Since the age of 10, Debbie Long has had a curiosity about her family history. As she puts it, that’s when she first became aware that people were missing.
The little girl from Chicago had one grandparent instead of four, a lone cousin and not a single aunt or uncle.
Long, now 65 and living in Chapel Hill, was born Deborah Hindi Munk, the eldest child of Tibor Munk and Fayga Galas, a Hungarian-born man and a Polish woman who were thrown together in the chaotic days of post-war Germany. They hastily married in a Displaced Persons camp wearing borrowed clothes. Both had managed to escape Nazi extermination.
Her mother would later sum up their infatuation this way: “He made me laugh, he brought me chocolate and I thought he was the last Jewish boy left on Earth.”
Long’s family history slowly unraveled over multiple decades until 2008, when, as her mother lay dying, her questions took on new urgency. With the help of online tools that had revolutionized genealogical research, Long was able to fill in a good many of the blanks in her family’s past.
Finding photographs of her mother’s siblings and speaking to living second cousins brought “bittersweet joy,” Long says. Her discoveries came only after her mother’s death.
Since 2012, Long has given her time and research talent to helping others across the Triangle and North Carolina search their family histories while still working full-time as a real estate instructor, course developer and editor. That’s the year Long founded the Triangle chapter of the Jewish Genealogical Society, a nonprofit organization that offers lectures, films, seminars, workshops, and networking opportunities for those searching Jewish ancestries.
You can tell by the enthusiasm in her presentations and in her work with that she not only loves what she is doing, but she understands that it’s important.
Mike Kalt, genealogist
Because it’s the only chapter in North Carolina, Long says the group draws members from as far as Wilmington and Charlotte. While the group has a Jewish focus, anyone with an interest in genealogy is welcome to attend meetings or events.
Mike Kalt, a fellow genealogist and president of the Triangle chapter, describes Long as driven and giving. Her group presentations, which are punctuated with stories of her own family searches, often bring listeners to tears, he says.
“You can tell by the enthusiasm in her presentations and in her work with [the genealogical society] that she not only loves what she is doing, but she understands that it’s important,” Kalt says.
Research brought understanding
As a child, Long’s genealogical sleuthing was less about filling in the blanks on an ancestral chart and more about figuring out why her parents were the way they were. In a self-published book Long wrote for family members, she recalls the pressures of being a child of Holocaust survivors, especially a first-born. “I was created to replace my parents’ losses, to make their world whole again,” she wrote.
In late 1939 and early 1940, Long’s mother and her family were forced into a Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland. As anti-Semitism escalated, two siblings fled toward Russia while two others were sent to Krakow to join a sibling already living there. Long’s mother and a brother were chosen to stay with their parents to keep them safe.
It was a doomed mission. In early August 1944, mother and daughter, holding hands, were separated by a guard as they were led into a camp, which she would later come to know as Auschwitz. Long’s mother last heard her father call out her name in the chaos of unloading from the cattle cars in which they had been transported.
“She saw the chimneys,” Long says. “The smell of death was everywhere.” The guilt would haunt her mother for the rest of her life.
Long’s father, taken by the Nazis in 1943, was deported to a work camp in Yugoslavia, where he was forced to mine lead and copper. He was 18. Later, as Germany began to fall apart, he was sent on a cross-country death march. “My father was one of a handful of men to survive,” she says.
After the war, Long’s father defied the odds again when he discovered his mother, still alive, amid the rubble of Budapest. Long’s mother was not so lucky. Not a single member of her immediate family survived.
Arriving in America in 1946 as part of the Truman Directive, Long’s parents eventually settled in Chicago where Long was born in 1951.
Ultimately, what drew Long’s parents together – the brutalities of war, the loss and, as Long described, “a bottomless sadness” – also drove them apart. After 20 years of marriage, they divorced.
In her book, Long describes her mother as feeling alone and betrayed, often lashing out at her. The title of the book – a direct quote from her mother – is telling: “First Hitler, Then Your Father, and Now You.”
For Long, as for many genealogists and historians, studying family history brought understanding. “I always felt my mother wanted to re-create the family she lost. My father wanted to recapture his youth.”
Urgency to save family stories
Long, who also has researched her husband’s family tree and a branch of her son-in-law’s, describes genealogical research as “powerfully addicting.”
“You are exploring your past but you are also figuring out what makes you the person you are. … It’s similar to a giant scavenger hunt or solving a mystery.”
Long’s enthusiasm for helping fellow genealogists knows no boundaries. During a trip to Poland to search for clues about a great-great-grandfather, Long volunteered to index the vital records of the town of Lutomiersk from the 1800s and early 1900s. She not only found valuable information for her own research, but her efforts made those records available to anyone with internet access.
“The work of indexing is tedious but ultimately rewarding. Now anyone doing a search by name will be able to see records from this town,” Long says. “By helping others, I wound up helping myself.”
Closer to home, another member of Long’s group has helped with the online indexing of Jewish cemeteries in Raleigh and Chapel Hill.
Long and fellow members also speak at synagogues, senior centers, and to other general-interest genealogy groups – always with a sense of urgency. “If you haven’t talked to your parents or grandparents …You’re going to lose the story forever,” Long says.
She also urges family researchers, especially those of Jewish descent, to persevere in their searches. She, too, once thought family records were likely lost or destroyed in the war. “To my mother and father, Europe was nothing but a big cemetery,” she says.
What she found through her research was quite the opposite. Many records have been preserved. Some are available online; others can be found in museums, cemeteries and memorials across Europe.
Every six weeks, Long’s genealogy group meets for a presentation and discussion. Topics have ranged from DNA research, which has opened up whole new avenues in the genealogical world, to how to best use online resources such as jewishgen.org, ancestry.com and familysearch.org.
There’s a sense of camaraderie and common purpose among the group members.
Two members, for example, discovered at a meeting that they were cousins. Another member is headed to Warsaw this summer and has offered to check the cemeteries she’s visiting for the relatives of other group members. “Some people hit brick walls in genealogy. We help each other out,” she says.
The society also arranges one-on-one clinics for beginners to meet with more sophisticated researchers.
“Genealogy has brought my family back to life, albeit a little bit late,” she says.
“As my mother said, ‘We’re still here. We made it.’ ”
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Amy Galloway Dunn is a freelance writer and editor in Apex. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Born: April 1951
Residence: Chapel Hill
Family: Husband Courtney Long Jr.; one adult daughter, Jennifer Long Fried.
Career: Teaches real estate courses, writes and edits real estate textbooks.
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English education, University of Illinois; doctorate in adult education, Florida Atlantic University.
Fun fact: In January, Long will take a three-month sabbatical to live in Budapest.
Details: For more information on the Triangle Jewish Genealogical Society, go to trianglejgs.org