The meeting in Israel last month between 102-year-old Holocaust survivor Eliahu Pietruszka and the nephew he had never seen made headlines around the world.
The story was irresistible: Alexandre Pietruszka, 66, had flown from a remote part of Russia to be united for the first time with his uncle, Eliahu Pietruszka.
Eliahu Pietruszka “kissed both cheeks of his visitor and in a frail, squeaky voice began blurting out greetings in Russian, a language he hadn’t spoken in decades,” reported the Associated Press. “I haven’t slept in two nights waiting for you,” the older man told his newfound kin.
Alexandre Pietruszka, in turn, “swallowed hard to hold back tears, repeatedly shaking his head in disbelief.”
Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, took credit, saying that its Pages of Testimonies, an online database of forms containing information on the victims of the Shoah, made the incredible meeting possible.
But buried in the story was a tantalizing tidbit: an unnamed Canadian “cousin” had facilitated the tearful reunion with dogged research into her family tree.
Hagit Mikanovsky of Thornhill, Ont., is the Canadian connection.
A 44-year-old, Israeli-born mother of three who works in marketing and recruitment for NSCY Canada, Mikanovsky doesn’t mind that she wasn’t in the limelight. She’s just pleased the reunion happened.
“I always wanted to make a family tree, but never jumped into it,” Mikanovsky told The CJN in an interview at her dining room table, which was covered with papers and files. During a 2014 visit to her native Israel, her family went to Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People, and picked up some pointers.
“We learned how to do research,” she recalled with enthusiasm, “and we got home and did nothing.”
That changed earlier this year when she spent hours searching Yad Vashem’s Shoah Victims Names database, to begin her project. An emotional moment came when she discovered her maternal grandfather’s testimony about his first wife and two young daughters, aged six and nine.
“It was heartbreaking for me to see his handwriting and to imagine what he was feeling as he was filling out the forms,” she said. “Before that, they were just names. Finally, this hit me.”
I think I found new family.
– Hagit Mikanovsky
Mikanovsky confirmed the stories she’d heard as a child, saying that her grandfather’s mother’s maiden name was Pietruszka. She searched the Yad Vashem database for the surname and got 516 documents. She read every one.
“Look, I think I found new family,” she recalled telling her husband.
Sifting through the mound of information, she discovered testimonies from two brothers, Eliahu and Volf Pietruszka, her grandfather’s first cousins.
“I realized that if they (both) gave testimony, it means they survived the Holocaust and they probably have family I can add to the tree,” Mikanovsky related on her Facebook page.
She tried searching on Facebook. “I was sure the surname Pietruszka is not a common one, but I was wrong,” she said, noting that she contacted many people with that name, but got nowhere.
Then – “don’t ask me why I did this” – she googled “Eliahu Pietruszka” in English, as opposed to Hebrew. The first page showed a YouTube video of the man’s 100th birthday party and the name of the person who posted it – Shakhar Smorodinsky, Eliahu Pietruszka’s grandson.
Mikanovsky found Smorodinsky’s email address and wrote him. The next day, she received a reply from Smorodisnky’s mother, Nechama.
I haven’t slept in two nights waiting for you.
– Eliahu Pietruszka
“Yes, we are the family you are talking about,” wrote Nechama, who encouraged the Canadian to meet her father, Eliahu. Mikanovsky sent Nechama a link to her growing family tree.
Meanwhile, Mikanovsky thought: “Oh my God, not only did I find him, but he’s still alive!”
Volf Pietruszka, who died in 2011 believing he was his family’s sole survivor, had settled in Magnitogorsk, Russia, an industrial city in the Ural Mountains near the Kazakh border. Smorodinsky, found that Alexandre Pietruszka, Volf Pietruszka’s only child, still lived there. After Smorodinsky arranged a brief Skype chat, Alexandre Pietruszka decided to come to Israel to see the uncle he never knew he had.
Now a more seasoned researcher, Mikanovsky likened her sleuthing to “a giant jigsaw puzzle.” Completing it was “an amazing feeling.”