107 Years Late for Dinner: How I Uncovered My Grandmother’s Lost Identity

The following post by MyHeritage user Grant Arthur Gochin,originally published in The Times of Israel Blogs,describes his remarkable journey to recover the lost identity of his grandmother, who was orphaned as the result of persecution. Republished with permission.

Dinner between cousins was scheduled for Shabbat on Friday, May 14, 1915. How was I to know that the Shabbos meal never took place? Without warning, Russian forces launched a genocidal mass deportation of Baltic Jews into the depths of Russia. Families were torn apart, lives were destroyed, and communities of Jews devastated.

The first inkling I had was on my grandmother’s deathbed. Her final lucid words to me were: “I wish I knew my name. I wish I knew who my family was.” We thought we knew her name – Bertha Lee Arenson. We were wrong.

Photo of woman, girl, and boy

我的祖母(中)和她的阿姨和弟弟。Probably taken in Ukraine c. 1919.

My grandmother had been adopted. She had a genetic brother and maternal cousins. I knew her youth had been traumatic; nothing more. A deathbed plea for her own identity from a beloved grandmother is nothing a grandson can turn away from. The search for my grandmother’s identity became my life’s mission. It was the only act I could still perform on her behalf. There were clues to her real identity, but in a then-pre-internet age, they were not viable.

Throughout the years-long research,MyHeritagewas critically important in tracing the family connections.

Uncertain country of origin

My grandmother had not known her country of birth. At times, she had claimed she was born in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and even Russia.

I hired 6 different researchers in 5 different countries.

Her date of birth had been randomly imposed upon her,yet she remembered her mother’s first name had been Sirella,她的父亲简克尔,他们的姓接近诺沃塞德兹。Novosedz just means “new settler” inRussian – it was not a hint of any value.我几乎没有什么东西可做。

The discovery of my grandmother’s identity was accidental, a series of random searches where the puzzle pieces fit. Sirella was the diminutive of Sire Elke.

Jankel was the abbreviation of Iankel Ber. Novosedz was Lithuanian. Bertha Lee was actually Brocha Leya. Her fictional date of birth, December 7, 1912, was actually July 10, 1911. My grandmother was Brocha Leya Novosedz, born in Birzai Lithuania, to Sire Elke Garrenbloom and Iankel Ber Novosedz. The Garrenblooms and Novosedz families were both well-established, prosperous families, living in Lithuania for hundreds of years. It was a good marriage!

Iankel, my great-grandfather, worked for Baron Von Fredrichshof on the Fredrichshof estate in Riga. Sirella’s family, the Garrenblooms, were a prosperous family in Raguva, Lithuania. The children were well cared for, education was primary.

Old photo of family, seated

Moses and Esther Garrenbloom surrounded by their children, left to right: Luba, Sirella, Masha, Sarah, Braina, and Sonia. Note the gold watch Esther is wearing


Jankel, Sirella, and all of their relatives were deported into Ukraine in a mass deportation of Jews from Lithuania and Latvia on Saturday, May 15, 1915. The Russian-instigated deportations were sudden and brutal. Immediately, and sometimes even before the Jews were forcibly removed from their homes, Lithuanians plundered their possessions. Ordinary people’s lives were utterly destroyed simply because they were Jews.

From being a wealthy successful family, they were placed on cattle cars and transported into the Russian hinterlands without food or means of survival. My grandmother was 4 years old. Her younger brother Moshe was two. Criminals indeed! The Shabbat dinner obviously never happened.

Old photo of man and woman, seated

Jankel and Sirella Novosedz

In Ukraine, Sirella, her sister Sonia, and their mother Esther sold candy at the roadside trying to eke out pennies to survive. Sonia (mother of the South African national hero Esther Barsel) swept the cemetery, begging for crumbs.

Pogroms and prison

These were the times of massive pogroms in Ukraine. Jews were forbidden from trading in grain. They were not allowed to possess food, they were not allowed to trade food, they were not supposed to remain alive. Jankel was thrown into prison for the crime of trying to feed his family. He was beaten and starved. He contracted typhoid in prison from the torturous and filthy conditions in which he and other Jews were held. On the very morning of his death, prison guards threw his almost lifeless body outside of the prison so they would not have to deal with yet one more dead Jew. He died that same day.


Sirella died of deprivation and illness while Jankel was imprisoned. Brocha and Moshe were made orphans, fending for themselves, living with their Aunt Sonia and their grandmother Esther. They were exhausted, starved, and persecuted. How could children understand that they were made orphans just because they were born Jewish?

Sonia and Esther took the children and relocated toKharkov where Sonia met and married a Ukrainian Jew,Joseph Levin.

Photo of woman with two children

Esther Garrenbloom with her grandson Moshe (Morris) and granddaughter Brocha (Photo taken in Ukraine, c. 1919)


1922年,斯大林和列宁在乌克兰建立了第一个大帝国。没有任何意图让被处置的犹太人存活下来。索尼娅和孩子们以某种方式回到立陶宛,希望能活下来。There is no trace of Esther.

Officials in the newly independent Lithuania cared just as much for Jewish wellbeing as Stalin. The newly created Lithuanian government tried to prevent the return of Jews. Nonetheless, Sonia and her wards reached Raguva to live in the old Garrenbloom home.

Sirella’s siblings Sarah, John, and Abraham had previously emigrated to South Africa. Sonia reached out to Sarah. She told her that she could no longer care for their sister’s children, and to send rescue.


