116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
SPRINGVILLE — On her kitchen counter, Lena Gebotszrajber Gilbert cherishes a handmade, kiln-fired tile that symnolizes what she’s tried to do for the last 23 years: retrace a lineage erased by the flames of the Holocaust.
“Forever and ever,” it says in Hebrew at the bottom, underneath her parents’ Polish names and hometowns.
Gilbert is unable to prove that most other members of her Polish family were either born or died. In a scrappy binder of 15 pages is the only proof of her lineage — the sum of three trips to Poland since 1999, where she spent two months driving to archives around the country.
The sole death certificate proving that any of her family died in the Holocaust was nearly wiped out by Nazis. It proves one distant relative of Gilbert’s father, Fred, died of starvation in the Warsaw ghetto. The information, barely legible with heavy fire damage, is one of the only links left to the family’s extensive Polish heritage.
“You can see from this cobbled-up family tree that this was a huge family — huge,” Gilbert said, looking at her father’s side. “From this huge family, six people from several hundred” survived.
Out of hundreds on both her mother’s and father’s side, she can only prove that one of them died.
Gilbert’s parents spent about five years in concentration camps in Europe but survived and immigrated to the United States.
When Gilbert picked up the mission her parents had given up on trying to complete after countless dead ends with various agencies, her goal wasn’t to pursue the Polish citizenship she expects to be finalized within about six months. It was simply to find anything about her family that would add up to something.
With no knowledge of who her family was or what they looked like, genealogy for families that went through the Holocaust isn’t easy. Gilbert has a marriage license for her mother’s parents, a birth certificate for her mother, handwritten pages detailing her great-grandfather’s birth and phone book pages proving her father’s family lived in Warsaw.
The Nazis kept records of how many slices of bread each prisoner received but destroyed most birth and death certificates of those in their concentration camps.
For most of her life, Gilbert lived without even the heritage of her name — something her parents gave up for an easy-to-pronounce “Gilbert,” at the advice of an immigration judge when they became citizens.
In 2010, she added the family name of Gebotszrajber back into her name.
Her father’s home address in those phone books, 33 Emilii Plater in Warsaw, is now home to a large Marriott hotel. Nearby on the block today stands a piece of public art: an electric neon sign that says “All the things that could happen next.”
Knowing of no other family members who survived, her parents played the roles of grandparents, aunts and uncles to ensure their children felt nothing was broken or missing.
“We never felt like there was anything missing because we didn’t know any different. But something’s missing. A lot’s missing,” Gilbert said. “When you can’t even prove that someone was born, that’s pretty gut wrenching. I can’t even prove that my dad was born.”
After decades of toiling with embassies and getting help from a specialty Warsaw law firm in getting her Polish citizenship, the goal isn’t restoration or consolation, but it would mean something: that Hitler wasn’t successful.
“It’s validation that everything my parents went through, and the fact that they survived, that it happened, and they lived to tell,” she said. “And the mad man who perpetrated all this was not a success.”
Gilbert’s parents, Fred and Ann — Felek Gebotszrajber and Chana Zylbersztajn, as their names were written in Polish before coming to America — spent nearly five years being shipped around Europe during the Holocaust. Fred was from an integrated community in Warsaw; Ann was from a mostly segregated Jewish community in small town Szydlowiec.
GIlbert’s mother was taken from her hometown in 1942, months before most of the remaining Jewish population was driven to the Treblinka extermination camp and wiped out. She survived a malfunctioning gas chamber by pretending to be dead in the group that had mostly collapsed from sheer terror, her daughter recounted. She later crawled out from underneath a pile of bodies being sent to the crematorium and sneaked away to another barrack.
Gilbert’s father nearly died when his toe was cut off for being a second late to roll call in one of the camps. His missing toe was living proof of his experience, despite being unable to prove he was born.
GIlbert’s parents met at the fence separating the women’s and men’s camps when the camps were liberated in April 1945. They were together until Ann’s death in 2008.
“He and my mom were never apart from that day on,” Gilbert said.
GIlbert will happily tell anyone about her parents’ life story and her family’s heritage.
But she hasn’t told her siblings she is pursuing Polish citizenship. Though both of her siblings inherited the survivor gene, they’ve lived their lives differently.
“Getting my citizenship is the only thing in my control,” Gilbert said. “I don’t want to tell (my sister) until it’s a done deal. I don’t want to take her along on the (emotional) ride with me.”
That ride, Gilbert said, started when she was 7 or 8 when she found her parents’ tattered ID cards with very different names than what she knew them by. It was then that everything started to click — why her parents talked with an accent and why they were always giving interviews to The Gazette.
Today, they rest at Eben Israel Cemetery in Cedar Rapids. There, they’ve designated the back of their tombstone to symbolically serve as the final resting place for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who perished in the Holocaust. Written in stone, the words memorialize what no one else could acknowledge.
Gilbert’s journey will reach a major milestone when she is able to enter Poland through the immigration line for citizens, with a passport that’s proof of what her parents were stripped of by their own neighbors.
“That feeling of standing at that window that says ‘Polish citizens’ — that’s what’s profound,” she said. “They couldn’t believe that their own neighbors would let them down.”
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