Zbigniew "Bish" Wawrzyniak carried the loss in the back of his mind for 44 years.
"Something was missing from him the whole time," said his wife, Elizabeth. "And he wouldn't talk about it. He was lost."
The missing something, the absence that made Bish Wawrzyniak's heart ache, was Stanislawa Elenora "Lola" Bujnowski, his big sister. Separated by the twists of World War II following the execution of their father by the Nazis, Bish and Lola were reunited in America last week.
Yesterday, they came to Baltimore to surprise and thank Bess Kaufman, the 74-year-old Red Cross volunteer who helped brother and sister lay eyes on one another for the first time since 1949.
"Oh, my goodness!" cried Mrs. Kaufman as the siblings walked into the annual board meeting of the Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing and Information Center, headquartered in Baltimore. By the time she had thrown her arms around the pair, 20 men and women around a huge conference table were wiping away tears.
Bish and Lola called Mrs. Kaufman "our hero" as she took off her glasses to cry, but the volunteer, the daughter of a Russian Jew who ran a grocery on Dolphin Street, played down her part in the reunion.
"Anyone could have done more," said Mrs. Kaufman, one of 80 volunteers at the tracing center and a woman blessed not to have lost any loved ones in the Holocaust. "I just got lucky."
Mr. Wawrzyniak, 62, made the trip to Baltimore from his residence in Richmond, Va., with Mrs. Bujnowski, who had flown the United States from her home in Adelaide, Australia.
"When I got the letter from the Red Cross, I could hardly sleep," said Mrs. Bujnowski. "I couldn't stay home. I had to run to him because he was alive. After all the tears and hugging, he looked at me and said: 'Hello, Lola.' "
Mr. Wawrzyniak said tried on and off for years to find his sister before he gave in to the fear that she might be dead. Deciding that it was easier to live with the hope that his sister might be alive than to know for sure that she wasn't, he stopped looking.
"Even when I knew she was flying to Richmond, I had doubts I would really see her," he said. "I thought it would turn out to be someone else."
A methodical search for Lola Bujnowski began nine years ago when Mr. Wawrzyniak, a home improvement contractor who has lived in Richmond since 1950, was doing work on Regis Chapman's house.
Mr. Chapman, a budget analyst for the state of Virginia, was impressed with Mr. Wawrzyniak's talent and taken with his spirit. During conversations, the Pole began telling Mr. Chapman tales he was reluctant to share at home:
* Stories about his Catholic childhood in the Polish town of Zyrardow.
* About the day the Nazis shot his father, older brother, an uncle bTC and most of the adult males and young men in town to avenge the murder of a German soldier after no one would tell them who was responsible.
* How his grieving mother died from a heart attack less than a year later, a misfortune on top of a horror that sent young Bish and Lola on a circuit of labor farms, orphanages and displaced persons camps that led to their long separation.
The last time they were together was for a few weeks in 1949 at a military prison outside Dachau where Mrs. Bujnowski's Polish husband was guarding Nazi war criminals. When they parted, she and her husband were planning to move to Australia while he was waiting to leave for the United States. In the confusion of their moves, they lost touch with each other. As the years passed, letters went astray, and the trail went cold.
Mr. Chapman, describing himself as rather detached from whim and emotion, was moved.
"I was inspired by the tragedy," he said. "Bish is a person of impeccable integrity. I was shocked by his lack of malice toward the people who did this to his family. I'd still be angry, but I found him morally superior to me."
So began nine years of combing telephone books in most of this nation's big cities, placing advertisements in Australian newspapers, and writing letters to any group working with World War II and Holocaust survivors.
One of Mr. Chapman's correspondents suggested he try the Red Cross. When he did, the letter landed on Bess Kaufman's desk, becoming part of a foot-high file that she tackles five days a week.
She passed the inquiry onto the Red Cross International Tracing Service in Arolson, Germany, which maintains a library of 46 million documents on 14 million people. The same inquiry was forwarded to the Red Cross in Australia, where Mr. Wawrzyniak believed his sister had settled although he had never heard from her.
Mrs. Kaufman still doesn't know just how it happened, but the Australian Red Cross found Lola, who had emigrated to Australia in the early 1950s. While working in a textile factory there, she was widowed and then married, taking a different name. Last Saturday, she and a grown son landed at Richmond International Airport to meet her long-lost brother.
The reunion is expected to last all through the holidays -- "Her first Thanksgiving ever!" said Mr. Wawrzyniak -- and well into January.
Bish would like his sister to move to Richmond, but, like him, she is devoted to children and grandchildren at home.
"The only thing now is that we saw each other," said Mrs. Bujnowski. "We have to be separated again, but even one Christmas is good."
"It is unbelievable," said Mr. Wawrzyniak, beginning to cry again as he touched Lola's hand. "What can you say?"
Regis Chapman said this: "Never in my life have I seen such a brilliant happiness."