A subject line in my inbox caught my eye: “Your inquiry about the family.” Expectantly, I opened the email and began to read:

Dear Mr. Altein,

Just opened a letter from the commune of Molenbeek archives, and to say the least, I am so happy and emotional to see at least a fragment of a link to my grandmother.

I could hardly believe what I was reading. Months of research and waiting had finally paid off; I felt genuinely elated.

It all started with an email from JewishGen.org, a website for Jewish genealogical research. The email advertised a free webinar titled “New England Jewish Roots.”

It sounded promising. My great-grandfather, Rabbi Shmaya Krinsky, immigrated from Sokolka, Poland, to Boston in 1913. The following year, he married my great-grandmother, Etta. While the family had access to numerous documents that shed light on many details of Shmaya’s life, perhaps the webinar would provide additional ideas for further research.

I learned about The Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center, a genealogical center focusing on the Boston Jewish community. Searching their website produced a result for a file named “Liebe (or Lieba) Krinsky.”

This name was not new to me. It was known in the family that Shmaya’s youngest sister was Lieba, named, in fact, after their father. Zev Aryeh Krinsky passed away at a young age, leaving behind a pregnant wife and four children. Since the Yiddish parallel for Aryeh is Leib, the girl born not long after was named Lieba. Other than this anecdote, however, we knew nothing about her.

This file would soon change that.

The file contained a letter from the New York branch of HIAS to Shmaya Krinsky, dated July 7, 1948, in response to his inquiry about the fate of his sister Lieba during the Holocaust.

The letter Shmaya Krinsky received in response to his search for his missing relatives.
The letter Shmaya Krinsky received in response to his search for his missing relatives.

We regret to inform you that Krinsky Wela Liebe sp. [spouse] Breuer born in 1898 in Sokol[k]a has been deported on 26.9.42 from Laines with the eleventh convoy number 1070.

Her daughter Breuer Sara sp. Juzefowicz lives at 28 rue de Gosselies Molenbeek.

This was an eye-opener. Now we knew that Lieba had married and raised a family, but was ultimately deported and killed. Of even greater significance was the information that she had a daughter who survived the war. Did she have children? If so, where were they today?

The transport list containing Lieba's name.
The transport list containing Lieba's name.

I immediately posted a picture of the document on an extended Krinsky family WhatsApp group chat. A second cousin proceeded to do some online research and procured an image of the transport list containing Lieba’s name, and a picture of Lieba herself. As it turns out, she was deported not from Laines (where is Laines anyway?) but from the Dossin barracks, a detention camp from which Belgian Jews were deported to Auschwitz in 1942-1944. This image and picture were obtained from KazerneDossin.eu, a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the Holocaust in Belgium.

We now had an additional piece of information: Lieba had resided in Belgium, apparently having immigrated there from her native Poland.

What next?

A better look at the Kazerne Dossin website revealed a telling comment:

95% of all photos in the “Give them a Face” portrait collection [Kazerne Dossin’s photo collection] were retrieved from the immigration file of the deportees, kept by the immigration authorities and currently stored at the State Archives, Brussels. 

The next step, then, was to contact the Brussels State Archive. I sent them an email asking if I could obtain copies of the immigration files of Lieba Brener (as, it turned out, her surname was correctly spelled). Yes, came the response, for the small fee of 10 euro (as the files had already been digitized), they could send me the immigration files of Lieba and her husband Mordka (Mordechai).

A week later, an email arrived from the Brussels State Archive with the requested files. I clicked on the link and we now had access to no less than 153(!) pages of files on the Breners.

The 1929 ad placed in American Yiddish press by Mordechai Brener (by then deported to Europe) looking for his relatives, the Krinskys.
The 1929 ad placed in American Yiddish press by Mordechai Brener (by then deported to Europe) looking for his relatives, the Krinskys.

Going through this vast treasure was no easy feat, especially since the files were written in Dutch, French, and Polish. Eventually, however, (thanks to Google translate and a Dutch speaking friend,) I was able to get a fuller picture of Lieba’s unfortunate life.

Lieba was born in 1898 in Sokolka, after her father’s death. In 1919, she married Mordechai Brener from nearby Bialystok. The young couple settled in Bialystok, where they had four children: Feiga, Sarah, Wolf, and Leib.

Lieba’s brother Shmaya had immigrated to America, as had her sister Esther Rochel. The Breners decided to follow suit, and in 1921 Mordechai traveled to his brother- and sister-in-law, my great-grandparents, in Massachusetts. However, for reasons still unknown to us, his efforts were unsuccessful and he returned to Bialystok.

