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95 years later, Holocaust survivor learns birth name

For years, Mary Wygodski assumed all documents and archives had been destroyed.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Everything she knew was gone. She had nothing. No family, no home. She didn't even have a name.

Mary Wygodski's story isn't unlike most other Holocaust survivors – chilling, inhumane, and gruesome. What's different is what she was able to claim back after so many years.

She was born in 1925 in an area of Poland now in Lithuania. She remembers a happy childhood with her family; but everything changed in 1941 when Nazis took over her hometown.

After two years in a ghetto, the family was separated and Mary was sent to the first of three concentration camps. Mary never saw her family again. She later learned her father and brother were killed in a camp in Estonia.

Mary survived three different concentration camps and faced death more than once, including the time she was almost allowed to take a shower.

"As I came to the door, the German guard told me halt and he said there’s no more room and I was very upset about it. What I found out after, all those people before me were gassed. None of them survived," Wygodski said.

In 1945 while she was at a camp called Magdeburg, she was liberated by the American army. After the war, she immigrated to Palestine and then Israel where she met her husband and the two came to the United States in 1959.

She's lived in St. Petersburg, Florida for the last several decades, sharing her story of survival with students and groups and working closely with The Florida Holocaust Museum.

In 2021, when Mary was being interviewed for a project with the museum, she revealed that she didn't know her birth name. She had just assumed all documents and archives had been destroyed.

That's when Ursula Szczepinska, director of education and research at The Florida Holocaust Museum, started digging through archives and using her knowledge of Poland and eastern Europe to track down documents.

Mary knew her birth date and remembered her parents and friends calling her "Mercia," but that was a nickname. She also remembered being told that she was named after her grandmother but didn't know her name.

After weeks searching, Szczepinska was able to locate her birth certificate through the Lithuanian State Historical Archives. The document revealed not just her name but her grandparents' names as well.

Mary's birth name is Mera Tabachowicz after her beloved grandmother.

"They found my birth certificate! This was a miracle," said Wygodski.

Now her children and grandchildren have a tangible connection to their ancestors and life before the Holocaust.

Credit: Lithuanian State Historical Archives

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