The Search for Lost Loved Ones

Jul 13, 2019

On the 11th of July, the fall of Srebrenica was commemorated, recalling how it took place 25 years ago. Approximately 8000 Bosnian boys and men were killed. They had been seeking refuge in a UN safe area, which was guarded by Dutch blue helmets.

The Dutch unit was relatively small and badly equipped. They had asked for NATO military air support when Serb units attacked the UN safe area, but no support came.

The Bosnian boys and men were buried in mass graves, some of which have not been discovered. Many families still don’t know where their loved ones are buried.

How difficult it is not knowing what happened to family or friends who have disappeared became clear when I started interviewing refugees from the Baltic Countries who didn’t know what had happened with family members who had disappeared during the war, or who had been deported, but no further information was known, no sign of life ever received. The search for information never ended.

When Sam Freiman, about whom I made a short documentary film, involved me in his search for his lost family members, I realised that those who had disappeared, whose deaths were not registered and whose graves could not be visited, were always present.

I came in contact with Sam in 2008, when I had started working on a project about a resort in Poland, not far from Warsaw. Before the war the elite of Warsaw, whether Protestant, Catholic or Jewish, came there for the summer months to enjoy nature, culture and some fresh air.

Sam’s mother run a small shop, delivering in the mornings fresh rolls to the people occupying the villas and Sam helped her. They lived in a small village nearby, where Sam’s father worked as a cobbler.

The Second World War brought an end to this life, destroying it completely. Sam and his family were first brought to the ghetto of their village before being taken to the Warsaw ghetto. Sam and other children found ways to get in and out of the ghetto, to find food for their families. One day his parents told Sam to get out once more, but not to return.

Sam survived the war, but his parents and his younger brother and two little sisters didn’t. Because he was unsure of the fates of his family members Sam asked me to do some research for him and try to find especially his two little sisters; as he couldn’t imagine that his sisters, who had been so sweet and so small, had not been adopted.

He told me that as he had escaped the ghetto, maybe his parents, brother and sisters had escaped as well. So I contacted several institutions, international organisations, local historians, trying to find out more. Every time it turned out that I followed a path that Sam already had taken years before, so he knew the answer, but just was not sure.

Even a historian, specialised in the history of the Warsaw ghetto said it was very unlikely the whole family had escaped, even unlikely someone would have come and adopted Sam’s little sisters, but – and there was always the but to keep both hope and uncertainties alive and therefor the impossibility to bring Sam’s search to a closure – one could never know.

I was not able to give any answers other than: there is no information. Still after a few years he would ask me again to search for him. It was heart breaking. Even knowing the result would be negative, I couldn’t say no and just tried, hoping there might be some archive, some documents I had overlooked.

Last September all of a sudden Sam phoned asking me to come with him to Poland, to search for his sisters. I was about to leave for the US and couldn’t come with him. When I came home, in between travels, I tried to call him, but without result.

It was only later that I learned from his neighbour that on a trip to Poland two years earlier he thought he had found one of his sisters, but hadn’t dared to ask whether she could be family. He wanted to return, to finally ask whether she had been adopted. In September he  found the courage and then he learned there was no way she could be his sister.

The neighbour had also been involved in the search, as were others. No one of us was able to provide the certainty Sam was so much looking for. But finally, even though there could be no closure, he knew he had done everything to find his family and there was nothing more he could do.

Sam passed away on the 6th of December 2019.