Four years later, Mordechai tried his luck again. This time, he was detained at Ellis Island due to his hunchback and denied entry. Once again, he was forced to return home.

Seeing that America was not an option but intent on leaving Poland, the couple turned their sights to Belgium, where a community of Polish immigrants was flourishing. In 1929 Mordechai immigrated to Antwerp, followed by his wife and children in 1932. Mordechai found employment as a shochet and the gabbai of a local shul.

Lieba and her children.
Lieba and her children.

But tranquility was not to last long. Lieba suffered from mental illness, a field of medicine hardly understood at the time, and consequently left untreated. As a result, the couple separated. Lieba moved to Brussels, while the children remained with their father in Antwerp.

The Brener saga all but ended a few short years later when the Germans occupied the Low Countries and began their implementation of the final solution on Belgium Jewry. The German police rounded up Jews from Antwerp and Brussels and brought them to Dossin, from where they were deported. Mordechai, Wolf, and Leib were deported in August of 1942, and Lieba was deported the following month. Feiga and her one-year-old son, Maurice, were deported in September of 1943. May G‑d avenge their blood.

Sarah, however, survived the war.

How could I find out what happened to her?

Another email exchange with the Brussels State Archive revealed that the older three Brener children had files of their own. As these files were not yet digitized, the cost of obtaining them was much higher. Some relatives supplied the necessary funds, and the files were soon made accessible.

While Sarah’s files were modest in size compared to those of her parents, they provided a portrayal of at least part of her life. I learned that she was born in Bialystok in 1922. In April 1945, not long after the liberation of Belgium by the Allies, she married Leon Juzefowicz in Brussels. The following year she gave birth to a daughter, Gilberte.

Sarah Brener in 1937.
Sarah Brener in 1937.

The last recorded address of the Juzefowicz family is in the municipality of Molenbeek, adjacent to Brussels. Documentation ceased in 1956 when the couple became Belgian citizens and the immigration authorities stopped keeping tabs on them.

I was happy to discover that Sarah had a child. Born in 1945, she would be 77 in 2022. Was she alive? Did she marry and have children of her own? Where did she live? My questions were endless.

My next step was to email the municipality archives, asking for their help in discovering more about Sarah and her family. Their response was somewhat of a letdown:

We have found some information concerning Mrs. Sara Juzefowicz. Nevertheless, the law forbids us to give you this information without her consent or that of one of her direct relatives. But we can transmit them your request to contact them, with your address or any other way to contact you. Would you agree to do so? If yes, give me your address or any other way to contact you, and we will make sure to transmit it to them.

Hmm. Perhaps this “direct relative” was her daughter Gilberte? I sent them my contact information and was told that they only had a residential address for this relative, not an email address or telephone number. “It could take time,” they wrote, “but be assured that the necessary has been done.”

Now all that was left was to wait. And wait I did. As the weeks passed, I became convinced that the relative had ignored the memo from the Molenbeek archives. Assuming it was Gilberte, perhaps her mother had negative feelings toward her unstable mother, so she did not want to make contact with her grandmother’s relatives? Or maybe the letter had never reached her in the first place?

But after two months of waiting, with G‑d’s help, my efforts bore fruit.

The email I received was from a woman named Gigi Harpaz. (The gs are soft, pronounced like the s in pleasure.)

My name is Gigi Harpaz-Juzefowicz, and my mother Sara Brener was Lieba Krinsky’s daughter. My mother, may her memory be blessed, passed away 2 years ago at the age of 98. She always told me that her mother had a brother who moved to the States, but she had no way to find this uncle.

I myself live in Herzliya, Israel. I left Molenbeek after I married, and I have 2 boys and 4 grandkids.

I am retired and enjoy life. Will be happy to hear from you and create a bond with family.

Is not the world a small place full of wonder!

How did her mother survive the war?

My parents got married in May 1942. They moved to Brussels with fake papers that my father received from friends in the Jewish resistance. That saved their life!

Of course, I shared with her all the products of my research, which she was gratified to see. I posted the exciting news on our family WhatsApp group, and additional relatives made contact with her as well.

I look forward to learning more about Gigi’s family in Israel and connecting her with the rest of our large extended family.

Thank you to my relative, Etti Hazan, for assistance with this article.

Lieba Brener in 1932.
Lieba Brener in 1932.
Mordechai Brener 's "foreigner info sheet" from 1929, when he was living in Antwerp.
Mordechai Brener 's "foreigner info sheet" from 1929, when he was living in Antwerp.
The 1925 ship manifest on which Mordechai Brener was stamped "deported" by officials at Ellis Island.
The 1925 ship manifest on which Mordechai Brener was stamped "deported" by officials at Ellis Island.