In sixth grade, Lauren Lebowitz was assigned to write a report on a family member. Lauren, who is today a musical theater performer, chose to write about her maternal grandmother, Renia Diament Morgen, a Holocaust survivor from Poland.
What Lauren could not know at the time was that her conversations with her grandmother would spark a need to know more. Years later, she turned to the American Red Cross to learn about the fate of her grandparents’ lost family members—her grandmother’s parents, two sisters and two brothers, and her grandfather’s only brother (his sister, Seina, survived).
Lauren’s grandparents and their families hailed from Poland: Renia Diament from Lodz, and Mike Morgen (originally Munish Morgenstern), from Siedlce. When the Nazis invaded, Renia and her sister Rose fled, eventually ending up in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Renia met Mike in Kazakhstan; they were married after the war in a displaced persons camp in Germany.
This was the information Renia conveyed to11-year-old Lauren who spent hours in Renia’s Hillside, New Jersey, apartment, mesmerized by Renia’s stories and photos of her brothers and sisters. In fact, Renia gave Lauren the photos, which Renia had sewn into her clothing and carried throughout the war.
“They looked just like grandma,” Lauren said, “and of course they were from a world I had never known about. I couldn't stop studying them, and to this day, still do. I’m so lucky to have gotten her entire story.”
While Renia gave Lauren a thorough, tearful account of her war experiences, it was too painful for her grandfather to talk about. “He would walk out of the room and say 'She'll tell you!' ” Lauren said.
Years later, Lauren’s cousin, Edie Feinstein (Rose’s daughter), read in a newspaper that the American Red Cross was conducting Holocaust searches. In early 2000 Lauren and Edie met with Red Cross volunteer Sherry Lieb, from the then Metro New Jersey office. They filled out paperwork with all they knew about Lauren’s grandparents’ families, and Edie’s father, who had been incarcerated at Auschwitz.
Every few weeks for the next two years, Lauren and Edie received a call from Sherry, with bits and pieces of data. Sherry would then send them follow-up letters. “It was always amazing to open that envelope,” Lauren said.
In July 2000, Lauren learned that Mike’s brother, Yosef, had died a prisoner in Russia. Then, in October, 2000, they received a report from the Red Cross with all the names, birth dates, addresses in Poland of Renia's family members, and the day they were taken from their homes.
Though Renia had believed her family was sent to Auschwitz, she always held out a slim hope that some had survived and might be living a different country or under a different name.
Sadly, the Red Cross discovered that her parents and siblings perished at Chelmno, an extermination camp, in the second month of deportations from the Lodz ghetto.
Although Lauren was shocked by this information, it also gave her a sense of closure. “The image of those family members going to their deaths in the most inhumane way, in gas chambers, is something I will always know and can never forget,” she said.
“In a strange way,” Lauren continued, “I felt a sense of closure.”
Lauren flew down from New York to break this news to her grandparents, who were then living in Hollywood, Florida.
“We sat by the pool and I handed my grandmother the paper,” Lauren said. “She put her glasses on and read every single line, quietly. She looked up at me, gave a sigh, and we never really spoke about their fate again. After all these years she finally knew the truth.
“My grandmother finally knew what happened to her family.”
This past November, Lauren performed at the annual Greater New York Red Cross gala, A Red Tie Affair, Honoring Our Heroes. She sang "Let it Go" from FROZEN and U2's "One."
“I think the Red Cross is an incredible organization,” she said. “You read about what they do, but at that event you really felt it. It made me want to volunteer.
“I was so honored to be performing,” she added. “It was such a special event, and a small piece of what I could give back to the Red Cross after what they did for my family.”
To learn more about how the Red Cross helps trace and reconnect families separated by war and natural disaster, click here.