While the miracle of analyzing your DNA can inform you of the origins of your ancestry, it will not offer you much about what they experienced, what they thought, what they felt, learned or endured in their lifetimes. Historians surely understand the pangs of such a loss and must rely on those who bore witness and left their accounts for posterity to interpret.
As a fiction writer I often define my role as a historian of the imagined. I meld my experiences, conversations, memories, illusions, dreams, and observations to fit the parallel lives and stories of the characters I create. These stories come from the bits and pieces flowing in and out of the mysterious engine that is my subconscious mind. I feel certain that other fiction writers and those involved in artistic pursuits in other mediums will define their creative adventures in a somewhat similar vein.
As I grow older, I have discovered some missing links that I’m sure might have embellished my stories and widened their scope if only I had pursued them with more energy and diligence.
For example, I had the good fortune of knowing my grandparents on both sides for most of my early life. All four were immigrants fleeing persecution and seeking the promise of a better life.
My mother’s family came from a shtetl named Kozin which I later learned was about an hour’s drive from Kiev. My grandfather, as was the game plan for many immigrants in those days, came to America some years before his family to find work and save enough money to pay for a steerage passage to join him. By then, my grandmother had borne six children including my mother, who was three at the time of the crossing. Two of her siblings were born after the family was united with my grandfather on American soil.
Beyond that I know little else of their early history. By the time I was born, my uncles had bought my grandparents a small attached house in Brownsville then a Jewish enclave in Brooklyn that was to serve as a refuge for those in the family who, like my parents, were hit hard by the Great Depression.
Prominently exhibited in that house were three large photographs of bearded men in gold painted frames. I was told they were relatives who stayed in the old country. No one informed me who they were or ever told me their names or backgrounds. Nor did I ask. They were simply there, part of the decor.
In fact, I knew almost nothing of my grandparent’s lives in Kozin, imagining later that they lived as recorded by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem whose stories formed the basis for the great musical Fiddler on the Roof. I can’t imagine why I never asked about their early history. Although they spoke Yiddish I knew enough of that language and could have learned more from the many English speakers among my relatives.
I keep wondering why they never talked about their early years in my presence and I deeply regret never pressing them to reveal their history. Think of what was lost. I could have learned what it was like to grow up in a village like Kozin: what it looked like, sounded like, felt like, smelled like. The questions have piled up over the years with the loss of face-to-face information by living witnesses becoming an increasingly disturbing missing link to my past.
What were their living quarters like? What did they eat? How did they make their living? What were the rituals of daily life? Did they fall in love or were their marriages arranged? What were their clothes like? What did my grandfather do for a living? How did they manage to survive the many pogroms? What books did they read? What were the seasons like? How were they schooled? Who were their neighbors? How did they manage when the head of the house left the family for America?
What did my grandfather do when he came to America? Was he lonely? How did he cope? What was it like for my grandmother sailing steerage across the Atlantic with six children in tow? Were the conditions sanitary? What made them laugh? How did they survive hatred, violence, and bias? How did they cope with their first days in a strange land? How did it differ from what was portrayed in popular culture? What were their dreams for themselves and their children? What were their parents like? How many siblings did they have? Did any die in infancy? What were their fears, their joys, their struggles? As time goes on the questions keep coming. Questions that I think arise in many children of immigrants. The regrets are magnified and the answers are lost forever.
Worse, my own parents rarely talked about their early lives and when they did it was sketchy—the memories of past loss, I suppose, are devastating to the well-being of the present and greatly inhibit their retelling. I am not even certain my mother, who was quite brilliant and a dedicated novel reader, ever graduated from high school.
My father’s family came from Poland, but migrated to London when my father was a few months old. Of that history, too, I am bereft, although my father who arrived in America when he was ten would wax nostalgic about his early days in London’s East End, but it was always devoid of details. He never went back.
Unfortunately, he was a low-end bookkeeper and I suspect he learned his trade in business school and again I never inquired if he ever graduated from high school. I feel certain now that he didn’t. The Great Depression sentenced him to years of unemployment and dependency on family support. To take government help or “relief,” as it was called in those days, was for him the ultimate humiliation and he never resorted to that.
He did tell me that when his family came to America they lived in the crowded Lower East Side. Again I never learned anything from his mother or father about their early lives in Poland and England nor did I get much background of his early life from he himself. About the only clue I ever got of that experience was his obsession with hot water. Long into my forties he was always asking if I had enough hot water.
Again, the questions pile up, never to be answered. What was it like to grow up in the East End of London? Who were my father’s school chums? What was their housing like? What did he wear? Did he talk like a Cockney as a child? Who were his teachers? What did he read?
I knew my grandfather was a tailor. Where did he work? Why did he move from England to America? Did he ever see the King? Ever get to see Buckingham Palace? Take the double-decker bus? Eat fish and chips? See Winston Churchill? Ride the London subways? Visit Hyde Park? What games did he play? What was their journey over the ocean like? Surely, they must have gone steerage. Did a number of relatives stay in Poland? Did they survive the Holocaust? Deep in my memory is some vague information that my grandfather was once a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army. What did he do? Was he in the First World War?
As I enter what I believe to be the final chapter of my fiction writing career, I feel a kind of greed and hunger for this information, for new ideas.
I can see the motives of my grandparents in the pained faces of the Syrian refugees fleeing from chaos, and can imagine the pain it must cause to rip one’s life from the soil hallowed by centuries of ancestral habitation.
Despite this exercise in what might be mere psychobabble, I continue to blame myself for not forcing them to tell me the story of their early lives. Like any historian I could easily research information about what it was like for people like my parents and grandparents to live in those long-ago times, but nothing could ever replace their face-to-face recounting, their reactive voices, their facial expressions, their body language, the emotions their stories would release.
As for my own contribution to allow these missing links to prevail, perhaps I was too busy and overwhelmed by the events in my own young life to inquire about the past. Perhaps it was the impetus and aggressiveness of American culture in that moment in time which insisted that we children of immigrants become fiercely dedicated Americans in our hearts and minds and never look back.
These missing pieces are what, upon reflection, might have triggered my imagination to compose other novels and stories and broadened my creative pallet. Such knowledge would have enhanced my understanding of the human adventure and its perils. As I continue to write today, it becomes clearer to me that there is indeed a method to that wise and enduring expression that “what’s past is prologue.”
Photographs provided courtesy of author.