Speaking on the second day of the conference, Ambassador Rotem described the significant and emotional journey he and his family have taken over the past few years.
Although his surname is today Rotem, the original family name is Frenkel, and he is a seventh-generation descendant of R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (the Berdichever Rebbe). But the family knew none of this.
As he put it, they were a family in which there were grandparents, the older generation didn’t talk much and the younger generation didn’t ask. There was no priority for the past.
When his younger son was 12, he was to create a family tree for his bar mitzvah. His older son had missed doing it when Rotem was posted to Los Angeles as the Consulate General.
No one had done it in their family – they did ask everyone. They used all the new technology, Rotem related: Internet, message boards, web sites, Pages of Testimony at Yad Vashem – always searching for the family name and place.
His paternal grandfather was born in Pyotrekov, Poland (where Israel’s Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau had also been born). Rotem visited Lau to obtain information on his family. From the very first stage, there were interesting discoveries. His maternal side went to Palestine in the 1920s. He learned about his connection to the Berdichever Rebbe. For a secular Jew, learning he was a descendant of a famous Hassidic family was a revelation.
On his paternal side, his grandfather was the last son of 16 siblings of a very Orthodox family; he followed two brothers to Palestine in the 1920s. Twelve remained in Poland, only one survived.
That survivor moved to Australia, and although Rotem knew the man must have died, he believed there were descendants. Again, they posted messages, but discovered nothing.
Everything changed in December 2006. Rotem was to be posted to Australia. The first article written about him was in the Australian Jewish News in January 2007. The reporter was Jason Frenkel.
Rotem thanked Jason for the article and told him about his own name change. At the time, Israeli diplomats-to-be were required to change their original names to Hebrew surnames. He provided some information about the family and the town, curious to learn if the reporter’s family was perhaps related.
The next day, he received a call from Jason’s father, Morry Frenkel, who knew of the Petrykov connection. The two long-separated branches had found each other.
Morry and his wife Mary visited Rotem back home in Israel where – for the first time – Rotem’s father (Israel Frenkel, 76) met his cousin from Melbourne.
Rotem further described that when he was in Los Angeles, his responsibilities extended to Utah, and that he also received help from the Mormons in Salt Lake City, who located his father’s birth certificate.
Just last Saturday, announced Rotem, he received a phone call from three SLC researchers who had discovered hundreds of family names and were putting together a big book for him. The men will be coming to Australia to present the book, which covers some four-to-five generations of Frankels.
He stressed to the audience that his son came with the idea – a small request – that resulted in this huge achievement.
Rotem’s voice broke and he took a moment to compose himself, just before describing his family’s Rosh Hashana celebration at Morry’s home, surrounded by so many cousins.
“This field of yours that you are so preoccupied with,” said the ambassador, “is to be commended for helping people in Australia.”
The first Jewish boy born after the war in Pyotrekov was named Avraham Frenkel. There is an annual reunion of the town’s survivors and descendants, organized by Rabbi Lau’s grandson. The last one included some 700 men, aged 30-40. Rotem described the enormous interest in these almost forgotten stories of legacy and culture.
When his grandfather left Poland in 1932, he had one photograph of his mother Esther. It was found in a shoebox and is the only known photo of his great-grandmother.
Morry Frenkel was in the audience today.
Many of today’s genealogists took their first steps on this fascinating family history journey with their children’s roots projects.
I know I did, and I’m not alone. If the ambassador’s son had not received that assignment, the family would never have been reunited.