Today they touch each other a lot. They hug. They laugh. Mostly, though, they cry.
It's been 40 years since these three were together. These three who had clung to each other when they were all they had, when their families--and their world--fell victim to the Nazi horror. They had managed to stay together until the horror was almost over, but then they too fell victim . . .
Chaim Nagelsztajn says he believes in God again, after all these years. And Matl can only gaze lovingly at him, the little brother she was separated from for almost 40 years. Mayorik Korenblit (now Matl's husband) once saved both their lives, but what he does mostly now is look at his wife and her 55-year-old baby brother--and qvell.
Qvell is one of those impossible-to-translate Yiddish word-concepts that sort of means "drawing joy from just looking," but much, much more.
They were children together, Chaim and Matl Nagelsztajn and Mayorik Korenblit. Their families were devoutly Jewish, and although the Jews of eastern Poland were never really secure, the childhood of Chaim and Matl and Mayorik was the worst of times.
Chaim was 11 when the Germans came. Matl and Mayorik were about three years older.
By 1940 Hitler's relentless search for the infamous final solution to the Jewish problem reached into the Polish city of Hrubieszow close to the Ukrainian border. There were three waves of deportations conducted by the Gestapo. During the first two, Matl and Chaim hid with their family behind a false brick wall in their basement. Mayorik Korenblit and his family were hidden by non-Jewish Polish friends.
Before the third pogrom the Korenblits had found a safer haven--beneath a hollowed-out, three-story-high haystack on the farm of a friendly Pole. When the word spread that a new raid was imminent, Mayorik ran to fetch his beloved Matl--and, almost on a whim, brought Chaim as well to the haystack.
That day the Gestapo discovered the false brick wall, took the Nagelsztajn family out and killed them.
Matl and Chaim stayed hidden in the haystack with Mayorik and his family for more than a month.
By late 1942 Hrubieszow's Jewish community of 12,000 had been reduced to a small group of young people--perhaps 250--set to cleaning out, cataloging and warehousing the possessions of their former relatives, neighbors, friends. Matl, Chaim and Mayorik were among them.
Then Mayorik was warned that the Gestapo was looking for him, and for the next four months he wandered, a fugitive, from town to town, with a forged Polish passport. He checked back every two weeks or so to make sure Matl was well, to accept money she had managed to find for him, and eventually learned that the Gestapo officer who was after him had been transferred. He moved back into the ghetto, but by that time Chaim had been taken.
For 39 years the other two assumed he was dead.
A word about names. Mayorik became Meyer. Matl became Manya. And Chaim's English wife calls him Harry. When Meyer and Manya came to the United States in 1950, U.S. Immigration dropped the "e" from Korenblit, leaving it Kornblit. The Kornblits' son Michael reclaimed the "e" and now calls himself "Korenblit." This is important, because the "name gap" almost prevented the eventual reunion.
Meyer (ne Mayorik) and Manya (nee Matl) Kornblit and Chaim Nagelsztajn and his English wife Cecilia are sipping iced tea in the sun-splashed living room of Michael Korenblit and his wife, Joan, a writer, in their McLean town house. The stories are somber, but the mood is alive with joy. It is the Nagelsztajns' first visit to the United States, and only Chaim's second visit in nearly 40 years with Meyer and Manya. Chaim lives in northeastern England where he is a successful builder. He has four children and five grandchildren.
The Kornblits settled in Oklahoma where they prospered--a restaurant, banking, oil. They had one son, Sam, while they were living in West Germany. (He lives in Chicago with his wife and two children.) Michael, who is 30, is their second son.
Even before the Jewish community in Hrubieszov had been decimated Meyer and Manya knew they were in love and defied Nazi curfews to be together. The small Chaim would act as watch to help Manya slip in and out of the ghetto. Meyer lived in another Jewish settlement.
Except for the four months Meyer eluded the Gestapo, the two were not parted until September 1943 when the last group of young Jews was sent to "the camps."
In that terrible moment when the Gestapo tore them apart--men one way, women another--they agreed that if they survived they would meet back at their old home after the war.
Between the end of '43 and the end of the war the two were sent from camp to camp. They were young and relatively--only relatively--strong and some work could still be gotten from them. Between them, in less than two years, they were in 11 different camps.
Meyer Kornblit tells the story: "She was released by the Russians and I was released by the Americans. She went back to Poland and I stayed in Munich. I figured, 'Oh, I'll go back tomorrow.' I'd heard she was in Auschwitz . . . and I knew it was 99 percent she was dead . . . whoever was in Auschwitz . . . I was still young, after all, and I was with another group of fellas. Then one day in the street a man came and poked me in the back. He'd never even been in a concentration camp, but he'd been back in Poland and he said to me, 'You know, I saw your old girlfriend back home . . .'"
He was back home as fast as military passes could get him there--and they were married within weeks.
When Manya was in Auschwitz someone told her Chaim had been there but "was gone." Of course she knew he was dead. "Whoever was in Auschwitz . . ."
When Chaim was in Auschwitz someone told him Manya had been there. Of course he knew she was dead. "Whoever was in Auschwitz . . ."
Mike Korenblit was born in Oklahoma. "A real Okie," his father says. "An Oklahoman," Mike corrects. He is a producer of high school films for the Close Up Foundation.
"Of course," he says, "I always knew my parents had survived the Holocaust. They both have the 'KL' tattoo the sign of prisoner-workers , and my mother has the number from Auschwitz . . . But we never really got the whole story . . ."
Manya interrupts, "I always thought they didn't want to know."
Mike says, "I always thought they didn't want to talk about it."
Joan Korenblit was the catalyst, the one who encouraged the dialogue, and she and Mike and one of his colleagues began to write the Nagelsztajn-Korenblit history several years ago. (It will be published next year with an ending no one anticipated.)
