Burnt photo

When Laurie Gandel Samuels became a grandmother in 2020, she wanted to put together a family history for the two grandchildren.

“It was supposed to be almost a little craft project, with pictures of their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents and like a page of information on each person for a child to look at, up until maybe they’re 12 or something,” Samuels said.

She did not expect her grandchildren’s first birthday present to turn into an in-depth research project that led to many late nights and reunions with family members she had no idea existed.

“I just got so interested in it that, as my kids said, I went down the rabbit hole,” she said.

She knew her mother came from a large immigrant family whose members lived nearby, but her father’s side was more mysterious. He never spoke much about his family, and his parents died before she was born. In January, she transferred the results of a 23andMe DNA test she had taken years ago to MyHeritage, another genealogy site for people looking to build their family trees, to learn more.

She saw she had a strong match with a German woman named Larissa Grinblat and her son, Leo Speiser. They shared about as much DNA as Samuels did with her known first cousins.

Intrigued, she reached out to them. Speiser spoke English and connected her with Grinblat. The latter was on the site looking for information about Morris Gandel, a name Samuels didn’t recognize. Grinblat sent her an old family photograph showing a man with two leg amputations, his wife and their five children, one of whom was the man she was tracing. They had lived in Mogilev, Belarus.

While corresponding with Grinblat and Speiser, Samuels used her test results and interviews with known family members to track down other paternal family members she had never met. She created a Facebook group for them to communicate and added Grinblat, even though they weren’t sure how they were related.

As the members compared notes and family stories, Samuels and Grinblat learned that the man in the photo with leg amputations was Samuels’ grandfather’s eldest brother, Chaim Gandel. A family member said he was a soldier who served in the Russo-Japanese War near the turn of the 20th century, and sustained his injuries during his service.

All of Chaim Gandel’s siblings, including Samuels’ grandfather Louis Gandel, immigrated to the United States, but he was unable to secure a visa. Of his five children, four immigrated to the U.S. Only the youngest, Lazar Gandel, stayed behind. He was Grinblat’s grandfather.

The two women finally understood how they were related — Samuels’ grandfather Louis Gandel and Grinblat’s great-grandfather Chaim Gandel were brothers.

Grinblat was still searching for answers about her great-uncle Morris Gandel. Her grandfather had told her stories about his older brother sending letters, photographs, money and packages of items from the U.S. that the family sold for food.

In an email, Grinblat said the correspondence continued even through the horrors of World War II, when the Russian government moved the family to a safer location because of Chaim Gandel’s service as a veteran. Later, Mogilev would be occupied by the Nazis and Jews would be crowded into ghettos and killed in mass executions.

Grinblat said Lazar Gandel also fought at Stalingrad, where he was seriously wounded, and left her grandmother to care for the family. The clothing and money from Morris Gandel were a lifeline.

“My mother told me that during the war there was hunger and cold,” she wrote. “It was so cold in the apartment that the water in the glass turned to ice. These parcels helped them to survive.”

Grinblat told Samuels that the Gandels in the Soviet Union burned many of the brother’s letters in the late 1930s out of fear that materials from the United States would cause the government to think they were spies.

In 1961, during the Cold War, the letters from Morris Gandel stopped. Hostility between the Soviet Union and the United States intensified, and mail could not travel between the two countries. By the time correspondence resumed, Morris Gandel had moved and the family lost track of his address. They sent letters trying to reach him again, but they were returned unopened.

The connection between the European and American branches of the family was severed until Samuels began researching her DNA test results in 2021.

Speiser tracked down a wedding announcement for Sandra Kahn, a woman he and his mother believed to be Morris Gandel’s daughter, in a newspaper from Newark, New Jersey. They located her on Facebook and reached out, but she had not responded, and they felt they had hit a dead end.

Samuels looked up Kahn and also identified her relatives. She began sending them messages and friend requests to see if she could get a response.

Finally, Kahn’s niece replied. Samuels showed her the photo of Morris Gandel that Grinblat had sent, and she confirmed that he was her grandfather. She also recognized the return address from the letters that Grinblat saved as the house in Newark where her grandparents had lived for many years. She put Samuels in touch with Kahn, who was now 90, and they spoke on the phone.

Samuels and Grinblat had found the missing branch of their family.

“This story ... it’s the miracle of a family that survived over all this time, and they survived because this brother was so loyal,” Samuels said.

Her Facebook group of reconnected family members now has 14 people. She is still using her results to track down relatives who may be descended from her grandfather’s siblings, including Grinblat’s great-aunts and great-uncles. JN

Sophie Panzer is a staff writer for Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.