Orphaned by war, I spent 60 years not knowing I had a family

Together at last: Michele Barzilai (left) and cousin Tova Rubenstein, who met in Richmond this week

Together at last: Michele Barzilai (left) and cousin Tova Rubenstein, who met in Richmond this week

First cousins from opposite sides of the world, who believed no other members of their family had survived the Holocaust, met for the first time this week in London after 60 years of unanswered questions.

Over an emotional tea at Michele Barzilai's Richmond home, she and Tova Rubenstein shared remarkable stories of survival against the odds, exchanged pictures of grandchildren and learnt about each other's lives, the former in the UK and the latter in Israel and Australia.

For Mrs Barzilai it was the first time she had set eyes on a living relative on her mother's side since 1941, when as a newborn she was smuggled out of the Cherkov ghetto in a blanket.

Hidden by a Righteous Gentile during the Holocaust, she was later sent to a Polish orphanage and then to Britain where she was adopted by a Jewish couple from Liverpool. Her birth parents were never heard of again. As a young mother, bringing up two sons, Michele met a cousin on her father's side. But to her knowledge, she was the last of the Liblein family.

She never attempted to find out more. "I never spoke about my background as I never wanted my [adoptive] parents to think I wanted anything more than them," she said.

Half a world away, a survivor who had lost his wife and children, Aharon Yakubovich, met another survivor in a displaced person camp. She was Esther Liblein, who had escaped the ghetto before her sister Riwka, Michele's mother, became pregnant. Esther had fled east on foot, eventually reaching Baku in Azerbaijan.

Esther and Aharon married and settled in Israel, bringing up their daughter Tova in desperate poverty. Esther registered her details with Yad Vashem, but no relatives were found and she died when Tova was a teenager.

"I just had a few family stories and I was a child, you don't ask questions," said Tova, a former teacher, now a grandmother of eight living in Melbourne. "I didn't continue searching - I never had anyone to check the details with - so I did not expect this. I've built a family, but never had someone who was a blood relative."

Last year, Michele's Hong Kong-based daughter-in-law Barbie Goldfoot came across Esther's Yad Vashem posting. This March she appealed for information in the Australian Jewish News.

"I could so easily have missed it," said Tova. Thankfully, friends noticed and 24 hours later, she was on the phone to the family she never knew she had.

"I wanted to meet her very much but I was apprehensive," said Michele. "It was extraordinary now to meet her face to face. We were at ease instantly, we are very alike, both very energetic."

Tova said they connected straight away. "It was very emotional. When I saw her, straight away I saw it. There was something around the eyes that reminded me of my mother."

The cousins were astonished to discover that they had lived not far from each other for several years, Tova and her husband Arie in Petach Tikva and Michele and Avraham Barzilai in Jerusalem. "We might have passed each other in the street," said Tova. "Instead we met on the other side of the world."

Last updated: 9:07am, September 2 2011