Sunday, May 13, 2012

800 Words: Family Memory

My cousin Joe died last week, he was 84, and was one of those old men with a memory like a 25-volume encyclopedia. At my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, he gave a toast and reminisced how he’d grown up thinking it normal for family members to assemble from around the world for special events. He recalled his own grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary in 1938, for which all his mothers’ relatives descended on the Bronx from around the East Coast. At my cousin David’s bar-mitzvah, he explained that there were four full generations of family members had assembled in that room from all around the country, and of how many other Jewish families could that be said? With his passing probably passed a century and a half’s worth of details and lore about family members, many of which are now probably irretrievable.  I’d already sat down with many other old family members, some older than Joe, trying to piece together as much of the ancient family lore as possible.  But Joe was the family ‘historian’, I’d figured we had more time, because everybody assumes that a burly octogenarian with a heart condition will be around for whenever it’s convenient.

(Tokyo Story. The greatest movie ever made about family)

History is clearly an anti-semite. People of most European nationalities can trace their genealogy back nearly a thousand years, and I don’t doubt many Asian nationalities can do the same. But Jews have not yet lived in any country which thought it important enough to keep reliable public records of what Jews used to lived there. Much of the culture which Jews left behind died whenever the Jewish culture was eradicated, and the memories of what was left behind too painful for many of its survivors to recount.

And so another part of the family chapter closes, and perhaps it didn’t need to be closed. There are all sorts of relatives of a former time of whom I know nothing, nothing more than names and occasional pictures. On my Mom’s side, I know that my great-grandfather Abraham Katz was apparently drafted into the Czarist Army, and he never become a Rabbi because the family which hosted him while he studied at Yeshiva let him starve half to death. But I know that my great-grandfather had at least three brothers and sisters, and know nothing about them – perhaps their stories are just as dramatic and fascinating. I know that there were great political fights in my maternal grandfather Morris Witow family, long before my grandfather and uncle became neoconservatives. Apparently his father, Henry Witow, refused a promotion to Forman because he believed so deeply in the socialist cause. Apparently there were huge fights between Henry Witow and his cousins about whether Communism or Socialism was the true way to the worker’s paradise. But we know very little about who marched for what cause, and even less about the inevitable trouble it must have brought them all. We know that my grandmother’s grandfather, Yehuda Leib Gordon, was one of the Lubavich community’s pillars, chosen  to be one of the men who greeted the Lubavicher Rebbi at the dock of New York Harbor when he fled the European wars to be an American immigrant. But what did he do to deserve such an honor?

But such questions are positively insignificant compared to the ones posed in my father’s family. The name ‘Tucker’ comes from Ellis Island, before my grandparents came to America in 1947, their name was ‘Ticoczki’, which was itself a changed name so as to minimize the chances that my grandfather would not be drafted into the Czarist army for 25 years when he was 8 (as was often the policy in Czarist Russia towards Jewish children). My grandmother’s uncle was drafted into the White Army during the Russian Civil War, and was summarily shot because as a poor Yeshiva student, he could not keep up with their 10-mile marches. Even before it was Ticoczki, my grandfather’s last name was ‘Charlap’, which truly means ‘The great scholar of Poland.’ We have no idea how our family got this name, or even if it’s a title of honor (somehow, the idea of some family member being extremely smart for a Polish guy doesn’t fill me with confidence). My grandmother had six brothers and sisters who survived into adulthood, all of whom made it out of Europe before the Holocaust except for the two youngest, my Bubbe, Chava Ticoczki (later Eva Tucker) and her sister Rachel Slodka, who still lived in Poland with their mother, Miriam Slodka. My grandparents were apparently visiting my Bubbe’s mother and were apparently walking through the town along with Rachel when the order came for all the Jews to be assembled in the town square and shot – the three of them went into hiding while their mother was massacred with the town’s other Jews. Along with my grandparents, Rachel survived in hiding for four years in the woods and a Polish barn on a steady diet of raw potatoes. As she, like me, had red hair, it was her who would have to go into towns if there was ever arrangements for safety that needed to be made. After the war, all three went back to my grandfather’s hometown of Bransk, where 37 Jews survived out of the 3,000 who lived there pre-war. My grandparents had a child in hiding, whom they gave to a convent for the war’s duration. When the war was over, they took their child, Tzipporah (Faygaleh), and as my grandfather led the Rosh Hashana service, he held his daughter in his arms – seemingly the only Jewish family to survive the war years entirely intact. By Yom Kippur, Tzipporah Ticoczcki was dead from typhus. Shortly thereafter, insurrection broke out between the Poles and the Soviet occupiers. Apparently my Great-Aunt Rachel was caught in a crossfire and died from a bullet to her back. But given the documented brutality of both the Soviet army and the Polish insurrection during that period, there’s a part of me which doubts that her death was nearly so ungrisly.

These are just some of the stories of the people in my father’s family whom we know. We know extremely little about my grandfather’s older sister Chaya, who had children herself – all of whom we can only assume perished in the gas chambers of the Easternmost death camp, Treblinka. We don’t even have pictures of my grandfather’s parents, and while we know that a uncle or two made it to New York, we know absolutely nothing of his descendents, nor do we know anything of the ones who remained behind.

Instead, we now have a comparatively comfortable family whose remnants are now spread all around the world, with known branches in America, Israel, Argentina, Lithuania, Sweden, Uruguay and Costa Rica (I’m probably forgetting a few). At family simchas it’s not uncommon to have English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, and Spanish going around the table simultaneously. Aside from some funny stories, what there is to remember is comparatively unexciting.

I do subscribe to the idea that blood is thicker than water, though not necessarily in the way which other people do. Whether we feel bonded to our families or we don’t (and occasionally we all don’t), they are what defines every aspect of our lives, before and after any other variable. Their involvement in us, or their lack thereof, is precisely where each of us begins our lives – and we spend our remaining years in an attempt to rebalance the equation we inherited – an equation which nobody gets perfectly right. But from generation to generation, variable to variable, the equation's answer always changes, and every decision we make is 99.9% based on whatever aspects of life which our family’s situation has allowed us to experience - right down to the friends we make that give us what we lack in family life. Whether we love or don’t our families (and I certainly do), they are inescapable, and the farther one runs away from them, the more opportunity one has to become a slave to their pathologies – repeating a previous generation’s mistakes without even being aware of doing so, and lacking any precedent to examine a similar problem in a previous generation's life so we might have a better chance at finding a remedy when we arrive at the same impasse.

In my family’s case, History didn’t end, it just took a break. And when it starts up again, it will uproot these branches of our family just as it did previous ones – and as it has before, circumstances will scatter our family, perhaps even break most of it. And when History takes another break, our descendents will struggle to recover what’s left over so that they too might find out how they became who they were just as we struggle with that question in our own day. Hopefully, they’ll realize how important it is to talk to the people who would know before I did.  

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