How a Holocaust Survivor Finally Learned Her Own Birth Name
More than 75 years since V-E Day—the May 8, 1945, celebrations marking the end of World War II in Europe and the surrender of Nazi Germany—Holocaust survivors are still recording their stories for future generations. Recently, one of these survivors discovered that her story was still being told. At 95 years old she learned her name.
Mary Wygodski, St. Petersburg, Fla. knew her name was after her grandmother. But she discovered her true birth name last year.
Ursula Szczepinska, Director of Education & Research at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, found that name listed in a birth register in the Lithuanian State Historical Archives, which emailed an image of it to Szczepinska, who could read the Polish and Hebrew on the document.
“The truth came to light, after all these years,” Wygodski tells TIME.
Part of Szczepinska’s job is helping local survivors search for information about what happened to their relatives during the Holocaust, and she started searching for Wygodski’s birth name to prepare her for an interview for the USC Shoah Foundation’s Dimensions in Testimony program last April. The interactive installation allows museum visitors the opportunity to pose any questions to the digital survivor, who then responds in real-time. Wygodski was asked a few questions before recording. One of those was about Wygodski’s birth name. Because she was the only survivor from her immediate family in the Holocaust, there wasn’t anyone else to question, and it never happened.
“Without this project and the preparation for the interview, we might never have known that [Mary] doesn’t know her real name,” says Szczepinska.
Born Mera Tabachowicz in 1925 in Vilna, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania), Wygodski lived in the Vilna ghetto and pretended to be her cousin Mila Kovner in order to stay in the ghetto under Mera’s uncle’s work permit. Mila was already dead at Ponary in Nazi-occupied Lithuania, where up to 75,000 Jews were believed to have been killed. Wygodski’s uncle’s wife and other children were also murdered there. Mary was able to survive three concentration camps: Kaiserwald, Stutthof and Magdeburg after the ghetto had been destroyed. She tried to kill herself at Kaiserwald after she was separated from her family.
Wygodski, who was present in Magdeburg at the liberation, moved to Palestine after the war. She went under her Hebrew name Miriam. Szczepinska discovered her name on the site of the Israel Genealogy Research Association. There, she met her husband Morton Wygodski, an engineer, and the two moved to Florida in 1957 where she’s lived ever since. She’s a mother of two and has three grandchildren.
Wygodski also remembers being called Mercia by her family and her friends. But, Szczepinska believes it to have been a nickname. Mary believed her name to be Mary. Her name is on two identification cards from Magdeburg, one from Belgium and another from the displaced persons camp in Belgium where she had lived for a short time after 1945’s end. She donated those cards to the Florida museum, and Szczepinska believes the camps anglicized Mary’s name.
Wygodski is 96 years old and still doesn’t know her birth name.
“I don’t think it would be right,” she says. “People know me [by Mary].”
She hopes the story of how she lost track of her birth name because of the death of her family during the Holocaust will raise awareness about preserving survivors’ memories. She is reminded of the horrors she experienced during World War II when she sees news from Ukraine. However, she fears that Holocaust denial continues. As she puts it, “Holocaust denial and distortion is the greatest threat for the shrinking population of Holocaust survivors.”
By sharing her experience, she hopes other survivors will feel inspired to tell their stories to help remind others of what they went through.
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