MODESTO — When Irit Goldman's father died in Israel nearly three decades ago, knowledge of his family's history went with him.
She knew little beyond the fact Menachem Segal had escaped the dreaded Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during World War II.
"He was given the job of raking leaves," said Goldman, a psychologist who has a marriage and family counseling practice in Modesto. "They (he and another man) began timing when the guards would come by, when the searchlight would come around."
They'd dig near the fence, quickly covering their work with the leaves whenever the guards and the lights made their rounds. One day, they slid under the fence and bolted.
"He decided he'd either die of a bullet in the back or a free man," Goldman said. "He was not going to die in that camp."
Segal eventually made it to Israel, where he became a policeman. He married and began a family. Segal shared much about his kin, including his parents, who were murdered by the Nazis.
Goldman married and moved to the United States in 1983. Her mother, Rachel, and sister, Ruth, still live in Israel.
Goldman and her sister began trying to research their family history on their father's side. Information from his time in Poland seemed nonexistent.
That changed a few years ago, when they did some research through Yad Vashem, a Holocaust museum and resource center in Jerusalem. Jewish people can submit testimonies about their ancestors' or their own experiences as Jews living in Europe during World War II, and these testimonies help others in their research.
They found an entry by Greg Tuckman, an optometrist who lives in Arizona. The irony is that the source of some of Tuckman's research turned out to be Rachel Segal Irit and Ruth's mother who had submitted her own testimony to Yad Vashem. Tuckman's and Goldman's grandfathers, as it turned out, were brothers. In fact, Tuckman had assembled a family tree dating to 1826.
These things can difficult to follow, so bear with me.
Tuckman's grandfather, Sam Firer, had brought his family to the United States in 1913, which explains how that side of the family survived the Holocaust. Sam Firer had a brother named Majer Firer, who had a son named Menachem. Majer Firer died in the Holocaust.
In reading Tuckman's testimony, Goldman determined they were related. So she called Tuckman, who wasn't so instantly convinced.
"Majer Firer was my grandfather," she told him.
"I told her her it's not possible," Tuckman said. "Nobody survived from that side."
Except one: Auschwitz escapee Menachem Firer Goldman's father who changed his last name to Segal upon his arrival in Israel after the war.
Suddenly, it began to make sense.
"I had located a marriage record for Menachem Firer and Fajga Segal," Tuckman said.
"I started bawling," Goldman said. " 'We're cousins!' "
Menacham's first wife, Fajga Segal, died during the war, possibly in one of the concentration camps. He later took her maiden name as his own, becoming Menachem Segal in Israel.
"I suspect it was like starting a whole new life," Tuckman said.
But there was another reason. Firer means "leader" in Hebrew, Tuckman said. In German, it is spelled "Fuhrer," the title the German citizenry bestowed upon Adolf Hitler. In fact, Tuckman found documents showing numerous relatives including his mother and grandfather with their surname spelled "Fuhrer."
The irony is that Goldman's mom, Rachel Segal, lived her entire life as a married woman and now a widow bearing the last name of her husband's first wife.
Goldman's grandfather, Majer Firer, had been an optometrist as was one of her uncles in a small town in Poland until they were imprisoned by the Germans. Sometime in 1938, Majer had sent a photograph of himself to brother Sam in America.
"I asked Irit if she had a photograph of her grandfather," Tuckman said. "She didn't. So I sent it to her, and it was the first time she'd ever seen a picture of him."
Tuckman also sent along a photo of a 1941 gathering in America attended by dozens of their relatives.
Goldman and other family members have visited the Polish town and the very building where her grandfather and uncle practiced optometry.
"It somehow survived (the war)," she said.
And they've met the Tuckmans. Goldman's mom, Rachel, and Tuckman's mother, Millie, became fast friends and email regularly as do Greg Tuckman and Goldman.
That he became an optometrist, too, is purely coincidental but adds to the intrigue, Tuckman said.
"It's a fascinating story, and it's amazing to be part of that story, too," Tuckman said.
Goldman is thrilled. She now knows about the family she thought was gone forever, and learning from one living relative who has plenty of others.
"The Nazis didn't and couldn't destroy us," she said. "From having a very small family, I now have a wealth of them."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.