A 1907 photograph of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island (Library of Congress)
When, in my readings, I come across phrases like this: “His great-great-grandfather was the chief adviser to the Dutch royal family in the 18th century; a great-grandfather killed during the gold rush; and his mother was descended from George Sand”—I feel a little bereft. I don’t crave the social position or the wealth of the descendants, just their connection to a history, centuries old, which for me is empty, as if my family appeared out of nowhere. Of course, my ancestors must have existed during those centuries, but who were they, what and where? Nobody says it.
There is no shortage of information about my 12 pairs of aunts and uncles, transplanted from Ukraine (which makes me wonder about possible distant relatives who may suffer in the current war), and my 26 cousins Germans, born here and mostly gone now. The rumour, usually in my mother’s voice, was that an uncle had killed a pedestrian while driving; two other uncles would have lost their wives very young and found themselves with children to raise. A cousin left her one-day husband for another man; a second was shot dead by his Cuban refugee wife. One headed west to escape his humble origins, another because he was secretly gay. Etc. Some of these stories are tragic, others are the ordinary sprinkling of drama in any large family, anywhere. They have the sting of gossip, but they don’t intrigue me. What questions me is the unknown previous world, the past where suffering was a daily occurrence on a large scale. So great that it doesn’t have to be talked about. Like the name of God, which religious Jews never write in full, only in an abbreviated form.
Grace Paley once warned a group of college students not to just “write what you know”. No, she said, you should write what you don’t know about what you know. For me, it’s a big barren expanse, blank pages.
What I know for certain is that my ancestors did not come to the Mayflower. My understanding of family history only goes back to my grandparents on either side, with the name of an occasional great-aunt or great-uncle to boot. For example, I was told about an uncle on my father’s side named Peter, who went from his native Ukraine to Jerusalem – how? when?—where he worked as an architect. So, during a trip to Israel, I searched for it in the local architecture stories, but without success. I thought it might have been part of the Bauhaus group that flourished in Tel Aviv in the 1930s, and visited a neighborhood known for its many examples of this style. I strolled along the boulevard lined with beautiful Bauhaus buildings, but nothing suggested my great-uncle or brought me closer to him. Maybe it was all just a story.
Then, for a while, the family suspected that we were related to Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister. Sharon was my father’s last name, shortened when he arrived in the United States because Ariel’s last name was changed from Scheinerman, Hebrewized when the family fled Russia for Palestine in 1922. My mother insisted that Ariel looked like my father’s brother George (a fat George, she called him), a notion supported by photographs, and Ariel’s aggressive temper matched my father’s family well. But some research showed there was no link. I had had vague fantasies about introducing myself and through him meeting important Israelis. But in the end, I was relieved; the possibility made me uncomfortable.
My father’s parents came to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. I don’t know the name of the ship. I also don’t know which port in Europe it came from. Has anyone ever investigated these ships bringing in immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe? What were their names – ship names are always colored. How seaworthy were they? I wonder. Has anyone sunk, with their hopeful cargoes?
I don’t know how my father’s family came from Kyiv (now Kyiv), their nearest town, to this European port. I don’t know if they all came at the same time or in groups of two or three — there were the parents and eight children. I know that my father was 11 at the time and his older brother remained near kyiv: I heard a vague story that he was already married with a family and was established in a career related to the music ; I like to imagine he was a pianist because I play the piano, but I really don’t know.
I asked my mother if this older brother had stayed in touch; she said for a while that he was sending letters, then they stopped coming. Did my father miss him? I couldn’t imagine asking my dad about him. My dad never talked about his first 11 years. It was as if they never happened, which was maybe what he wanted to believe. Indeed, it is hard to imagine my father, with his elegant and perfect English, in his neat suit and tie ready for work, or driving his DeSoto, in a dusty shtetl perhaps with hopping chickens.