萨拉的丈夫亚伯拉罕·阿伦森(Abraham Arenson)被派往立陶宛去接孩子。与此同时,奥克伯格孤儿救援行动(解救乌克兰大屠杀中的犹太孤儿,否则他们就会饿死)也在进行。


While Lithuanian officials did not want Jewish children inside Lithuania, they also did not want Jewish children to survive anywhere else. Abraham had to smuggle the children out of Lithuania. Along with the children, he packed Esther’s gold watch and chain, and the silver saved from the Novosedz home. Abraham stated that when he found the children in Lithuania, they were starving, wearing only rags, and were living on the streets.

South Africa

Abraham brought the children to the safe haven of South Africa. Abraham and Sarah transformed my grandmother, Brocha Leya Novosedz, into Bertha (Bee) Lee Arenson. Her relationship to the Garrenbloom family remained. The Garrenblooms knew nothing of Sirella’s husband’s family, Novosedz. That connection was destroyed. The Arenson family was poor. At age 14, Brocha was removed from school and sent out to work. Russians and Lithuanians had ensured her life opportunities were taken from her.

Traumatic memories

Brocha and her brother Moshe’s memories were so horrific that they psychologically blocked them out. Their adoptive parents tried to protect them by reinventing their identity. All memories of Lithuania and Lithuanians were so traumatizing that Sarah and Abraham forbade Lithuania from ever being mentioned in the home (PTSD was unknown at that time). It was only on my grandmother’s deathbed that she referred to her past for the first time. When she expressed her terminal losses, I was simply unable to not try to discover her identity.

在1915年被驱逐的诺沃塞德也有幸存者,但他们也在大屠杀中被立陶宛人杀害。没有犹太人打算在立陶宛生存,他们应该被彻底消灭,所以立陶宛人的种族清洗几乎是彻底的。只有0.04%的立陶宛人在大屠杀中拯救了犹太人,这是一个微不足道的数字。犹太人能在立陶宛生存下来的唯一原因是立陶宛人还没有接触到他们。Had my grandmother not been smuggled out of Lithuania as an orphaned child, Lithuanians would have murdered her also.

Cemeteries ransacked

For decades I searched for clues. The Garrenblooms had been from Raguva, the cemetery in Raguva Lithuania should have offered clues. After WWII, Lithuanians dug up the cemetery in Raguva looking for gold fillings on “rich Jewish skeletons.” They stole the Jewish gravestones for use as building materials. Thus, there were no clues coming from the dead.

Birth record

Birth record for Brocha Leya Novosedz

It was an accidental search that led to the discovery of my grandmother’s birth record and began to unravel the mystery of her descent. The Novosedz family was a storied family from Birzai, Lithuania with a traceable history back to the 1700s. Even before the arrival of Nazis into Birzai, Lithuanians chopped off the heads of rabbis and displayed them in storefronts for the entertainment of the local population. Lithuanians raped Jewish girls, and murdered Jewish families, leaving only scraps for Nazis to finish off. Lithuanians ended the known survival of the Lithuanian Novosedz family.

Upon her death, my grandmother entrusted to me with her grandmother Esther’s gold chain and watch. She gave me the napkin rings and cutlery taken from her childhood family home in Birzai.

ThroughMyHeritage DNAtesting, I found a Novodesz cousin —Cantor Daniel Singer of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York. His Novosedz family came to America before Lithuanians, Russians and Nazis seriously began to murder Jews.

2022年7月10日,我和丹尼尔·辛格见面了。诺沃赛德的两个表兄弟在安息日吃面包,107年零7周后才吃晚餐。我们使用了比尔扎伊的诺沃塞德兹家族最后一次使用的餐具,那是1915年。世界杯东道主2022这张桌子décor包括Novosedz餐巾环。大烛台上的蜡烛是Sirella的姐姐Sarah送给Brocha的结婚礼物。July 10, the day of our reunion, is both Daniel’s birthday and my grandmother’sBrocha Leya Novosedz birthday.这也是丹尼尔的祖父威廉的生日。

Photo of three men enjoying a Sabbath dinner

Family reunion at the Shabbat table in July 2022


Photo of smiling woman

Brocha Leya Novosedz became Bertha Lee Arenson who became Bee Smollan. Born July 10, 1911 in Birzai, Lithuania.

My grandmother has her name back. Her family is now known. I have given her back some of what was so brutally taken from her. Dinner is ready. There is life and joy and family at our Shabbat table. They tried to murder all of us. Lithuanians and Nazis did not win. Let the Shabbat dinner begin.

Grant Arthur Gochinserves as the Honorary Consul for the Republic of Togo, and as Vice Dean of the Los Angeles Consular Corps, the second largest Consular Corps in the world.In March 2018, he was appointed as the Special Envoy for Diaspora Affairs for the African Union, which represents the 55 African nations.高钦积极参与犹太人事务,关注历史正义。在过去的三十年里,他一直在记录和修复立陶宛犹太人生活的痕迹。He has served as the Chair of the Maceva Project in Lithuania, which mapped, inventoried, documented and restored over 50 abandoned and neglected Jewish cemeteries.Gochin is the author of the bookMalice, Murder and Manipulation(2013) which documents his family history of oppression in Lithuania.他目前正在开展一个项目,揭露立陶宛政府内部当前的大屠杀修正主义,他是多哥Babade村的村长,这是由于他的慈善工作而获得的荣誉。在专业上,Gochin是一名注册理财规划师,在加州和家人住在一起,担任财富顾问。世界杯东道主2022