Editor’s note: In September 2019, JWA published For Czarna, in which the author, Julie Zuckerman, memorialized her great-aunt Czarna, who was killed at Auschwitz, and her only child, a son, who survived the war as a child hidden in a French abbey. A few months ago, as a result of this piece, the author was contacted by a woman in Corsica doing genealogical research on her grandmother. The woman’s grandmother had been adopted as a baby in 1930; on her birth certificate, Czarna was listed as her mother. The author’s family had no knowledge of Czarna having a daughter, but enough details seemed to match, and after months of back-and-forth using Google translate, the two sides exchanging documents, stories, and pictures, and finally undergoing DNA testing, the results returned a match. In Czarna, Reimagined, Julie Zuckerman considers this discovery, and her great-aunt, in a new light.
The most amazing thing has happened, Aunt Czarna. Because I wrote about your son, I’ve found your daughter. The daughter whom, at nine days old, you brought to the municipal hospice in the 19th arrondissement in Paris and never spoke of again. Alone, unmarried, without means, not speaking the language. With your father and four siblings in America and three additional siblings back in Kolbuswoza, it was possible to keep her a secret. Despite the research that went into our family history book and cookbook, she was unknown to us, your siblings’ descendants and your own, until now. I imagine that you did not hand your baby over with “absolute indifference” as recorded by the authorities, but with considerable grief and sorrow.
Would it help to know, Czarna, that at that moment, you saved her life? By putting Marcelle up for adoption, as we’d call it today, you spared her the fate of being a Jewish girl when the Wermacht stormed through France. You couldn’t have known in 1930 what was to come. But I imagine that as life got progressively worse, you kindled a small, secret hope for her. Did you look into the faces of every little French girl, wondering? Did you worry someone would uncover her Jewish roots?
You could not have fathomed, Czarna, that 90 years later, uncovering one’s Jewish roots is as simple as taking a few swipes of saliva and sending it off for genetic testing, that documentation for adoptees might be unsealed, and with a bit of genealogical sleuthing, your great-granddaughter could find your name on Marcelle’s birth certificate, and this would lead her to me—all because of a piece I wrote about you.
Czarna. Charna. Szarna. So many ways to spell your first name. And Sonia, the French name you must have taken on at some point, the one by which you are inscribed on the Wall of Names at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris.
Czarna, when you married, less than a year after your daughter was born, did you do so with relief or with happiness? Like you, Abraham was a Jew from Galicia living in France, a man five years your junior. I imagine your joy when your son Joseph was born, a year after the wedding. A child to keep. A child to spoil. He later wrote that the two of you were very close, and that he always wanted to be near you. How excruciating, then, when in 1942 you were forced to send him away for his own safety, into the Jura mountains with the Red Cross. You stood on the platform without a trace of emotion on your face, as Joseph later recalled—an observer might have said “absolute indifference—while he watched you from his train car, unable to stop his tears. I imagine the terror in your heart that you might never see him again, the fervent wish that he might live.
He did live, Aunt Czarna, his true identity kept secret until France was liberated. When it was clear that neither you nor Abraham, nor his other aunts, uncles, and cousins in Europe were coming back from the camps, may their memories be a blessing, he left for America to stay with your younger, luckier siblings, never knowing his older sister lived a few hundred kilometers away in central France.
You should know, Czarna, that Marcelle was adopted by a loving mother, a widow. She grew into a beautiful woman, though she faced many health challenges, including tuberculosis of the lungs and the bones, a stiff knee, and respiratory problems. She married and raised children, but passed away in 1979, at the young age of 49. I imagine it was difficult for her, not knowing her origins. She took steps to find you, Czarna, but at the time, the law wouldn’t allow it.
Would it please you to know, Czarna, that Marcelle and Joseph each had four children? And that your eight grandchildren have children and grandchildren of their own, scattered across the United States and France? Perhaps now, these first cousins will meet, as your son and daughter never did. I am a mere second-cousin, but my family is a close one. I grew up knowing all of my great-aunts and uncles, my parents’ cousins, and my other second-cousins, many of whom I see on a regular basis. On the day your great-granddaughter first contacted me, my imagination running wild, I looked up flights to Corsica. I imagine that when we meet, there will be tears over what was lost and what’s been found.
My dear Aunt Czarna, my father—your nephew —says, “We shouldn’t speculate about the pregnancy.” But I can’t help myself. Whatever happened later—the pregnancy, the anguish over giving her up, the heartache, worry, and loneliness you must have felt—I would like to imagine that Marcelle was conceived in love. Or at least passion. And above all, consent. It’s too painful to think otherwise.
I am left with so many questions, Czarna, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever know your full story. Why did you leave Poland for France in 1930? Did you come, already pregnant, knowing it would be easier to keep this news from your family if you were far away? Or had you decided, after raising your younger siblings and seeing them off in Warsaw for their journey to America, that it was time to live for yourself? I imagine that a 29-year-old woman who has spent her entire existence in a small Galician shtetl might have dreamed of Paris. From the genetic testing, we can deduce that Marcelle’s father was also Jewish. Was Abraham her father, too, and if so, why didn’t you marry quickly and keep the baby?
Now it is safer, Czarna. Now an unmarried woman can keep her baby without it being a shanda, at least in most circles. Now Jewish children in France do not have to go into hiding to survive. Now there are better treatments for Marcelle’s ailments. Now there are ways to see the faces of your loved ones across the ocean and speak to them on a daily basis. Now I send letters, pictures, and information about the family and our Jewish customs: this is Wolf, our great-grandfather, the butcher; here is a picture of Czarna and her siblings; today is the holiday of Purim; have you seen this document where Marcelle is listed in the registry of Pupilles de l’Assistance? Back and forth our correspondence goes. Each time we learn a bit more.
Sometimes it’s still hard to believe this new information about you, Aunt Czarna. You, whom I have only ever known as a beautiful young woman sitting next to your youngest sister, my grandmother, in a black-and-white photo. You, whose life was cruelly taken at Auschwitz two short months after you’d sent Joseph into hiding. We will never fully know your complexities, challenges, or desires. I imagine your shame at the thought of your family uncovering your secret. But please know, Aunt Czarna, that we accept your choices without judgment and with love.
How to cite this page
Zuckerman, Julie. "Czarna, Reimagined." 24 May 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 6, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/czarna-reimagined>.