Book of Life Reunites Family

by Josh Kerr | Dec 24, 2021

A box of letters from the past re-writes a family’s future

Sitting around their dining room table, Harvey and Nessie Cogan can’t help but smile with excitement, looking at the binders and family-tree posters laid out in front of them. 

As they begin to scratch the surface of their story, Harvey explains that there was only one time in his life where he had heard about relatives from the New York area. Leading up to his bar mitzvah, 71 years earlier, when he was just a boy living in Fort William, Ontario, he says his father had thought they had one relative living in New York, and he’d look into finding them to send over an invitation. 

“We came to learn that he was a dentist named Max Rosen, who I had never heard of before,” says Cogan. “And they came in for my bar mitzvah, and then we never heard from them again. They went back, and that was it.” 

After 71 years without contact, Harvey explains that on July 28, 2021, he got a phone call from the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba saying that someone in Philadelphia had reached out saying that they think they may be relatives. 

“At first, I thought this was all a con. I told [Nessie] that I have no family in Philadelphia that I’m related to,” says Cogan. 

The next day, Harvey and Nessie got a long email from Elyse Schatz, a name they had never heard before. 

The email explained that her mother, Joyce, had been carrying a box of letters and old photographs for 80 years, all written in Yiddish by Harvey’s Baba during the Holocaust. Joyce had moved multiple times over the years, and the box of letters always stayed with her. However, she had never opened it for all of that time. This year, they decided that would change. They finally opened this box rife with mystery and began to translate the letters, 24 of them, from Yiddish to English. Joyce and Elyse noticed one name that kept popping up, Cogan. 

Their research into this Cogan family eventually led them to an endowment program in Canada, specifically Manitoba, which just so happens to be our very own Endowment Book of Life!

“Because our name is in the Endowment Book of Life, and they thought they had family in Canada, they were able to trace it back to Winnipeg and ask if we could potentially be the Cogan family these letters referred to,” explains Nessie. 

Describing the letters, Harvey says he could almost cry reading them. He explains the letters were written to two of his Baba’s nieces, living in New York at the time. She gave updates about herself and her family during the Holocaust. The letters describe the poverty they lived with; no money, no food, and a daily struggle to maintain their lives, all things Harvey had not known until only a few months ago. 

The letters have opened a window into a time in their family’s history that was previously unknown. Along with the letters, they also received a photo, captioned “Is this Harvey?” A bar mitzvah photo of Harvey, taken 71 years earlier.

Over the four months since the initial contact, the families have kept in close connection, exchanging emails and phone calls constantly, with more letters and translations being sent almost weekly. Harvey and Nessie’s son and daughter-in-law, Allan and Shawna, recently met their Philadelphia family while travelling to New York. 

Now, sitting in front of them on their dining room table are two binders. The first is full of emails back and forth between Harvey, Nessie, Elyse, and many others. The second is full of small plastic bags, each containing the original letters written by Harvey’s Baba some 80 years earlier, each with its translation to its right. 

The stories keep adding to one another, information continues to be pieced together on a weekly, sometimes, daily basis, and a whole new window into their family’s history has been discovered. 

By following a small thread from one name, they came to the Endowment Book of Life. That discovery has now re-united these families, separated mainly by circumstance, who have found a warm place in each other’s hearts already, the way only family can.