TAMARAC -- They hadn't seen each other for seven decades -- not since a brief meeting at Auschwitz -- but at first, the cousins could muster only a dignified handshake and a hug.
They had all but given up the search for relatives who had survived the Nazi extermination effort. To find each other was almost overwhelming.
"This is the biggest, most important day of my life," Leon Schagrin, 85, said Sunday after meeting up with Lemel Leo Adler, 89, at a banquet for the Holocaust Survivors of South Florida.
In an irony worthy of a Bible story, both were living in Broward County -- Schagrin in Sunrise, Adler in Hallandale. Only last week, when Adler read Schagrin's book on his Holocaust experiences, did they know of each other.
Such reunions are becoming more and more rare, said Miriam Fridman, president of the survivors' club (Schagrin is vice president). For one thing, many survivors have passed away: The club had 1,400 members in the 1990s, but counts only about 300 today. About 185 were at the Sunday dinner.
"Most have either found their relatives, or they're six feet under," Fridman said. "So this is very unusual."
Adler and Schagrin grew up in Poland, the sons of two sisters. During the Holocaust, they were taken first to the Tarnow ghetto, then to various labor camps, then to Buna, a chemical plant also known as Auschwitz III. They saw each other there only once for a few minutes, before being led off to various jobs.
In January 1945, Adler was among those taken on a forced march, then placed a train for another camp. The two didn't see each other after then. And as far as they know, everyone else in their families was killed.
They immigrated to America, where Adler managed restaurants and Schagrin sold plastics for bags and packing materials. Both continued the search for relatives -- Schagrin even visited Yad Vashem,Israel'sHolocaust memorial -- with no luck.
That changed last week when Adler got a copy of "The Horse Adjutant," Schagrin's 2001 book about being forced to care for horses owned by Nazi officers. A friend told him the book had names like Tarnow and other places Adler had been.
"I don't usually read such books, because I lived through the Holocaust," Adler said. "But then I started scanning it and found family names -- like my mother's maiden name."
He checked the facts against the records at the South Florida-based Holocaust Documentation and Education Center and learned about Schagrin -- who speaks for the center about the Holocaust to South Florida students.
"I know you!" he told Schagrin in a phone call. Then he named family members the two had known.
Schagrin's reaction: "You know how it is when nerves are tickling all over your body? I couldn't believe it after 70 years."
They were interviewed on Sunday by Rabbi Yaakov Thompson for his cable TV show "To Life, L'Chaim." He also plans to use it in "Reliving the Holocaust," a series he's producing for Los Angeles-based Jewish Life Television.
"When you see a good friend you haven't seen for 30 years, you're supposed to say a blessing," Thompson said. "What do you say when you find someone you haven't seen for 70 years?"
During the banquet, Adler and Schagrin huddled at their table, comparing cards and notes and wallet photos. There would likely be a lot of that.
"There's a lot to talk about," Schagrin said with considerable understatement.
JDDavis@Tribune.com or 954-356-4730.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun