A chill gripped Josef Lapko as he walked among the gravestones with his 92-year-old grandfather Roman (Reuven) Zlotin in the cemetery of Novaya Ladoga — a small, remote town, 130 km from St. Petersburg, that seems frozen in time. Finally, they stumbled across it: the grave of Zalman Zlotin, who died at age 18. 82 years after they were separated and all contact was lost, Roman found his brother’s grave. At that moment, he lost consciousness and collapsed on the ground.
This is an inspiring story about an intergenerational bond between a grandfather and his grandson, about determination, a sense of mission, and closing a circle. Josef Lapko knew that everything depended on him — that no one else would do it but him. He took upon himself the responsibility of helping his grandfather who raised him, who was there for him in the most difficult moments of his life, who supported and pushed him to move forward and not to give up, to solve the mystery that had tormented Roman since he separated from his brother during World War II. What happened to his older brother, the 17-year-old Zalman?
Lapko is currently working on a documentary film that tells the story of the family and how the mystery was solved.
‘In those years they gave me everything’
Josef was born in Russia in 1986, to a secular family that was very disconnected from their traditional Jewish heritage. “I remember us going to church, eating pork,” he recalls. His father was a mechanical engineer, his mother a physicist. When he was 6 years old, his family joined the massive wave of Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union to Israel. In Israel, his parents decided to get closer to Judaism and eventually became religious, adopting an Orthodox lifestyle. “I strongly opposed this change,” says Lapko. “I was a teenager who refused to accept this change in lifestyle. I fought them and in the end it came to an explosion. I left home by slamming a door at the age of 14, after situations of verbal and physical violence.”
For weeks he looked for a place to live. Two of those weeks, he lived in the streets. He eventually made contact with his grandparents, who were then living in a rented one-room apartment. “Even though the apartment was very small, they told me I could come for as long as I wanted. I stayed there for 6 years, until I was 20, and in those years they gave me everything. I remember me sitting with them doing physics homework late into the night. I owe them a lot because thanks to them I became who I am. That was the basis of my special relationship with my grandfather.”
Josef’s grandfather, Roman (Reuven) Zlotin, is a Holocaust survivor. Together with his mother, he managed to escape from his home town of Brainsk near Moscow and seek refuge through a dangerous journey to the east. His father and older brother chose to stay behind as the Nazis attacked from the south, and their fate remained unknown until recently. For years, Roman assumed that his father and older brother were killed in the war when their hometown was completely destroyed by the German tanks. Years after the end of the war, Roman studied at the military academy and enlisted in the Red Army. He advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was involved in designing and establishing a docking station for nuclear submarines in Kamchatka. In 1992, he followed his children to Israel. “Grandpa took on many professions; he worked picking cherries, later he was the head of a boarding house. He kept himself busy all the time.”
‘Only then did he realize: his brother remained a teenager’
Josef remembers how his grandfather used to tell him fascinating stories about the family. “Through my grandparents, I learned a lot about the Holocaust, about the family that was and is no longer, about the Torah scroll that was in the family’s possession and was lost, about my great-grandfather who was the rabbi of the town they came from. At the age of 17, I went with my grandfather to Yad Vashem and we lit a candle in his brother’s memory. The announcement system read the names of thousands of children who perished in the Holocaust, and suddenly we hear the name of my grandfather’s brother. What are the chances that something like this will happen right when we are there? My grandfather passed out from the emotion.”
Josef will never forget what the grandfather said at that moment: “When he regained consciousness and recovered, he told me that he had lived his whole life with a strong sense that his brother was older than him. Only at that moment, when he heard his name played over the loudspeakers in the memorial hall along with the names of the child victims, did he realize that his brother remained a teenager. This sentence was etched in my memory and moved me very much. I knew I had to do something for my grandfather and help him close the circle.”
Josef has been using MyHeritage for many years, since he was a teenager, and has been constantly documenting his grandfather’s story. “I didn’t know when I started what I wanted to do with it, but I knew that I had to document these stories. I collected over 20 hours of interviews with my grandfather.” In Jerusalem, he managed a large and successful production company with about 130 employees. When the company ran into difficulties, he decided to seize an opportunity and move to the U.S. “Grandpa was always my model for immigration and revival. When I moved to another country again and built a home again, I decided to make this film as an educational tool, which might be able to help people who are experiencing the same difficult experience of immigration and identity crisis.”
‘Suddenly a door opened’
Even when he thought he knew what kind of film he wanted to make about his grandfather, nothing prepared Josef for the surprise that his family history research on MyHeritage had in store for him. “A distant relative of mine who lives in Leningrad, with whom we share a common ancestor, contacted me and suggested that I take a DNA test to check the nature of the relationship between us. I took the test and suddenly a door opened,” he says in excitement. “After we managed to understand the connection between us, we met about a year ago and I told her the story of my grandfather’s brother. She promised to help.”
The distant cousin, Ludmila (Mila) Belina, searched for information in various military archives and managed to uncover Zalman’s personal documents. It turned out that Zalman served in the Russian army during World War II, and was hospitalized due to starvation in a field hospital in Novaya Ladoga — a small, developing town where water is still drawn from wells, located 130 km from St. Petersburg. A short time later, he died and was buried there.
“It was a very dramatic discovery,” Josef recalls. “I told my grandfather what we discovered and we both decided to go there to visit his brother’s grave.” With the help of local rabbis, the grave was found and Josef, his grandfather, and Mila traveled there to visit Zalman’s grave. Roman was able to recite Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, over his brother’s grave — bringing closure to the family after 82 years.
“Everybody has a story,” says Josef. “I’m so grateful to spend so much time with my grandfather, and I hope it encourages others to invest in documenting and preserving family histories and making the connection between generations. He who does not remember his past has no future. Every person has a story, it is our job to tell it and empower others.”
Here is a sneak peek of Josef’s documentary:
Many thanks to Josef for sharing his incredible story with us. If you’ve also made an amazing discovery with MyHeritage, we’d love to hear about it! Please share it with us via this form or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Source: My Heritage