Rhonda Findling (on right) reunites with her Aunt Regina after 40 years, July 4, 2018. (Courtesy Rhonda Findling)
Rhonda Findling (on right) reunites with her Aunt Regina after 40 years, July 4, 2018. (Courtesy Rhonda Findling)

Aunt traumatized by Holocaust disappears for 40 years

Regina Findling was just 18 months old, the youngest of five children, when the Nazis came pounding on their third-floor apartment door in Cologne, Germany, during Kristallnacht. The oldest brother, Josef, age 10, smothered her with a garment until she turned blue in order to stifle the crying that would surely put all their lives at risk.

Two weeks prior, their father was deported back to Poland, along with 16,000 Polish-born Jewish males living in Germany. Before he left, and with great foresight, he built a barricade for the door of their meager flat that, at that critical and perilous moment, prevented the Nazis from capturing his wife and five young children. This was the first of many miracles that spared the lives of the five Findling kids, who later became part of the mere 7 percent of Jewish children who survived the Holocaust. Being so young, Regina in particular paid a heavy price for her survival that would damage her for life.

Six weeks after Kristallnacht, in an act of unimaginable love and courage, their mother, my grandmother, put her four older children ages 6 to 10 on a train to Belgium, deceiving and convincing the authorities they would just be visiting relatives for Christmas and returning in the evening. In Belgium, the four ended up in orphanages and foster homes for Jewish refugee children. Regina’s three brothers later escaped to southern France when the Nazis invaded Brussels in May 1940, and eventually were rescued and brought to the U.S. in September 1941. Regina and her mother were smuggled into Belgium and Regina’s sister Fanny joined them. When it became too dangerous after the Nazi occupation, Fanny and Regina, now 3, were placed by their mother in hiding in separate Catholic convents in Belgium until the end of the war. Regina and Fanny were reunited with each other and their three brothers in 1948 in Detroit, where Regina, 11, was placed in a foster home separate from her siblings. They would not learn until years later that both their parents were murdered by the Nazis.

What sounds like a relatively happy ending in 1948 became a tumultuous and troubled existence for Regina. Forever separated from her parents at such a young age, detached from her older sister who helped care for her, and left with strangers charged with keeping her in hiding, Regina suffered irreparable trauma.

The Findling siblings in 1948, with Regina, 11, center. (Photo/Courtesy Rhonda Findling)
The Findling siblings reunited after the Holocaust, with Regina, 11, center. (Photo/Courtesy Rhonda Findling)

In 1961 she swallowed a bottle of pills and was in a coma near death. It would not be the first suicide attempt. In the ’70s she admitted herself to Synanon in Tomales Bay, a place for drug addicts and those like her who could not cope in the world. The fact that she was a talented artist and musician, as well as a brilliant intellectual, did not extinguish or even mitigate her inner turmoil.

In spite of her anguish, Regina had a very sweet and playful spirit, and when she came over to visit us in our home in the L.A. area, she spent more time frolicking with her nieces and nephews than engaging in conversation with adults. When I was 17, she took me backpacking. My sister and I worshipped and adored her. The fact that she was so emotionally damaged from the Holocaust was not hidden from us, but as children, we only cared that she came over and played and connected with us unlike any adult ever did.

Her three brothers and one sister were always amenable to helping her financially. She lived in her sister’s home in L.A. for several years, and I recall my father gifting her our old car. For years, she came to every family bar and bat mitzvah as well as other family functions in the L.A. area. She was very much part of our lives, and in spite of her fragile mental state, we all cared for and loved her.

She eventually found some solace with her third husband, but around January1979, she deliberately vanished from our family with no warning … for nearly 40 years.

To call it a sad and bitter irony is an understatement. For five Jewish children to all survive the Holocaust after losing their parents and the majority of their relatives was nothing short of miraculous. To then lose their baby sister after everything they endured was both painful and tragic for the older four siblings. It was yet another agonizing abandonment.

