When I went into my parents’ bedroom on a quiet, ordinary Sunday afternoon, I was looking for a book I had misplaced, but I became distracted by a dresser drawer that had been left open. I walked over to it, planning to push it closed, but as my fingers circled around the handle, I paused, suddenly curious. It was a part of our home I had never explored before, and I peeked at the items inside with wide, eager eyes. There wasn’t much there…some trinkets, a neat stack of papers, jewelry. On top of the stack of papers was an envelope, yellowed and slightly creased. The flap was open and I stuck my hand inside and pulled out some newspaper clippings. There were also several documents and black-and-white photographs of children. Wondering why my mother had bunched these seemingly random items together, I squinted at the tiny letters and images, trying to make sense of them.
I was ten years old at the time. Holding these strange memorabilia that I’d found inside a hidden envelope in my parents’ drawer, my heart began to pound. There was a tight, clenching feeling in my stomach that went beyond the guilt of looking into places where I did not belong. I stood there for a long moment, frozen in place. I was immobilized; I couldn’t think, couldn’t move. And then suddenly, rising into the foggy blankness of my thoughts, was a conversation I had once overheard between my parents.
“Will we ever tell her?” my father had asked my mother. “Shouldn’t she know at some point?”
“Why?” my mother had responded. “What good will it do? It’s better if she never knows…”
They had talked further but stopped abruptly when they noticed I was listening, and now those vague, whispered snippets played at the edges of my mind, almost taunting. As my brain struggled to understand, it was as though my heart already knew.
Carefully, I replaced the items in the envelope, closed the drawer and left my parents’ room.
For the rest of the day, I battled with myself. Should I ask my mother about the envelope? Should I forget what I had seen?
When I was getting ready for bed that night, my mother stepped into my room to wish me goodnight.
With my hands fisted at my sides, I drew a breath and asked, “Am I…adopted?”
In the silence that followed, I slowly lifted my eyes and peeked at my mother’s face. She was looking somewhere beyond, and when her eyes met mine, they were brimming with tears. She looked so heartbroken that I dug my toes into the carpet, wishing I could take the words back.
While I groped for something to say, she wrapped her arms around my shoulders and drew me close.
“You are my daughter, Chavi,” she said in a raw whisper. “I love you. I love you so much. You will always be mine.”
My mother pulled me more tightly against her, and I breathed in her familiar scent, comforted by her embrace. But coded in her vague response was the truth I had suspected. I might be hers now, but once upon a time I had been someone else’s.
The years passed, summers bleeding into winters, winters bleeding into summers. During the warmer months we drove north to the Catskills, where my parents operated the Pioneer Country Club, a kosher hotel serving the crowds that migrated away from the humidity of the city. In addition to owning the hotel, my parents, Leo and Gitel Gartenberg, were among the founders of Agudath Israel of America and were well-known, respected pillars of the Jewish community in postwar America. I was their prized, beloved daughter, and I never breathed another word about my hidden past. I loved my mother too deeply to say anything that would cause that fleeting look of pain again, and even after I married and built a family of my own, I didn’t dare ask her from where I had come.
But I wondered. Sometimes I would lie in bed at night and close my eyes, thinking of the photos in my mother’s drawer and trying to draw upon memories that I didn’t have. In the safety of my own mind, shielded by the dark of night, my mind would paint a picture of my birth parents and write stories about why they had let me go. It was more than curiosity; it was an innate, desperate need to feel connected to the people who had come before me, to know where I belonged in the chain of Jewish history.
The years passed and my parents grew old. At that point I was living in Israel, working as a nurse at both Hadassah Hospital and Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. My parents had been blessed with long years, and after their deaths, I went through their belongings and found The Envelope. It was almost brown at this point, thin and brittle. Once again, I felt like a ten-year-old girl, shocked and horrified to discover that the father and mother I knew and loved were not my birth parents. With my adoptive parents’ souls returned to the world of truth, the yearning to discover the truth of my identity moved to the front of my mind with an urgency that propelled me to begin what would turn into a lifelong journey of discovery.
Back in Israel, I showed my husband the contents of the envelope. “I feel like it’s finally time to do this,” I told him. “I need to know who I really am.”
My husband had known that I was adopted, and now that I was ready to begin my search, he was at my side, supportive and eager to help. The first place we turned to was the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, an organization that was initially founded to help Holocaust survivors learn about their pasts. We sent them the papers and photos in the envelope, including a numbered tag that I assumed had been pinned to my clothes when I first arrived in America. After several days of waiting, we got a call. They had uncovered the most essential part of my identity.
“Your name,” the representative at the foundation told me, “was Eva Margolis.”
Hearing the name that was given to me at birth, my mind went numb. I felt no connection to Eva Margolis; it felt strange and foreign on my tongue.
My name is Eva Margolis, I repeated over and over to myself, trying to make it real, but my mind rebelled. My name was Chavi Heftler, née Gartenburg. Who are you, Eva Margolis? I thought.
At the same time that I struggled to identify with my birth name, a prick of excitement bloomed inside my heart. Now that I knew my name, I had something concrete to build upon. I was sure the rest of my family tree would soon take shape.
Aside from my name, the foundation had one more piece of information to give me.
“Someone was looking for you after the war,” they told me. “There was a letter sent to Agudath Israel by someone named H. Binder to help find a baby named Eva Margolis, who spent the war years in a Polish home.”
I had no idea if H. Binder was a man or a woman or what the connection between us might be, but my mind went wild with the possibilities. Perhaps she was my mother, who had remarried someone with the last name Binder and had been searching for me all these years. Perhaps a sister? A nephew?