I knew going into Lisa Kudrow’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? that it would be a little depressing. Any time you research the Holocaust, that’s where it goes. It was a bit in parallel with Jerry’s Springer’s BBC episode, which I will likely refer to in this review. His quest, as I recall, was to find out what happened to his grandmothers, both of whom were killed in the Holocaust.
Meet the Parents
As usual, the episode started with a visit to her parents’ house. I loved that Lisa recognized the old pictures. What wasn’t mentioned in the episode, but some of us learned in other interviews, was that her father had already researched the family history. In which case he had probably shown her the photos or had them around the house where she had seen them.
Recalling the story from her grandmother when she was young and asked about her parents was interesting. I think a lot of us have those random stories floating around in our minds. Maybe we don’t think of them, but they just resurface sometimes when we don’t even expect it. Then her father, Lee, shared a similar story, one that he had held on to for so many years, about Yuri Barudin visiting and telling them that the family had been killed. Lee remembered the name of the ship and that Yuri had been a witness to the massacre. He remembered the visit clearly but may have pictured what happened and changed some of the story in his mind. (Of course, I’m writing this article after having seen the entire episode.)
Lisa stated that she wanted to find her great-grandmother’s final resting place. It didn’t seem likely to me that such a place could be found; possibly a memorial for the Jews in the town, but not anything like a gravesite.
Lisa headed to Belarus to meet with Tamara Vershitskaya, a Jewish historian. Tamara was her guide all through her visit to Belarus.
“It would be amazing if I could find any documentation.” Lisa knew that documents were lost and destroyed and she could only hope to find some. With statements like this, hopefully amateur genealogists watching the show will realize that not everyone will be able to find documentation like Lisa did.
Tamara said that Jewish communities were reduced to 5% of their populations, 10% at most. Was that specific to Belarus? I thought some were eliminated entirely, possibly just because no one returned home to the towns. Often, that may have been because the Nazis convinced the locals to act out against the Jews. Who would want to go back to live with those people again?
Zonal State Archive
Natalia Ivanova, the archive director, had a book they had copied from Moscow with lists of people who were killed. That was an amazing find. It made me think that I need to go to Europe and find out if documents like that exist for my family, because I can’t get access to them from America.
Now, I know that the show does the coming up next and just a minute ago previews, but why did they have to repeat the entire conversation between Lisa and Natalia? Were they so short on content that they had to fill extra time with so much extra repetition?
Next, Tamara and Lisa went to the place where her family lived in Ilya, walking past a building without mentioning it. Was the house gone? It took the next scene to find out.
They visited Maria Aleksiyonok, who knew her family and remembered the massacre of the Jews. Maria mentioned the houses were burned down. She had a lot to tell Lisa and it was very emotional for both of them. I can only hope Lisa learned more from Maria off camera, because she was clearly a wealth of information.
They headed to the center of Ilya that used to be a market square. The Jews were brought there in 1942 for selection. David Rubin wrote about the event and Lisa was given a translation to read. A quick search online to JewishGen revealed that it was taken from the Yizkor book. That chapter is not translated online.
Lisa, Tamara, and Alexander Gavrilik, a resident, walked down the street where the Jews were marched and killed, to find the memorial that is apparently placed exactly above where they were buried. Thinking back to the Jerry Springer episode, he did much the same thing; he wanted to walk where his ancestors last walked.
“You make people afraid enough of something completely manufactured, and you can drive them to become murderers.” That is exactly what happened. Except in some cases, the Nazis were able to put that fear into the town residents and they turned on the Jews themselves. From this story, it sounded like the Ilya residents were witnesses but did not participate.
Mention the Sponsor
Lisa headed to ancestry.com to look for ship records for Yuri Barudin and found him listed Boleslaw, finding him employed on the Batory, as her father remembered. The ship name made it more credible that Yuri was Boleslaw, but Lisa still carried a bit of skepticism with her about it, which was perfect for genealogy research.
Lisa went to Poland, where the ship list stated Boleslaw had been discharged to.
She met with researcher Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski, to learn more. He found Boleslaw in a record of people who settled down in Gdynia, which listed his wife and son. I loved this scene. I love how she asked if there was a census or voter registration, and he brought out a phone book. Then when she found Boleslaw Barudin listed in the phone book, she kind of freaked out with excitement. She was too scared to call and wasn’t sure if he would speak English.
I think I can safely assume that the family had been contacted previously, so the call was not completely unexpected, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Lisa’s surprise was genuine.
It was great when her cousin mentioned that she was in his house and not on his TV. Did these Polish relatives know that they were related to her? At least one of them remembered pictures taken with her grandmother, but no longer had them. The story of Boleslaw’s visit was cleared up, that he had reported what happened to her family in America, but he just delivered the message and was not an eyewitness.
Standing by the water, Lisa was still raving about meeting her cousins, saying that she couldn’t wait to tell her father. She couldn’t wait to tell him, she repeated, then pulled out her cell phone and called. Fantastic.
Technology is Great
Returning to her father’s house, they used the Internet to contact the Polish cousins by video. I was glad when Lee mentioned that his mother was Boleslaw’s aunt, which solved that mystery. Obviously it wasn’t a mystery to them how they were related, but it was a gap in the show.
As emotional as learning about the fate of relatives in the Holocaust is, I find the reuniting to be more emotional and I understood what Lee was feeling after that conversation with his cousins. Having only read a bit on Twitter and one quick review of the episode, I didn’t think it was a bad thing to show him getting emotional after finally being reunited with his cousins.
I guess there’s not a lot of nitpicking in this article. Instead of this episode being a full-on genealogy search for the family, it was mostly just to fill in a couple of gaps in her father’s research: was there more to know about the fate of his grandmother in Ilya and what had happened to Yuri. So the things that I nitpicked about other episodes weren’t really in this one so much.
I knew this episode would probably be my favorite even before it aired. This story is the one closest to my family’s story. Watching this just makes me want to go to Eastern Europe even more, to see where they lived and maybe to find that elusive document that tells of their fate. As far as I know, I don’t have any relatives still left in Poland, Ukraine, or Moldova, where my grandparents were born, but maybe I do and I need to look for them. For most families, they are all accounted for, either by knowing where they went after the war or that they were killed. But there is one elusive family where all we know is that the Jews in that town were all killed. But what if they weren’t in that town when the war started?
Addition March 21: I received an email today (from someone apparently named Lucy) who pointed out something that I missed in my critique, but it is also relevant. One element not addressed in the episode: does the Barudin family identify as Jewish? Many survivors who remained in Europe abandoned their religion, largely out of fear. She also wondered about the fate of Yuri’s family, since his parents and other immediate family were possibly in Ilya as well.
I would think that if they identified as Jewish, that it might be only in more recent times. After all, Yuri changed his name to Boleslaw to not sound Jewish, so he clearly wouldn’t have practiced outwardly. There have been many Jewish families who do not pass down the traditions or even the knowledge of their religion after being forced or frightened into converting. (This goes for Jews in other locations and times as well.) So that family may no longer consider themselves Jewish. Or perhaps they used this new connection to their Jewish American cousins to rediscover that part of themselves. I and other Jewish genealogists are often contacted by people who believe that they are descended from Jews who were forced to convert, in an effort to prove that Jewish heritage. But those are more often Americans, Canadians, or British. I’m not sure if anyone would want to be openly Jewish in Poland even now. Sometimes I read that it is a better time, but then I read something else about some act of anti-Semitism.
As for the fate of Yuri’s family, he probably already knew it, since he was the one who relayed the message to the Kudrows in America.