In 1991, Josef (Joe) hired a private investigator, who found Regina and her husband in Grants Pass, Oregon. She made it clear she did not want any phone or in-person contact with anyone in the family. She agreed to write letters, but only through her brother Joe until a few years later when she got a post office box.

I was only 18 when she left, and I remember being heartbroken by her choice to abandon the family. Nonetheless, I started writing letters to her, and at times she wrote me back. She even sent some photos of her and her husband. They appeared to live a simple, reclusive life. In her letters she confirmed my suspicions that she left our family because her Holocaust past was too painful. In October 1996 she wrote: “You are absolutely right-on in your guess as to why I chose to withdraw from the family. Just as you said, it was an attempt to distance myself from past trauma and start over again.” While it all made sense, it still did not erase the sadness of losing her. I consoled myself with the fact that she seemed to finally find some peace in her life.

As the decades passed, I never gave up hope of seeing her again. To this day, I keep her letters by my bed and a photo of her on my dresser. I fantasized countless times about hearing from her and immediately jumping into my car for the long drive from where I live in Sebastopol to Grants Pass. Once she turned 80 in 2017, however, I started to lose hope and often wondered if she would die and I would never have an opportunity to see her again. In addition, her reply letters stopped in 2012 with no explanation. In May of 2017, the yearly birthday card I mailed her was returned to me unclaimed, as was the note I sent six months later to inform her that her sister, Fanny, was terminally ill. I called the Grants Pass Post Office and learned her box was closed due to lack of payment. Many conclusions raced through my mind, none of which were good.

That all changed on Friday, June 29, 2018, when her nephew, my cousin David, an attorney with expertise in tracking people down, concluded an investigation to find out why the letters sent to her were suddenly bouncing back. David discovered she and her husband were in separate care facilities in Grants Pass. He called every facility until he found her in a memory care home. The staff person asked if he wanted to speak directly with Regina, which he did. Forty years of distance and silence suddenly turned into telephone contact, and within hours, many of us called and were able to speak to her. Her dementia was a mixed blessing in that she clearly did not remember wanting separation from her family.

The next day I spoke to her wonderful caretakers to see if it was possible to visit her. Even after I explained the situation and that it had been 40 years, I was encouraged to make the trip. This encouragement, however, did little to subdue my anxiety that I would travel for almost seven hours from Northern California only to have her refuse to see me. It was worth the risk. So five days later, on July 4, my sister drove down from Portland, and I drove north, and we met at her care facility in Grants Pass.

Within moments we were embracing our precious aunt after 40 years of non-contact. She was happy to see us and seemed to understand who we were. We came armed with photographs from the past to show her, and shared stories with her from our childhood to help jog her memory. In spite of her dementia, she was able to identify the names and faces of all her siblings in the photos. We used FaceTime so Regina could talk to and see our father (her brother) in L.A. as well as her other brother in Detroit. We watched our uncle crying as he reconnected with his sister after 40 years.

Surviving the Holocaust for many like my aunt is both a blessing and a curse. Many suffer emotional scars that render them unable to lead a normal life. While it’s a miracle that we can have contact again, it’s also slightly bittersweet. After all, she has dementia and needs to be in a facility that is hundreds of miles from most of us. We also discovered she and her husband are now victims of financial elder abuse that will take us significant time and effort to sort out and rectify. Both David and my sister, a lawyer in Portland, are handling the legalities.

As children of survivors, we were instilled with the Jewish value of the importance of family and the need to always be there for each other. Now we find ourselves facing this sense of duty more than ever before. It may be 40 years of separation, but our dear aunt has always been and will always remain in our hearts, and as part of the Findling family, and we not only welcome her back with open arms, we will make sure her final years are as comfortable as possible.

Rhonda Findling

Rhonda Findling is on the counseling faculty at Santa Rosa Junior College. She lives in Sebastopol.