The book project stirred up old memories and a search for family members. There was a trip to Poland and two visits to Israel.
On the second visit to Israel, Manya and Meyer Kornblit visited a cousin whose family had emigrated from Hrubieszow in 1929.
"Picture this," says Manya. "We were sitting having tea and this cousin says, oh, you know we had a letter from Chaim in 1946 . . . from Scotland."
"I will never know," Manya says now, her eyes snapping, "why they never told us before. They could have tried. I'll never understand."
Chaim Nagelsztajn never talked about his war experiences to his English wife and their four children. "Of course," says his wife Cecilia, in her lilting north country tones, "the children knew he was of a different religion and what had happened to the Jews, during the war, but he never would say much. Sometimes I thought he was beginning to be ashamed, because he would say to me, 'Oh don't tell them I was in the camps . . .' He would always say to the children, 'You have a family. I have none.' "
"You see," he says, and his face breaks into unaccustomed lines as he laughs, "I was a bit shy about it . . . I knew I was the only one left."
As a teen-aged prisoner Chaim was marched from camp to camp, working at whatever heavy labor there was. He recalls that "when I was in Auschwitz we worked outside the women's camp and I asked someone if a Matl Nagelsztajn was there and was told she was. I gave a woman food to give Matl--she never got it, of course--and then we were taken away.
"I think they thought the Russians were coming and they evacuated us on a 'dead march,' so many thousands of us and so many SS, and we just walked and walked for six days and six nights. We were in Dachau for two or three days and then they walked us some more. Stragglers were shot . . . some who dropped were just left to die. I remember an old man--I've forgotten his name--drew me into the center, away from the sides, where we could lean on one another, hold one another up . . . not get shot."
At one of the camps he nearly died of typhus and recalls that in his delirium he had a vision of his mother. "She told me, 'Chaim, don't worry. You will survive this. You will survive.' "
Chaim ended up at Ebensee in the Austrian mountains, digging tunnels. He is 5 feet 8 inches tall and when he was freed by American forces in 1945, at age 18, he weighed 56 pounds.
The Americans "fed me up a bit," he says, and then, at his request, sent him to Italy where he hoped to get permission to go to Palestine. By then the British had blockaded Palestine and Chaim ended up in a displaced persons camp. The idea of another camp was intolerable, and he and another group of Polish refugees decided to join the Polish army-in-exile which was still fighting the Germans in Italy.
After two weeks of training and one week of fighting, the war was over. He was given the choice of returning to Poland or going to live in England. He chose England. It was then he wrote to the cousin in Israel. He didn't know the last name, but he wrote the magistrate in Haifa, explaining the situation and the background--and the letter did get to the cousin.
He wrote, "I think I'm the only survivor. Have you heard anything else of my family?"
He received this reply: "I'm very pleased you're alive. Don't know anything of the rest of your family."
"I really don't know what I expected," says Chaim today. "Here I was a young boy, alone, I thought perhaps he'd say I'll see what I can do for you . . . I'd been through so much . . . "
Meyer Kornblit interrupts angrily. "I'd have said, 'Stay where you are I'll come get you.' " Manya Kornblit says quietly, "I don't understand . . ."
"At any rate," says Chaim, "to me it wasn't warm enough for me to correspond and I never heard again."
The Kornblits heard about that letter during their trip to Israel in January of this year. They canceled the rest of their stay in Israel, even canceled a four-day tour of Egypt and flew right home.
A few days later Michael Korenblit was in the British Embassy in Washington with about 40 Scottish phone directories. He looked for "any spelling of Nagel or Nagelsztajn I could imagine."
Finally he remembered his mother saying something about Newcastle, and he called a friend of his upstairs in the embassy. "A few minutes later out of the corner of my eye I saw him walking with an open directory and his finger was marking a place. I jumped out of my chair, the 40 phone books went flying and I started yelling right there in the British Embassy, 'You found him, you found him.' " Not in Scotland, but not far from it. In Newcastle Upon Tyne. "C. Nagelsztajn."
Mike was afraid to call his mother until he knew it was really her brother, so he placed the first overseas call himself.
The conversation, according to Mike Korenblit and Cecilia Nagelsztajn, who answered the phone, went something like this:
Mike: Is this the residence of Chaim Nagelsztajn from Hrubieszow, Poland?
Mike: Well you better sit down because what I am going to tell you will shock you . . . I am the son of his sister. His sister is alive.
Cecilia: Oh no, you are mistaken, all his family was killed in the war. We've even been back to his home in Poland. They're all dead.
Mike: No they're not, really, I am his nephew.
Cecilia (to her husband): Harry, you better come here. There's someone from America who says he's your nephew.
Harry (taking the phone): Who is this?
Mike: I'm Manya's son. I'm your nephew.
Harry (Chaim): No, I never had a sister Manya. I had a sister Gittel and a brother Elie and a sister Matl . . .
Mike: Yes, yes, Matl--that's her--in America she's Manya. Do you remember Mayorik Korenblit? Matl married Mayorik. I'm their son. She's alive.
Then, they all agree, Chaim/Harry said softly, "My sister is alive?"
And then he began to cry.
About an hour later, after Mike had broken the news to his parents in Oklahoma--"Mama, I've found Chaim"--brother and sister were reunited by transatlantic telephone.
There was very little talk.
"For 56 minutes they did nothing but cry," says Meyer, with tears in his eyes.
The next night they did the same thing, and the night after that. Then the Kornblits flew to Newcastle Upon Tyne.
"We don't have too many fairy tales today," says Cecilia. "Everybody needs to know it can happen to them too."
Chaim Nagelsztajn writes to Manya every day, even when they're together. He says, "I just like being able to write, 'Dear sister . . .' "