It was at a cousin’s son’s wedding in 1993 where Tony Hausner of Silver Spring learned he was related to a Hausner who entered millions of households in what was the first televised trial in the history of TV.
The Israeli woman seated by him was related — through his mother’s side, as there are Hausners on both sides — was the widow of Gideon Hausner, Israel’s chief prosecutor in the Holocaust war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann.
It was the newest thing he learned, though he knew of family experiences with anti-Semitism — he’d experienced some of that personally — and the Holocaust, and he already had some interest in those topics, his family’s past and other Jewish subjects.
“There are many things that made me aware of anti-Semitism over the years and once I learned of Gideon’s involvement, that just magnified it more,” Hausner, 77, recalled. Jewish history, the hatred, and family, educational, cultural and religious life are intertwined, he noted.
Within several years, he began about a decade of being part of the Holocaust committee at his federal workplace and helped a genealogist doing research for his cousin, including sharing his parents’ four family trees, given to him years earlier by his father. He was definitely “hooked” he said, after obtaining a volume the genealogist told him to buy: a copy of a Yizkor book of the city of Skala in Galicia, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Skala was where his mother spent the first year of her life.
Over a more than two decades, Hausner has been exploring his family’s and Jewish history, through document research, conversations and in trips eliciting mixed emotions to places that include the internment camps where his parents were held as “enemy aliens” in Great Britain, and locations that his progenitors once called home that were emptied of Jews and their vibrant culture before he was born.
Most recently, he’s been sharing what he’s learned with Jewish genealogy groups, giving talks on such topics as genealogy (“roots”) travel and the work of town research groups he’s part of. He will be a speaker at the 40th annual International Conference on Jewish Genealogy — a virtual gathering due to COVID-19 — which opens Aug. 10. His topic: preparing for genealogical trips.
Hausner is also energized by relationships he has formed in visits with newfound relatives, Gideon Hausner’s children among them, and with descendants of people who were his family’s landsmen in the Old Country. Through relatives and the Gideon Hausner connection, for example, he met historian Deborah Lipstadt when she spoke at the dedication and renaming of the Gideon Hausner Jewish day school in Palo Alto, Calif.; and in 2016 he arranged for a Bethesda screening of “Denial,” based on her book of the same name. Travel, especially, added context to Jewish, community and family history, he said.
“In some cases I was going back 200, 300 years where the family lived,” he said of a five-week genealogy trip he and his wife, Toba, took in 2010 to Europe, which included Skala.“I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s meaningful to learn about that history, and the hardships, too,” he said.
“I call myself the shtetl leader” of the Skala Research Group, leading about 160 people worldwide doing genealogical and related research on Skala. Beyond email sharing, there have been a few group luncheons in New York, including one attended by several survivors of Skala, Hausner said.
“I have a leadership role with 14 other towns” — but with some he runs only the email group or has a smaller role — “many of them are from eastern Galicia, some are my wife’s family,” some of whom lived in Plock, Poland.
He’s done his homework before traveling, which included finding knowledgeable guides, he said. From a former Skala Benevolent Society president, Hausner said he had a pre-Holocaust map identifying Jewish homes in the town where about half the people were Jewish.
“I got a much better idea for how rich the town was in terms of Jewish presence” from his visit.
“I saw the place where my great-grandfather had his house and his store. I saw where it fit into the rest of the town,” he said. The structure, abandoned by a later owner, was run down, but Hausner said his cousin had photographed it when it was in better condition. The center of town once included Jewish homes and stores filled with storekeepers, tradesmen and others, and also a Jewish community center; a Jewish cemetery was near the center of town, he recalled. Once, the Jewish population supported more than a half-dozen synagogues, he said.
“Only 100 [Jews] survived [the Holocaust]. There were several massacres where Jews were slaughtered by mass killings, you know, by rifle,” Hausner said, noting “incredible stories” of Jews surviving in the woods or hidden by gentiles. His photos of gravestones are shared with the Skala group.
Hausner, who holds a Ph.D. in social/community sociology, has an acknowledged affinity for his local community. Hausner’s been involved in his Indian Spring neighborhood since he and Toba moved there more than 40 years ago. Among his work, he participates in grassroots Democratic Party efforts, including the Greater Silver Spring Democratic Club. He is the founder and past chair of Safe Silver Spring and has long opposed moves that threaten to increase traffic and congestion in close-in neighborhoods. For much of his career, he worked for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in health care reform areas.
Among highlights in his Europe travels beyond Skala were seeing the home where Rabbi Bernard Hausner and his family lived in 1915, when Gideon Hausner was born, in Lemberg (now Lviv), in Galicia (now Ukraine); the building was the Canadian consulate when Hausner visited. In 1927, the family moved to Palestine, where Bernard Hausner was an adviser to the Polish government.
In Moravia, Czech Republic, Hausner saw the gravestones of three generations of his father’s great-grandparent line, with the name of a fourth also on one of the gravestones. At least two of the men were rabbis. “To see a gravestone in particular with the name on it is particularly moving,” he said.
And in Vienna, the occupant of the apartment where his mother grew up invited the travelers in to see the residence.
His parents “fled Vienna right after Hitler’s army marched in, in what’s known as the Anschluss in 1938 [annexation of Austria]. They didn’t know each other. They met in London, got married there, spent a year in Wales,” he said. They were among thousands of Jewish refugees the British interned (men and women separated) as “enemy aliens” on the Isle of Man. Hausner was born in Liverpool, where they later settled temporarily, eventually immigrating to the United States in 1950.
In 2016, a year after a trip to Great Britain was cut short due to an injury, the couple returned; among their visits was to the internment camps.
“It was moving to see the buildings where my parents were interned, but a mixed moving because they were imprisoned,” Hausner recalled. “I guess the fortunate part was it was not the most inhumane conditions. … You wonder why Britain interned Jews. That still troubles me.”
But Europe, too, had brought mixed emotions, such as seeing a soccer field apparently built on a Jewish massacre site, he said.
Like others doing genealogical work, he wants to know about his family over time, and document it, and share it not only with his children, but Jewish communities. There is an overall theme reinforced by walking in ancestral footsteps.
“Despite the adversity Jews faced all of those years, we thrived, culturally, economically and educationally. We can be very proud of the accomplishment — and yet there is frustration that we have always been hated and it keeps rearing its head. It’s still pervasive in the world today,” Hausner said. “All the valuable things we did over the centuries and the richness of our culture and our family life, so many things that we can be so proud of.”
Andrea F. Siegel is a Washington-area writer