Searching for Preis and Finding Prajs
My father, Zelig Preis, was a Holocaust survivor. He grew up in Działoszyce, Poland which was the town of his mother's family, the Wdowinskis. He knew that side of his family very well, however his father's family, the Preises, were from another town and he saw them very infrequently. The Nazis swept through in 1942 and liquidated all of the towns in the area. Jews were killed or sent to camps. None of my father's three (older) siblings survived the war and neither did his parents. After his liberation from Buchenwald in April 1945, he was able to find a couple of cousins on his mother's side who had survived but that was the extent of it. As far as relatives on his father's side of the family, he didn't really know who to look for. He ended up coming to New York in 1950, met my mother in 1953 and got married a couple of years later. I was born in 1957 and my two brothers followed soon afterwards. We grew up in Trumbull, Connecticut. As kids, we heard many stories about life in Poland and also about the Holocaust, which my father was very open about. He told us many amazing stories that in his later years he'd go on to share with the larger Jewish community as well as many local schools.
My brothers and I were always curious about was why we didn't have any "Preis" relatives. We knew that there must be some out there but we had no idea how to find any. We'd look in phone books and anything we could get our hands on but in the 60s and 70s there weren't many resources for genealogical research! The years passed and finally the Internet burst onto the scene in the 2000s. Slowly, some interesting resources began to appear, one of them being the website, JewishGen. I was immediately fascinated by this and started researching. I found a couple of clues which led to a woman who was possibly related. She had lived in France for much of her life and she had two sons. We had some names in common on our family trees but we couldn't quite put it all together. It was exciting but ultimately frustrating and it ended up to be a dead end.
Years went by and our journey of discovery continued. It included a trip to Poland in 2005 with my father, brother, and cousins to see his home town and visit some of the camps. After hearing so many stories all of our lives, it was an amazing and surreal experience.
Then, in 2010, Zelig happened to stumble on an article in the New York Times about a documentary that was being made about the Jews in his region of Poland. One of the women mentioned in the piece was Leah Prais (originally the name was spelled Prajs in Poland) who was working at Yad Vashem in Israel. My father called me and said that he thought it was possible that Leah could be related to us. So I immediately wrote to Yad Vashem asking if I could be put in touch with Leah as we could possibly be related. Well, I got a very enthusiastic email back from Leah the very next day saying that she thought we just might be related but that I should speak with "our cousin Judy." Judy was a transplanted New Yorker living in Israel who had been researching the Prajs Family tree for years. I got in touch with her and gave her all the family information we had. As it was somewhat incomplete, we requested some additional records from the archives in Poland to see if they would fill in the gaps. Ultimately, Judy was able to place us on the tree! It turned out that there were many relatives alive -- thousands, in fact. A handful had survived the camps and many more whose ancestors emigrated to the U.S. and elsewhere before the war. It was incredibly exciting. Judy put us in touch with some second cousins, whose mother had been my father's first cousin. He hadn't known her in Europe but she had known my father's sister quite well, as they were the same age. Unfortunately, this cousin had passed away several years earlier so we never got to meet her. But we did get to meet her children and grandchildren who visited us. It was quite amazing.
It all came full circle with a Prajs Family reunion that was held in Ardsley, New York in November of 2012. It turned out to be the last major event Zelig attended before he passed away several weeks later. It was an incredible day and although my dad was very weak from his illness, the significance of the event was fully felt by him and all of us. That day, we met many cousins, several of whom we've remained friendly with. Judy, the family genealogist, has continued to be a "family connector" and regularly updates us on the most recent family-tree findings as well as keeping us up to date on the many Prajs Family milestones.
It's difficult for me to put into words the full impact this journey of discovery has had on my life. It would take me many more pages to do it justice. But I hope that what I have written has been interesting and that perhaps it will encourage some of you explore your roots as well.
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