Liora Tamir meets her lost cousin at Yad Vashem April 21, 2011
Liora Tamir, right, embraces her cousin Aryeh Shikler, as they meet for the first time at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Thursday, April 21, 2011. Photo by AP
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In the mid 1920s, in the city of Brody in Galicia, the two Shapira siblings parted ways. Yona immigrated to Mandatory Palestine where she joined the Communist party. Her brother, Simcha, remained with their parents. The family was subsequently decimated during the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges.

Two weeks ago, after a prolonged search that started with KGB documents and ended with Facebook, offspring of these Shapira siblings, who live in Israel, learned of one another's existence. The cousins met this week at Yad Vashem, where they embraced for the first time. "I don't really know what to do with family relations," exclaimed Ilana Tamir-Shapira, Yona's granddaughter, whose obsessive searches ultimately led to the family's reuniting. "We don't really have experience with this."

Liora, Yona's daughter and Ilana's mother, knew very little about her own mother. Yona passed away when Liora was just 12; the two lived at the time in a small town that was more or less a detention camp for persons released from Stalin's gulags. "She said that her parents perished in the Holocaust, and she said that she would tell me everything when I reached the age of 15, but she died when I was 12," Liora said during the emotional reunion.

The mother was a faithful Communist. In 1926, she left her family and immigrated to Eretz Israel. Here she joined an underground Communist cell, initially in Jerusalem. After she was arrested by Mandatory authorities, Yona moved to Haifa where she continued with her underground activities. In 1931, after being arrested several times for distributing Communist materials, she was expelled by the British.

A few months after Yona's expulsion, her brother, Simcha, arrived in Mandatory Palestine, also for ideological reasons, though he belonged to the other side of the political spectrum. "My father took part in a rally led by [right-wing Zionist leader] Jabotinsky in Brody," his son Aryeh Shikler said this week (his father changed the family name to his underground nom du guerre, Shikler ). "That night he went home and told his parents that he was emigrating to Eretz Israel. The next day he went to the train station to purchase tickets." Simcha joined the right wing militia, the Irgun Tzvai-Leumi, and was also arrested by the British after he distributed subversive materials - the pamphlets' right-wing contents differed, of course, from the radical left messages his sister had disseminated some time earlier in the same country.

Meantime, Yona had made her way to the Soviet Union, hoping to promote the Communist revolution there. Yet the Communist Party turned against her, as explained in a document located in the KGB archives, owing to her "unhealthy tendencies - pessimism, individualism, and lack of familiarity with Soviet reality." Eventually, she was arrested and charged with Trotsky-ite, counter-revolutionary activity. Around the time of the Stalinist purges, in 1936, she was sent to a Gulag work colony in northern Russia. She remained in the work camp and the town next to it for years; she was still under confinement in the town when she died of cancer in 1958. Liora, whose father had passed away a decade earlier, was moved to an orphanage; in 1979, she immigrated to Israel. "I was always alone, without any relatives," she recalls. "After I made Aliyah to Israel I made some searches, but I didn't really have the means for such an investigation of family roots, and I didn't succeed."

'Project Yona'

Liora's daughter Ilana took up the cudgels and started to track down details of her grandmother's life. As part of a fascinating detective inquiry, detailed on a blog called "Project Yona," she tried to decipher the mystery of her grandmother's life. Various archives helped advance the search, the main source of support being the Internet. The first breakthrough occurred when she managed to obtain from the KGB archives Yona's interrogation and arrest file. Through this file, Liora and Ilana obtained the names of Yona's parents and discovered her birthplace. The names and places of residence, Liora and Ilana realized, could be cross-referenced in Yad Vashem's database, which today stores information relating to no less than 4 million people who died during the Holocaust.

Ilana discovered that in 1956, a person named Simcha filled out a testimonial page at Yad Vashem, and the document included details resembling ones contained in the KGB archives. Simcha was no longer alive, but Ilana managed to track down his descendants. Through Facebook, Ilana found Limor, Simcha's granddaughter, and Aryeh's daughter. "I decided to start with Limor, because she was young," Liora said, recounting the initial phone conversation. "I said [during the phone call] that I apologize and that I know that this sounds strange, but perhaps her grandfather had a sister." Aryeh confirmed that Simcha had a sister who had spent some time in Eretz Israel and had been active as a Communist. That was enough to verify to the excited relations that their sparse family tree had sprouted a new branch.

Assenting to Yad Vashem's request, the relations agreed to carry out their family reunion in the presence of journalists. The two cousins approached one another and embraced, while their spouses and children held hands and learned one another's names. "I am having trouble taking all this in," Liora said during the encounter. "I'm happy for myself that I have family, and am happy for my children. We need to forge a relationship, and I think we'll succeed in doing so."

Her cousin, Aryeh, concurred. "There's much to talk about, to cover such a long period of time, and it's a pity that the main people in this story are no longer with us," he said. "I had a sister who died a few months ago, and who didn't live to see this."

As Ilana summed it up: "This is like the story of the Jewish people as a whole. Five siblings - two died in the Holocaust; one was a Revisionist Zionist who came to Israel at Jabotinsky's urging, another an ardent Communist who was lost in the Communist camps; and there was a fifth sibling who apparently went to America."

Nobody in the family has any connection with the fifth sibling, whose name was Gedalia. "I found out that everyone by that name became 'George,' and 'Shapira' also became 'Shapiro,' so I've been looking for George Shapiros in the U.S. One of the creators of Seinfeld is named George Shapiro - perhaps he has some connection to this," Ilana added, smiling.