Thursday, June 16, 2011

The story I know

This is the family history, on my father’s side, as I knew it, before starting this project.
My father was born to immigrant parents in the Lower East Side of New York. They were poor, and never really learned to speak English. My father remembers that their first apartment shared a hall bath with other families, and that he slept on the couch. I heard this story my whole childhood, until my aunt, hearing my father tell us (yet again, although apparently for the first time in her presence) about the couch, commented: “We didn’t have a couch.” “Then where did I sleep?” my Dad asked. She replied, “I don’t know. We had a chair, maybe you slept in the chair.”
My grandfather Moshe had been married once before. When his first child, my Aunt Sarah, was very little (2 or 3) he divorced her mother, because she was epileptic and he claimed not to have known this before the (arranged) marriage. She went back to her family’s village, and his family raised Sarah. Sometime after this, Moshe married my grandmother Chai Gittel. This was also an arranged marriage. The family story was that both were considered “damaged goods” – he because he was blind in one eye (and was divorced with a young child? this was never mentioned to us as a factor); she because she had been sick as a child and her hair had fallen out, although it later grew back (and also because her mother had died when she was a baby and her father became an alcoholic? This was also not mentioned). Moshe was a “restless sort” and left their town of Ostrowa Lubelski for America in 1914, leaving behind his wife, 5 year-old daughter and 2 infant sons. He promised he would send for the family soon, but World War I broke out and no one could leave. My grandmother endured horrible conditions during the war, including the death of her two small sons, who died of starvation. After the war, he was finally able to send for her, and she arrived in America in the early 1920’s. My aunt Sarah did not want to leave the family, and chose not to come to the US at this time. A few years later, at the age of 16, she changed her mind and joined her father and step-mother, although she never lived in the same house as them.  My aunt and father were born in New York City, the first Americans in our branch of the family.
On my father’s side, I grew up with two aunts and a few cousins. My paternal grandparents died before I was born. As far as I knew, they – and one of my grandfather’s cousins who escaped through the woods and joined the partisans - were the only family to escape the Holocaust, simply because they were already gone by then. “The letters stopped coming”, was what I remember hearing, and no one in the extended family was ever heard from again. I never thought to ask, “letters from who?” “When did they stop?” “Did the earlier letters describe what was happening?” Mostly, I was haunted by a sense of absence. We had little extended family, and I knew this was not a natural occurrence. But I never thought much about what was missing. Asking questions about the past led quickly to a very dark place, a place of deep mourning and sadness, but I never quite knew for what.

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