Thursday, December 18, 2008

With Old Document, Clues To A Storied Start

Fred Feldman, whose parents escaped the Holocaust, has spent much of his adult life trying to preserve the stories of survivors and honor the memory of those who died. He has spent countless hours taping and transcribing interviews of his parents and others, and has restored a volume of cracked and faded photographs. He named his son after two uncles killed at Treblinka.

But for decades, Feldman could not fit himself precisely into that narrative. He first appears in photos as a young boy after the war, when his family spent three years in a United Nations Displaced Persons camp; his first memory is of huddling on the deck of a transport ship in New York Harbor in 1949, seeing the Statue of Liberty piercing the mist.

But of his birth, he knew only that it happened somewhere in Azerbaijan on Dec. 4, 1942, while his parents were fleeing the Nazis. His birth certificate affirming the place seemed lost to history.

That has now changed.

Feldman's birth certificate has been found...the consul for the Embassy of Azerbaijan, a predominantly Muslim country, is traveling from Washington, D.C., for the occasion. Both Feldman and Azerbaijani officials view the recovery of the decades-old document as a kind of post-Soviet holiday miracle.

"I thought this was a lost cause. I had no idea whether the birth certificate had gone on to Moscow or had been destroyed" or if it languished in an unknown small town, said Feldman, who approached the embassy last spring with only vague details about his birth. "I was amazed that they found it."

Yashar Aliyev, Azerbaijan's ambassador to the United States, said embassy officials were intrigued by the challenge of Feldman's request. And in helping him establish his connection to their country, they saw a chance to reflect Azerbaijan's history of bridging continents and cultures.

The Azerbaijani researchers had to cast a wide net. Even if the birth certificate existed, nobody knew how Feldman's name would be spelled.

Feldman's parents, Yiddish-speaking refugees from Poland, named their son Froyim in Yiddish and Ephraim in Hebrew, each written with Hebrew characters. ("Fred" came later, from a US immigration official.) Also, their last name was sometimes transliterated as Felman, sometimes Feldman. The birth certificate would have been recorded by Soviet officials in Russian and written with Cyrillic characters. Meanwhile, the country's official language today is Azerbaijani, or Azeri, written with Latin characters.

There was also a matter of location. Feldman's father traversed Azerbaijan during the war as an itinerant farm worker and machine operator. Later, he listed his son's birthplace on his US citizenship papers as Baku. But the capital was a substitute for the precise place name, forgotten in the chaos, loss, and frequent moves.
Feldman's parents, Mendel and Frieda, were 22 and planning to marry when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. They persuaded three relatives to flee with them, ahead of the Nazis. Those who stayed behind, they later learned, were killed. (Source: Boston Globe)

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