When Max Gottlieb contacted the International Red Cross earlier this year, he had no idea that the information he would receive would lead to a very painful question — and a protracted search by a determined English acquaintance to find the answer.
David Schneider, from Stanmore, has spent the past few months making “hundreds of phone calls” to different organisations, attempting to help Mr Gottlieb discover whether, as he had always thought, his father Jacob had perished during the Holocaust — or if, bearing in mind possible new evidence, he survived the war.
“Earlier this year, the Polish government said that anyone who had Polish citizenship and during the war had been forced into a work camp in Russia was now entitled to a small pension, or compensation”, Mr Schneider explained.
81-year old Mr Gottlieb, who now lives in Staten Island, New York, “had been sent to a work camp with his mother around 1940, and he was there until the end of the war”, said Mr Schneider.
“And he thought, ‘maybe I can get a small pension, or a small amount of compensation’.”
While Mr Gottlieb, together with his mother and another sibling, had been deported to a work camp in Russia, his father Jacob and older brother David were allowed to stay in the city of Lvov (now Lviv) because their jobs at the time — providing wood for fuel to the hospital there — were considered important to the local area. The Nazis, however, captured the city during their advance eastwards in the summer of 1941.
“Max always assumed that his father had been murdered in the ghetto or been taken to an extermination camp,” Mr Schneider said.
“He was under the impression that his father and brother had not survived the war.”
But in pursuing his pension claim, Mr Gottlieb contacted the Red Cross to ask if they had any documentation which would help him prove his own whereabouts during the war. They did not — but they had something else.
“He received an English emigration card, dated December 31, 1946, which refers to Jacob Gottlieb, who came from a town called Pruchnik… and had been born in 1892. Someone called Dr Paula Horowitz was acting as a guarantor for him.
“Max knew his father had been born in Pruchnik in 1892. But he didn’t know where this card came from, and he had no clue what it meant — had his father survived the war or not? He really didn’t know.”
Mr Gottlieb contacted Mr Schneider via a friend. Through his own inquiries, Mr Schneider managed to find out more about the Horowitz family, who had helped sponsor a number of Jewish refugees to come to Britain after the war.
He even managed to find a record of a different Jacob Gottlieb helped by the Horowitzes, who passed away in London in the 1980s.
But his efforts, including correspondence with World Jewish Relief, the Wiener library, the US Holocaust Museum and German archives, have all led to a dead end.
“Obviously, to a man of 80 who suddenly gets a notification that maybe his father survived the war, it’s very, very disturbing”, said Mr Schneider, who added that he had spent an “lot of time” on this, the first time he had ever carried out such a search.
“I’m largely retired, so I can afford to spend my time as I wish and I just felt that this was a cause that deserved some effort, because I’d hate to be in that sort of situation,” he said.
“I felt very sorry for this man. To believe that your father has been murdered is bad enough. But then to think ‘well, was he murdered, did he survive?’ And what Max is puzzled about is that if he survived, why would he not have got in touch with members of the family, because immediately after the war there was family still in Poland and family that had gone to Israel.”
Even Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial centre has been unable to provide an answer. The entry it holds on Jacob Gottlieb is provided by Max himself. “Max told them he believed his father had been killed. I haven’t found any testimony from anybody else,” said Mr Schneider.
He added that he was aware of how slim the chances are that Jacob Gottlieb survived the war.
Of the 220,000 Jews in Lvov at the start of the war, only 800 survived the Holocaust.
“The statistical probability of Jacob Gottlieb having survived is very, very slim,” said Mr Schneider. “That said — how did Paula Horowitz know the precise year Jacob Gottlieb was born?
“I haven’t been able to find that out either.”