Dora Rapaport was separated from her daughter shortly after being captured and transported to Auschwitz by Nazis during World War II.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on October 2, 2022. It has since been updated.
Dena Morris and Jean Gearhart had an impossible task before them: find their older sister, the one they'd never met and weren't even sure was still alive. Their mother, Dora Rapaport, had spent decades looking for her oldest daughter, Eva, whom she'd never seen or heard from since they were separated shortly after being captured and transported to Auschwitz by Nazis during World War II. Even after she was sent to several concentration camps during the war and watched her immediate family perish in a gas chamber, Rapaport held on to hope that Eva somehow survived the Holocaust and was alive and well in some parts of their world.
Once she was liberated in 1945, Rapaport moved to Austria, where she met her husband—who was also a Holocaust survivor —in a displaced persons camp. Pregnant with Jean at the time, she fell in love with him amid the chaos of a world war ending, and the couple eventually got married, reports TODAY. In 1951, they emigrated to America with Jean (who was legally adopted by Rapaport's husband) and their youngest daughter, Dena (who was 3 at the time). The couple shared very little of their experience in the war with their daughters and advised them to keep their Jewish identity a secret.
But Rapaport was consumed by the memory of Eva and was obsessed with finding her lost daughter. "She spent her whole life looking for this child," Morris, 73, told The Washington Post. "It affected her mentally really badly." The sisters vividly remember how their mother frequently traveled back to Europe during their childhood, visiting orphanages in Germany looking for Eva. Every time, she returned home to Canton, Ohio, empty-handed and without answers, she would be devastated and sometimes spent all day in bed crying. It was only when she herself got married and had two sons of her own that she understood her mother's obsession, Morris admitted.
Dora Rapaport only had a single photograph of her eldest daughter, Eva before they were separated by Nazis. Though Dora passed in 1998, her younger daughters continued to look for Eva & eventually found Eva's daughter thanks to @MyHeritage.@washingtonposthttps://t.co/yNKAwm5Qbi— Illinois Holocaust Museum (@ihmec) December 15, 2021
"Once you have a child, that child is a piece of you," she reflected. Holding her own sons in her arms, Morris said, she "felt worse for her than I ever felt in my entire life." Before she died of a brain tumor in 1996, Rapaport asked her daughters to promise that they would continue the search for Eva. "For our entire lives, we were curious. We wanted to know where Eva was, who Eva was," said Gearhart, 74. "We didn't know where to even begin." The sisters vowed to keep the search alive and scoured death records and online databases, and went to the Red Cross seeking answers. However, since all they had was her name—a name they weren't sure Eva herself knew—they kept hitting dead ends.
Finally, Morris and Gearhart decided to take a DNA test as a last-ditch effort. In April 2020, they received an email from MyHeritage, a genealogy platform, that said they had a niece in England. Despite having doubts, Morris got in touch with Clare Reay, 53, their supposed niece. Their shared doubts abruptly dissipated when they traded photos. The similarities between Rapaport and Reay's mother were striking. "Everything about them was almost identical," Morris said. "It was breathtaking."
With help from MyHeritage, the estranged family members pieced together Eva's story: She was rescued by a couple who put her on a boat to Israel, where she lived in an orphanage before being adopted by a Jewish couple based in Britain when she was about seven. Like her mother and sisters, Eva's attempts at tracking down family found no information as all she had was one weathered document, claiming that her birth name was Chava—the Hebrew equivalent of Eva. Unfortunately, she too died without answers in 2014 of pancreatic cancer.
"I never thought we would have the ability to find my mother's family," Gearhart said. "I can't even tell you what it means to us, just the fact that we actually got to find her," her sister added. They finally got to meet their niece in November last year when Reay traveled with her husband from England to Ohio to surprise her long-lost aunts. Calling the experience of meeting her aunts in person "one of the highlights of my life," she said: "It's incredibly bittersweet. [Eva] should be here for this." However, Morris is a firm believer that things happen in their own time and is consumed with gratitude for the family she has now. "The only thing I wish for is that they're together in heaven," she said. "And that they know we finally found each other."