In 85 years of life, one would expect to have many fond memories to reflect upon. But nothing was as joyful as the day New Jersey resident Eugenia Kawczak reunited with her beloved and missing siblings with the help of the Red Cross.
Until recently, Kawczak had not seen her 90-year-old sister, Melania Babenko, since 1943 when Kawczak was taken by the Nazis from their former home in rural Ukraine and transported to a forced-work farm in Würzburg, Germany. After decades of unanswered questions and worst fears, the Red Cross amazingly found the sisters, now living oceans apart, eager to reconnect.
On June 12, Kawczak and her daughter Nadija traveled to the Ukraine, where Babenko still lives, to see each other for the first time since the war broke out. Sadly, this long-awaited reunion will most likely be their last opportunity to meet face-to-face, given their age and deteriorating health.
"I'm so happy for my mother," said Stanley Pasternak, Kawczak's son. "She worked hard all her life. It's something special in her older years to be able to relax and see her family."
Surrounded by four generations of relatives, Kawczak leapt from her wheelchair to embrace Babenko moments after the plane landed. Kawczak wept when she saw her brother Arkadiy, who she feared had also not survived the war.
After the initial stream of tears faded, Babenko presented her sister and niece with bread and salt as part of a Ukrainian welcoming tradition. For the rest of the day, the emotional siblings stared at each other and held hands in silence, recalling distant memories and the bond they once shared.
After their emotional reunion, the Catholic family plans to spend the next week in the Ukraine reminiscing about their shared youth and learning about each other's adult lives. When Kawczak returns to the United States on June 20, the siblings plan to write letters and stay in touch by telephone.
Red Cross Finds Hope in History
Kawczak's story represents one of approximately 1,500 post-war reunions coordinated by the American Red Cross in the last 20 years.
In September 2008, Babenko visited the Ukrainian Red Cross to inquire about locating her sister, though she did not know where she might be now living - or if she even survived the war. The Ukrainian Red Cross searched among post-war records and eventually passed Babenko's request to the American Red Cross with information that her sister may have come to United States approximately ten years after they were torn apart.
Through the diligence of volunteers working from the American Red Cross Granite Chapter, Kawczak's son was found living in New Hampshire. When contacted, he was happy to relay that his mother is in good health, living with his sister, Nadija, in Salem, New Jersey.
"I couldn't believe that after all these years, they found my sister," Kawczak exclaimed.
After the liberation of the work farm, Kawczak was placed in a camp for displaced persons in West Germany, operated by the U.S. military, and eventually immigrated to America.
Her eldest daughter, Vera Elser, said of the initial phone call, "My mother would not believe it until she went to the Salem County Red Cross and saw the name of the village where they were born (on the inquiry form Babenko completed by hand in Poland)".
After so many years of grieving their separation and living with unanswered questions, Kawczak did not waste time in contacting her sister. "The day we went to the Red Cross we were given a telephone number, and as soon as we got home we called her right away," Elser said. "She was shocked and happy."
With the help of the Red Cross, the sisters also discovered a brother also immigrated to America after the war. Although he died several years ago, Kawczak recently connected with his daughter, who lives in New York.
If you are a Holocaust survivor or an immediate family member of a war victim, the American Red Cross may be able to help. We have the resources to find answers to questions you've asked for more than half a century. To initiate your search, please contact your local American Red Cross chapter.