Surprise! Israeli discovers her long-lost Christian cousin — in Oklahoma

How a bogus laxative, a century-old advertisement and a little luck connected an Auschwitz survivor with her previously unknown American family

Members of the Pollacseg family came together for a celebration in Budapest in 1939. Most died during the Holocaust. (Courtesy of Hanna Nisman via JTA)
Members of the Pollacseg family came together for a celebration in Budapest in 1939. Most died during the Holocaust. (Courtesy of Hanna Nisman via JTA)

BALTIMORE (JTA) — Hanna Nisman never dreamed she had Christian relatives. Lynne Hoe wasn’t sure she had Jewish ones.

But Nisman, an Israeli, and Hoe, of Tulsa, Okla., are second cousins who last week learned of one another’s existence.

“Wow, I am about to faint from excitement,” said Nisman, 88, of Kibbutz Ein Dor, when she learned her relatives in America had been located. “That’s really something!”

Nisman, a Budapest native who survived the Holocaust and reached pre-state Israel in 1947, had long wondered what became of Miklos Pollacseg, the youngest of her grandmother’s nine siblings. She knew little except that he left Hungary for the United States in about 1902, at age 20, and adopted the surname Partos. Nisman was not aware even of where Partos had settled.

But something she recalled proved crucial in regrafting the branches of her family tree. The key detail was Partolax, the laxative that Partos developed and named for himself. Nisman remembered that Partos became rich from the product soon after writing to his brother Sandor Pollacseg, a physician, to observe that Americans suffered from diarrhea. Pollacseg either invented the pharmaceutical or advised Partos on how to produce it, she said.

‘To know that [the Holocaust] happened to my family, I can’t believe it. It changes who I am’

An online search yielded a March 28, 1911, advertisement for Partolax in the New York Evening Call newspaper. The ad touted the virtues of Partolax, available at the Partos Drug Store on the corner of Second Avenue and 10th Street in Manhattan.

A subsequent search of the 1910 US census revealed that Dr. Nicholas Partos, apparently the store’s owner, was 32 years old and lived with his wife, Cornelia, 30, and their six-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Lillian, on Fifth Avenue; an 18-year-old named Esther Orosz lived with the family. One document said that Partos owned a chain of drug stores. An article on the social pages of the New York Times reported on Lillian’s December 1928 marriage to Armand Hovell at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Yet another search yielded the obituary of the Hovells’ daughter, Anne Hovell Dew, who died in 2008 in St. Petersburg, Fla., on her 71st birthday. The article mentioned Anne’s devout Christian observance, a book she wrote on emotional conflicts and her interest in family reunions. The obituary listed the names of Dew’s husband and six children, and of her siblings and their hometowns.

Reached at her Tulsa home on last week, Hoe, Dew’s sister, sounded surprise. She’d long given up hope of learning about her grandfather’s roots or of locating any kin from Hungary, where she figured they still lived. Hoe remembered Partos very well — he lived to be 103 — but he seemed as if he “didn’t really care about his family” back in Europe, she said, adding that his attitude seemed odd.

Partos identified himself as a Christian Scientist, but some relatives wondered whether he was Jewish

Hoe said that Partos studied pharmacology in Austria and met her grandmother, also from Hungary, in New York. Partos was a Christian Scientist, but some in the family wondered whether he was Jewish, she said. “We weren’t sure if he was Jewish,” but no one questioned him about it, Hoe said.

She recalled Partos as being an inveterate salesman who made and lost fortunes in the pharmaceutical and commodities businesses. For a while, he sold swimming pools. Hoe did not recognize the product name Partolax, but said that her grandfather “got in trouble” with the law because the product “was sugar” rather than a true remedy.

An online search confirmed part of Hoe’s recollection. A 1932 book, “High and Low Financiers,” written by two officials of New York State’s Bureau of Securities, mentions Partos among the era’s great swindlers. The American Accounting Association’s review of the book said that Partos and other “famous financial crooks” were “of the handsome, confidence inspiring ‘banker’s type,’ who easily succeeded in conquering the affections and the pocket books of all they came in contact with, be they male or female lambs.”

Partos never discussed those troubles, but “always talked” about his six brothers back in Hungary, all of whom he said were doctors, Hoe said. She did not know that Partos also had sisters, that there were 10 children in all and that his surname had been Pollacseg.

Partolax got her grandfather in trouble with the law because the product ‘was sugar’ rather than a true remedy

Back in northern Israel, Nisman ticked off the names of her mother’s aunts and uncles, and of their spouses and children, as if she were still living among them. Only one of the nine siblings who remained in Hungary survived the Holocaust: Etta, a sister of Nisman’s maternal grandmother, Malvin Pollacseg Fuhrer. Etta Pollacseg settled in Israel and never married, and before her death in 1970, at age 95, she typed a 50-page reminiscence of the family members, including Partos, that Nisman still has. The granddaughter of Sandor Pollacseg also lives in Israel; her father, a journalist, had departed Hungary in the 1930s.

Raised in Nyregyhaza, near Budapest, Nisman was active in the Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. Nisman and her family lived for many years with her grandparents, who owned a vineyard and a quarry. Best of all, Nisman said, her grandparents’ house featured indoor plumbing.

An Auschwitz survivor, Nisman came to Israel, living first on the Nachlat Yehuda settlement in the South before helping to found Ein Dor, near Mount Tabor, in early 1948. Now a widow, Nisman has three sons. Her first two great-grandchildren are due to be born in January.

Nisman hopes to speak soon with her newly discovered American relatives, but one of her sons may have to help translate because she said her English is lacking.

Referring to her Israeli relatives, Hoe said, “To know that there are still some people — that there’s a connection — I’m thrilled.” Still, to learn that her flesh and blood were killed in the Holocaust hits hard, she said.

“I always felt terrible about it,” Hoe, 70, said of the Holocaust. “But to know that it happened to my family, I can’t believe it. It changes who I am, which is fine, but I have to think about it, understand it.”

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