A few years ago, I stood in front of a small group of people in an attic space in the heart of Amsterdam. I was telling the people gathered for an afternoon of storytelling about the day my six year old grandmother learned that her family was about to move to the United States. I was using her words and her rhythm of speech. My grandmother was six and was in the market with her good friend, also six, when strangers attacked the shtetl where she was born. They set angry pigs loose in the streets, killing her friend right in front of her. My grandmother was unharmed. When she returned home, her mother looked at her and said: “Dina, it’s time we moved to America.”
Any adult hearing this story immediately understands that it is a tragedy and not a comedy. Yet I was a child of six the first time I heard it, and it sounded like a joke to me. It had the rhythm of comedy. The understatement, the lack of drama, everything made it seem like a joke. The humor is what I held on to for decades. I knew there was a happy ending to all this because I was an American child with a grandmother who was funny, warm, and enduringly optimistic. I was not afraid for my life and had never experienced antisemitic violence.
In Amsterdam, however, something fundamentally changed inside of me. The people in the attic space were all immigrants and refugees. That hadn’t been planned. It was an accident. As I told the story, I was overwhelmed with the pain and the trauma of the familiar words. I watched as everyone in the room recognized themselves in the story. Their eyes filled with tears. My voice caught in my throat and all of a sudden, I was six years old, uprooted, traveling to an unknown destination. I was on a crowded boat, hungry and desperate.
I started to think of that particular moment in time, when the borders of nations were fluid and before Europe’s wars became unimaginably calamitous. I had always joked that I was lucky to have my roots in a place where the dangers of antisemitism were apparent early on. My relatives were lucky to have made the journey to North America when immigration was open.
As I began contemplating this history, Europe brimmed with stories of the “refugee crisis.” Xenophobic public figures demonized the people fleeing their homelands. They shared pictures of young dark haired Middle Eastern men walking together in large groups. “Where are the women?” They asked rhetorically. “Where are the children?”
When I found some of the entry documents from my own family, I had the opposite question: where were the men? All four of my grandparents accompanied their mothers on the journey to America: from Lithuania, Romania, Poland, and Austria. Think of what it must have been like for those mothers bringing a slew of children first across Europe to a port in Hamburg or Rotterdam, and then on the long sea journey to the US. For the first time I realized that they left their own mothers and fathers behind, never to be seen again. The families would have had little food, little access to sanitary facilities, and very little fresh water. These women must have been tough and brave and desperate.
Lucky me, to be the grandchild of the desperate.
Just a few years after the last of my grandparents arrived, the US border would be closed. The influence of the fledgling eugenics movement in both the United States and in Germany would increase. Jews would be seen as mongrels, dirty, and seditious. And things would get a lot worse.
For everyone. Everyone knows this.
I dug deeper. It turns out that Nazi death squads and Lithuanian collaborators marched those who remained in my grandfather’s shtetl into the woods and shot them. Children. Old People. Men. Women. Everyone.
The Jerusalem of the North
Just four hours south of the shtetl was the capital of diaspora Jewish life, Vilnius. Its population was 45% Jewish with over one hundred synagogues and was known as the Jerusalem of the West. Its Yiddish library was filled with over one hundred thousand texts and even included translations of Arthur Conan Doyle. This was a culture that was alive, thriving, and fearless well after so many of the Jews living in the countryside had taken a chance on a new life across the ocean to the west.
I had always imagined unceasing misery, punctuated with humor, creativity, and sarcasm. I had never imagined a life fearlessly led or a culture so fearlessly dominant.
This made me wonder about the years before the genocide when people could not imagine what was coming because it was unimaginable. The fundamental questions I’m asking in the book I am writing are these: what would it be like to be Jewish without the Holocaust? And what does it mean to know what’s coming and to be unable to change it?
A couple of articles:
This past year I received feedback from about 30 non-Native Dutch residents about their experiences with the Dutch way of welcoming Santa. The article based on their responses was published on Global Voices: How do non-native residents of the Netherlands view Zwarte Piet, St. Nicholas’ blackface servant?
Like many of you, I was overwhelmed by the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. I had much of the same despair as when African American worshippers in Charleston were attacked. I reread my own article, A Home Safe From Fear: My American Dream.
What I’ve been reading:
I learned so many fundamental things about what it means to be a family from Karen Joy Fowler’s book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It was a revelation. Please don’t find out anything about it before reading it. You’re welcome.
I also loved the Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra.
And horror stories! I’m a wimp, but I still love a good horror story. I collected some of my faves available online in this twitter thread: https://twitter.com/ETori/status/1052817649044836352
Dear Beloved by Sumita Chakraboty explores the pain of losing a sister suddenly and forever. It touched me deeply.
Podcasts, lectures, and music
Check out Jewish History Matters: Roundtable on the Attack in Pittsburgh with Lila Corwin Berman, Maja Gildin Zuckerman, and Jacob Labendz.
Rabbi Ruti Regan talks about why Judaism is so autism-friendly: “We are a wonderfully autistic people,” she says: https://youtu.be/qocZbokOgag
Finally Nina Simone’s Pastel Blues has been on repeat this past week. What an album!
Featured photo at the top of the post from a Jewish wedding in Ushpol from the site https://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/dusetos/dus092.html