A Reunion for ‘Stalin’s Jews’

Holocaust survivors, exiled deep in Russia and Siberia during WWII, reunite after years of separation.

Marlene Stevens (second from left, bottom row) stands between her parents in a family portrait taken after they immigrated to the United States.
Courtesy of Robert and Marlene Stevens.

Chasia Lancman was too late. The passport office closed at 3 pm and it was 3:01. As she cried to the German soldiers, Chasia did not realize that one minute would ultimately save her family.

In 1940, Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin deported approximately 200,000 Polish Jews without passports from Russian-occupied Eastern Poland to labor camps in deep Russia and Siberia. Those with passports remained in Poland—and fell victim to the Nazis as they swept across the nation a year later.

The Lancmans and others like them spent the war years in camps out of the Germans’ reach. They became known as Stalin’s Jews. The Lancmans immigrated to the United States in 1948, eventually settling in New Jersey, but they had not completely escaped tragedy. At one point in Siberia, while moving from camp to camp, Chasia’s son Chaim went looking for food at a train stop. When Chaim hadn’t returned as the train was leaving, his sister Frima went to find him. The children were never heard from again.

That is, until now.

Growing up in Short Hills, Robert Stevens, 31, had heard the story of his missing aunt and uncle many times from his mother, Marlene Stevens (formerly Malka Lancman). For years, the family searched fruitlessly for Chaim and Frima. As Marlene, now 71, grew older, Robert continued the mission and reached out to the Red Cross and even a Russian TV program that reunites families and friends.

“I was very close to giving up hope, but I held on,” says Robert. “Because that is what I learned from my parents from their own experience as survivors—to never give up.”

In January, Robert’s determination paid off. A 50-year-old woman had also contacted the Russian TV program looking for her mother’s siblings. Gulnora, Frima’s daughter, is alive and living worlds away as a Muslim in Uzbekistan. Although details from their stories differ slightly, pictures make the connection undeniable. The discovery was beyond Marlene’s wildest dreams. Frima had survived the war, married, and had children. (Unfortunately, Chaim was never found, though the Lancmans are continuing their search.)

With the help of a translator, Gulnora, Marlene, and Robert talk weekly, and Robert is trying to bring his newfound cousin to New Jersey for a visit this summer. For Marlene, the reunion will be bittersweet. Both of her parents and three of her sisters died without knowing that Frima survived the Holocaust. Frima herself passed away in 1985. “I only wish more people were here to enjoy it with me,” Marlene says.

Robert plans to launch Iamalink.com, a nonprofit social networking site dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Holocaust. The site will allow for genealogical searches of living survivors and their descendants.

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