me feel a new respect for my father, because of all he experienced,” Eisemann says. “He kept it from me to protect me. The emotions he experienced then, I’m feeling now.”

Karoline’s story wasn’t such a surprise to every member of the family, though. Jackie Rednour-Bruckman, 52, whose great-grandfather was an uncle of Karoline’s, had actually read a New York Times article about the discovery of the pendant — though the San Francisco Bay-area activist didn’t know that the story was about someone in her own family. She says she was overwhelmed on multiple levels when she heard from Motzen, both because her own children are about as old as Karoline was when she died and because she realized this was a chance to complete the genealogical research her own father had worked on for decades. The story also struck her because she herself had grown up wearing a necklace with a good-luck pendant: an Italian horn to represent how lucky her grandfather was to be able to flee from Germany to Italy, even though his parents stayed behind. Both died in the years that followed.

“I thought the German Jewish side had been decimated, except a few of us who got to the states and their descendants,” she said. “I didn’t know that [Karoline] existed.”

Rednour-Bruckman says watching her grandmother, who lived under fascist regimes, work on voter registration drives inspired her own activism career — and for her, this week’s meeting is a glimmer of hope, a symbol of reunion that stands out “given the divisiveness of the current political climate in America.”

The search continues

But, even now, questions remain. Experts wonder whether Karoline was somehow connected to Anne Frank, who was likewise born in Frankfurt and is known to have worn an almost identical pendant — a fact that inspired interest in the pendant from the beginning. And a class photo from 1936 that possibly includes Karoline has facilitated communication between people from different schools in that period, which can be used to “help identify other people who were the same age and shared the same fate,” as Motzen puts it.

As for him, the excitement of Cohn’s family is only more encouragement to keep working on the project. In fact, about a month ago, Motzen found an additional, previously unknown first cousin of Karoline’s, who survived the Holocaust, but died relatively young in Albany, Ga. When he looked up the local synagogue to see if it had information, he realized he had met the rabbi before.

“He connected me to a former congregant of his, the owner of a local funeral home, whose family had saved every single obituary listed in the local press since 1938,” he says. “The funeral home owner sent me this woman’s 1966 obituary. We learned that she had two daughters – and, to my surprise, a sister, another cousin of Karoline’s.”

Motzen was able to then track down that sister’s daughters, in California, to find that they had preserved dozens of letters written by family members between 1935 and 1941, including one from Karoline’s mother.

At the reunion, Eisemann is looking forward to connecting with the children of his father’s cousins, whom he hasn’t seen in nearly 50 years. Both Eisemann and Rednour-Bruckman, who have never been in Germany before, are taking time to explore their families’ histories. Rednour-Bruckman is going to Weinheim to visit the site of the upholstery shop her great-grandparents owned, while Eisemann will visit the town his father grew up in, and meet with a woman who knew his father.

“I’m excited, but a little nervous about meeting family that I never knew we had,” says Eisemann. “I think this is what Karoline would have wanted, but on the other hand, I have some guilt and some regret. I feel some guilt that I had a good life, and my regret is my father and his cousins are not here to witness the discovery of the pendant. There would’ve been some sense of closure. But you can’t change history, right? We have to just move forward, and I hope this leads to a real bond between the descendants. The Holocaust feels more personal now.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com