Rita Morse (right front) carries the Israeli flag during the 2019 March of the Living in Poland.

Former Detroiter Rita Morse uncovered her ancestral ties during the 2019 International March of the Living trip in Poland.

Photos courtesy of Rita Morse

As the self-proclaimed historian of her family, former Detroiter Rita Morse has always been interested in her family’s roots. As the child of Holocaust survivors, however, Morse (nee Jerusalem) always believed those roots weren’t very deep.

But during a recent trip to Poland as a participant in the 2019 International March of the Living, not only was she able to locate her grandmother’s and great-grandparents’ graves in the Lodz cemetery, she was also overwhelmed with the discovery of ancestral ties to a renowned 18th-century Chasidic rabbi, the Strykower Rebbe, Ephraim Fishel, known as the “Pillar of Fire.”

Morse, who with husband, Marc, now lives in Hollywood, Fla., knew her father Bernard was from an Orthodox family in Lodz and was imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto, where he lost his wife and 6-year-old son. Morse’s mother, Adina, was born in Czechoslovakia and, during WWII, she worked in a forced-labor camp in Riga, Latvia, and managed to escape the Nazis during a death march.

Morse’s grandmother’s death notice

After the war, they both ended up in a displaced persons camp in Austria, where they met and married. Then, with assistance from family in America who were elated that relatives had survived the Holocaust, Morse’s parents also managed to get out of Europe and, as passengers on a military ship, arrived in New York in late November.

“My parents’ first meal in America was Thanksgiving dinner,” she noted with emotion. “That’s why Thanksgiving is a very important holiday in my family.”

Uncovering a Surprise
Other family facts helped Morse delve deeper into her history.

“I knew in order to avoid the Polish draft, my father’s older brother Leo emigrated to the U.S. after World War I and eventually settled in Detroit,” she said. “In communicating with family still in Poland, Leo found out his mother (my grandmother Sara) died in May 1939 and was buried in the Lodz cemetery. He received a copy of her death notice, written in Polish and Yiddish.”

It was when her cousins sent her this notice her interest in finding her grandmother’s grave was piqued. This search would coincide with another activity she had already signed up for: the March of the Living, which took place April 30-May 12. The event is an annual educational program bringing people from around the world to Poland and Israel to study the history of the Holocaust and march down the same path leading from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day — Yom HaShoah — as a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust.

Morse’s great-grandfather’s headstone.

“I joined the march because, being a child of survivors, I wanted to feel empowered by the number of Jews who come to Poland and the death camps to memorialize those who died and show we rose up from the ashes and rebuilt,” she said.

Prior to her trip, Morse tried to locate her grandmother’s burial site with the cemetery. When she arrived at the graveyard, a helpful worker was able to find the spot.

“My grandmother was buried at 1 p.m. on May 3, 1939. I found her grave on the same date, May 3 – at 1 p.m.! It just happened to be the day our tour was scheduled to go to the cemetery.”

And that was only the first of the fantastic things Morse would experience.

“We continued searching the grounds and then found my great-grandmother’s grave. I’m named for her: Rivka Esther.

“Then, a Chasidic man came up to us and started speaking in Polish to the cemetery worker,” Morse continued. “I noticed he was carrying a bag from Israel, so I spoke to him in Hebrew. He wanted to know why I was visiting this grave, so I showed him the death notice for my grandmother. He got very excited and asked, ‘Are you a Frommer?’ (a family name). I said yes. He grew more excited and asked: ‘Do you know who your family is? Come with me!’

“He brought me to a huge headstone and explained it was the grave of my great-grandfather Avraham Yitzchak Frommer. He showed me the words written on the stone indicated that Avraham Yitzchak was the great-grandson of the famous tzadik (righteous person), Rav Ephraim Fishel.

Ohel of Rav Fishel Ephraim under construction.

“Two more religious men came by, and the Chasid tells them who I am!” Morse added. “I found out they’re involved with an organization that’s restoring the gravesites of influential rabbis throughout Europe, and they’ve begun work on an ohel (a structure built around a grave indicating the deceased’s prominence) for Rav Fishel!”

Coming from a distinguished ancestor has definitely impressed upon Morse the meaning of family continuity.

“Prior to discovering this important ancestry, my mother always told me her emunah, her belief in God and her Jewish spirit, is what gave her strength during the worst of times. I, too, have that strong emunah and spirit.

“I feel a responsibility to carry on the legacy as a matriarch of this very important dynasty,” Morse said. “I am thrilled about the ohel being built. I’m following and supporting the process and hope to visit the ohel upon its completion.”

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