Holocaust Orphan Connects Relatives
PARIS (AP) _ The nightmares that tormented Wladimir Zandt for nearly 55 years have all but vanished, and the Holocaust orphan now dreams about the gentle face of the mother he never knew.
Zandt used the Internet to track down long-lost relatives _ a search that turned up the first images he ever saw of his mother, a host of American cousins he is anxious to meet and troubling suspicions that his French foster family blocked his relatives’ efforts to bring him to the United States after World War II.
``I’ve lived my life feeling like half a person, no family, no roots,″ said Zandt, 59, who lives in Paris. ``I’ve always hoped and dreamed about being normal like everybody else. Now, I finally feel as though I have found myself.″
Zandt learned about his U.S. relatives after consulting the wartime archives of a French Jewish children’s aid group, OSE. He contacted Holocaust-related groups on the Web, which eventually put him in touch with Carolyn Sand Velez, his first cousin.
From her home in Walnut Creek, Ca., Velez immediately sent off a thick envelope filled with pictures of Wladimir’s mother, Perla, a Polish Jew arrested in France and deported to Auschwitz in 1944.
``Opening the package and seeing my mother’s face for the first time was like being hit over the head,″ Zandt said, showing yellowed family portraits taken in Warsaw the early 1930s.
Also in the files were letters from Morris Sand, his mother’s older brother and Carolyn Sand Velez’s father, who had fled Poland and settled in New York. There were tax returns, affidavits of financial solvency and a letter discussing payment for Wladimir’s passage to the United States.
``My uncle was very aware of my existence and he wanted to adopt me,″ Zandt said. ``But my foster family insisted on keeping me. Using false documents, they had the immigration process annulled. The point is that I was not adoptable _ I had family.″
Zandt was born in Rivesaltes, a French-run internment camp in the Pyrenees Mountains, on Dec. 30, 1940. Mother and son were separated weeks after the birth. Zandt knows nothing of what happened to his father, a Russian Jew.
Perla escaped from the camp, leaving her son behind. She was arrested in Lyon on June 13, 1944, transferred to the Drancy transit camp outside Paris and shipped to Auschwitz, where she died after a short stint in a German factory. She was 31.
Wladimir was later taken in by the Bobichons, a middle-class French family. He was baptized Guy Bobichon and sent off to a Roman Catholic boarding school.
At 13, Zandt learned that he was adopted. Two years later, he learned he was Jewish.
``It was one terrible shock after another,″ Zandt recalled. ``I had no idea what being Jewish meant. I just felt as if the earth dropped out from under my feet.″
These days, Zandt has little contact with his adoptive family. He accuses them of having taken him in for financial reasons, noting that families with foster children got tax breaks and received extra rations of food and clothing during the war.
Far worse, Zandt claims, the Bobichons never gave him his adoption file when he turned 21, as required by French law.
``There was an incredible feeling of being robbed, robbed of family, of affection and of a culture. First, I felt enormous anger, now I feel hatred,″ he said. ``Aunts, uncles, cousins, the real family I could have had all these years.″
The Bobichons say they’re bewildered and hurt by his accusations.
``My brother’s experience was very painful, but I’m sure my parents didn’t adopt him for money,″ Nicole Bobichon, 53, said in a telephone interview.
``They did what they thought was right at the time. It’s sad he doesn’t see things the same way.″
Meanwhile, Zandt’s U.S. cousins are looking forward to renewing links with their long-lost relative.
``Carolyn and I are elated. Things like this only happen in movies, and it’s much more moving in real life,″ Esther Gold, 68, said from her home in Howell, N.J.
``To grow up a stranger in your own family, not to have any blood relatives, and then to suddenly find them after all these years, sends shivers up my spine.″
Zandt is getting to know his cousins through e-mail and plans to visit this summer.
He says he plans to finance his trip partly by money he expects to receive from the French government.
A faded receipt for 1,000 francs confiscated from Perla at Drancy allowed Zandt to make history. In January, he became the first French Jew to be awarded compensation from the government for looted wartime assets. The Drai Commission, created last year to process claims, confirmed that Zandt will receive about $13,800.
Zandt says the money symbolizes France’s recognition of responsibility for his mother’s death.
``How do you calculate the price of tears, the price of lost opportunities, the price of a life you didn’t lead?″ he asked.