A year ago around this time, Gemma Moshal was giving a presentation to the parents of Grade 6 students at Associated Hebrew School’s Danilack Campus. She was telling them about the project she had completed the year before, when she was in Grade 6, which had won her a trip to Israel. It was a project about family histories, so the parents would be working on it with their children.
Moshal, who is now a Grade 8 student at the same school, says she wishes she could have given that presentation to the parents just one day later. Why? Because the day after her presentation, her family received a message from a long-lost relative living in Siberia who was able to make the connection because of Moshal’s work on the project.
That relative, Nadia Fedotov, came to the school on Jan. 29 to present to this year’s Grade 6 students about the importance of the project they were working on. The day was part of a longer trip where Fedotov and one of her sons was able to meet her extended family for the first time, after 90 years of separation between the two branches of the family.
“It’s difficult to describe this feeling because our family split apart and we lived as a very little family with very little relations. Just my granny, my mom, me and my brother … we always felt that there is somebody somewhere who we are related to, but we are not aware of (each other),” Fedotov said. “(My granny) cannot travel so far away, but she feels so happy that we found each other and this lost connection. She was rather depressed after my mom’s passing last year. And it really gave her strength and moral support to go on.”
Moshal prefaced Fedotov’s presentation by explaining how her project had led to the family’s reunification. Moshal was one of 50 students from around the world selected by Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People located in Tel Aviv, to come to Israel to present their projects and participate in workshops. As part of the selection process, Moshal had to upload her family tree to the website myheritage.com. It was there that Fedotov’s husband, Artur, who was always on the lookout for lost family connections, recognized the similarities between the families’ histories.
Moshal and Fedotov’s great-grandparents were brother and sister Edel Chonin and Mera-Sheina Ozur, nee Chonin, respectively. They were separated in 1929, when the 17-year-old Edel, at the urging of his mother, fled from Lithuania to South Africa to escape the violence and forced conscription directed at Jewish men. Edel lost touch with his family when the Second World War broke out, because they had been exiled to Siberia.
But Edel never forgot about his family at the other end of the world — he spent the rest of his life trying to reconnect with them, and passed that desire on to his son Leon Chonin, Moshal’s grandfather. He was born in 1945 and, for as long as he can remember, his family was always searching for their long-lost relatives.The International Red Cross tried to reunite the families, he remembers, but it was impossible to communicate through the Iron Curtain.
“Their response to us was, ‘if they were exiled to Siberia, they would have perished. There’s no real hope.’ And we lost, that was it. We had to give up,” he said. “I thought I’d exhausted every avenue. I didn’t know where to go.”
He almost couldn’t believe the news when he heard that his family from Siberia had made contact.
“I was over the moon. I was just so happy, because it was so many years that I was trying to find them,” he said, adding that he’s making plans to visit Siberia. “This experience has just been absolutely amazing. It’s been a very emotional time for me, because I had no real close family from our father’s side … his sister’s family was just lost. And having Nadia with me now, it’s such an amazing experience.”