At 21, I was planning my first trip to Europe. I asked my father, who seemed deeply indifferent to my plans, “Do you ever want to travel?” Like, you never want to go to Europe? “I went to Europe,” he said in a way that quickly silenced me. He was bitter. To send his five sons to a good school in kyiv, my Jewish grandfather had to pay four times the regular school fees for each, my mother told me. And, she said, boys had to wear a yellow star, which shocked me because I thought it started with Hitler, decades later. But in fact, the “badge”, as it was called, was born in the Middle Ages, in different shapes and colors.
Irrelevant, she added that my dad would never eat a banana because it wasn’t something he had known about since he was young. It was curious because in all the years since my dad emigrated when he was 11, he’s tried a lot of things he never encountered as a kid, like fried clams and lobsters, that he and I ate at Coney Island while my mother, who kept our house kosher, ran away to the mountains for the summer.
For a long time, after hearing about the war and the concentration camps (from books, not from my parents), I assumed that the Nazis must have thrown this older brother and his family into the Babi Yar ditch among 33 000 others, an incident made famous by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his 1961 poem protesting the Russian government’s refusal to recognize the act. But shortly before his death, my older sister, an occasional source of information, said she had heard that this brother and his family may have emigrated to Israel.
What was it, Babi Yar or Israel?
A few years ago, one of my father’s brothers made a family tree to give to the younger generation. From this tree I learned that my paternal grandfather, whom I had known as a shriveled old man walking around a three-room apartment in Brooklyn, who spoke no English but could read it, had once been a steward. from the estate of a Polish nobleman. . I don’t know if it was an important position or not much; everything I know about flight attendants comes from old novels or stories by Chekhov. I guess it depends on the size of the property. Did he oversee serfs, I wonder, like the serfs in Tolstoy’s stories?
From the family tree, I learned that my father’s mother’s maiden name, a small, wrinkled, gray-haired woman who smelled like rotten apples – not bad, kind of a sweet smell – was Nuzzi, a Italian name. As I always wanted to be Italian, I took this information with enthusiasm. Someone told me it was a name from northern Italy. I checked with Ancestry.com – only the possibility that I have Italian genes would make me spit in a tube and mail it – but it turned out there was nothing wrong. Italian in my DNA, only Eastern European heritage and a few remote percentages so small, I forgot them. I sometimes make up stories about how my grandmother came by this name.
I don’t remember his death, but I remember very well learning of my grandfather’s death. I was six years old and walked the five blocks to school with friends. I opened the front door and instead of finding my mother, I found my 17-year-old sister, fully dressed, her hair in a pompadour, sitting in a large throne-like chair with elaborate wooden carvings. , a chair facing me as I walked through the living room. She was sitting very still and dark. She had a sense of drama. “Zadie is dead,” she announced in a grim tone, and it was already clear to me how much she enjoyed the drama of the moment and the role assigned to her, being home when I returned from school and spread the news. It didn’t mean much to me – I knew Zadie as the stern old man who my mother said had been a harsh disciplinarian and had learned to read English by studying the New York Times. All I remember of her death is the image of my sister, majestic and funereal, occupying the big armchair as if she were royal.
I know even less about my mother’s parents, not even where they come from in Eastern Europe. I’m not sure my mother herself knew – she was one of the youngest children born here; for her, life began in the quiet of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. With no bitter history to bury or repress, she wasn’t as careful with information as my father. She said her father crossed the ocean on his own and settled in Manhattan with a handcart, selling old clothes, before sending for his wife and two daughters. While waiting to be summoned, my grandmother, a charismatic and enterprising woman, the one we call a force of nature, ran a hardware store wherever she came from. I would have liked to ask him about running the store, but although we communicated somehow using Yiddish and English, neither of us was fluent enough in the other language to discuss the intricacies of hardware trading.
When I was born, my maternal grandparents lived in a five-story brownstone in Brooklyn, with each of their four daughters and their families occupying one floor. How this family and others like them handled the preparations for the trip, the slowness of the airmail letters, the packing, getting the tickets, the journey to a seaport, is a mystery. Another mystery is how my grandfather went from a rickety handcart to this solid brown stone.
But the mystery that torments the most concerns my unknown uncle: Babi Yar or Israel?
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