Monday, August 16, 2010

The Old Country

So, people have been wondering where I haver been and what could be so important that I neglected this blog that I am too busy to pop in and sit down for a while and catch up and have a nice visit.  Would it be to much ask, they say, to at least let us know that I wasn't dead?  Get off my back already!

Truth be told I have been working my father's family genealogy, which is the Jewish side of the family.  So excuse me for caring...all right, already!

For many years the family kennel papers were the province of my Aunt Nan.  Nan guarded the family history like it was some sort of treasure map and questions were simply brushed off when you asked a question.  "I don't know honey its in the back room behind some stuff and why ruin a nice visit with that?"  It was as if the genealogy was something that Bronte wrote and was keep in the back under lock and key least it get out and reveal itself to be a pathetic sibling with a physical or mental deformity.

But when you would ask for the genealogy - in total - that was a different story - it bordered on a production. 

"We are descended from German royalty..." she would begin, and from there things got weird.  She would never answer what royal family, but it was there because someone allegedly had a "Von Kise" in front of their surname, which when translated means "The Cheese".

"If," we would ask, "we were German Royalty, how did we end up as Jewish peasants living in Dvinsk?"

Nan would turn pale and simply say "I'll get to that," and then change the story to how Grandpa left the "Old Country" to keep from being conscripted into the Tsar's army.  That was another thing, until were about ten or eleven, we thought that our grandparents were residents of a place named "the Old Country" and it wasn't until we tried to find it on the globe that we got suspicious.  Our first inkling that something was up was asking the librarian at school to show us the "Old Country" on a map.

"Which one?" she replied.

There was more than one?  "Many families," she explained, "refer to the country of their origin as the Old Country.  So you need to ask your parents where they are from."  So this meant going back to my Aunt Nan, who would clutch her heart and turn pale.

"Why does Aunt Nan not want to talk about life in the Old Country, or even tell what the name of the old country is?" I asked my father. 

"Because your Aunt's old country is a E 140th and Kinsman Road.  Look, she never lived in Europe.  She's like me - whole life in Cleveland.  Go ask your grandparents."

Asking my grandparents was meant getting an answer in Yiddish, and that meant Aunt Nan translating and that meant drama.  "You shouldn't have asked your Grandmother," Nan would say sweetly, "she's trying to forget."

"What?" I asked.

"The Cossacks, the feminines - everything," Nan would say.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because.  Let's not ruin a nice visit, OK?"

Why was she trying to forget feminines?  Were they a people?  Or did she meant 'famines'?  Now I was really confused.

"Sweetie," Nan would say, "Go ask your father."

So for years Aunt was the gate keeper of the family's murky past.  For a first generation Jew, assimilating into society was a high asperation; forgeting the Old Country was like a step needed to accomplish full American citizenship.  Being "Jewish" replaced our family history.  In subtle ways, the existence of the Old Country smothered by the existence of Isreal.  I think that they were ashamed of coming from Russia, which back then was the enemy of the U.S. sealed off from the world by an iron cutain.  But Isreal was free, and people were building things and growing things.  So the family history became something like "We were in Isreal, then we got shlepped someplace miserable, and then we came to America.  All that matters is Isreal and the U.S.!  And while you are at it, consider Golda Mier as a loving aunt because we're all related."

But its hard to be a member of a universal family when you have questions about your blood kin. But its hard to get a family to rever its past when everyone is trying their hardest to cover it up. And as the family grew, and having no common connectors, we drifted apart. 

By the time Nan died, the interest in the family had evaporated.  Years of stalling our questions had taken its toll.  When she died, her notes and box of things passed to my eldest cousin, who continued the family tradition of writing everything down but not wanting to share it "quite just yet" as she was still working on things.

And when my cousin passed, the stuff sat in a box at another cousin's house and she tried sorting it out, but grew frustrated and set it aside.  Finally, about a week ago I took the jump and started going through the hodge podge of documents.

So I have been sorting through reams of papers, multiple handwritten copies of this that and everything.  Two cartons worth of "stuff", but no documentation, no dates, just names, death notices clipped from newspapers with no references as to where they were or what date they happened.

And the printed emails - OY!  Hundred of emails between her and other people, none of which answered any questions for us.  Reading the exchanges between the parties was like watching Dark Shadows - a show noted for lots of talking and very little action. 

In an email from my cousin to another distant cousin (with whom no relationship has even been documented) there were exchanges like:

Cousin: "I know it must be difficult, but do you remember someone named Merka who died in a small town in Lithuaina?"

Other Person: "Yes, I remember her, but its been so long ago and I only knew her through stories.  I forget her last name, but he son lives in the midwest and drives a cab.  Perhaps because of the tragedy in Latvia."

Cousin: "Yes, my mother spoke of the tragedy and it sounded like a horrific event. He must be a nomad and thats why he drives a cab, to wander.  But wasn't it in Lithuania?"

Other Person: "That I would never forget. Perhaps it could have been is Estonia, the borders are so fluid, but it doesn't ring a bell. A second cousin of their's lives in Bellingham, Washington. His wife is a Catholic. Such heartbreak."

They can remember Bellingham Washington, but not the name of the person in the tragedy?


So that, dear ones is where I have been and what I have been doing.  More later.


  1. If you find more snippets or gems, I hope you'll scan them for us.

  2. It's funny how by the 3rd generation of immigrant stock we're all descended from royalty. My mother's side would say they were from Polish royalty in Krakow - if there ever was such a thing, and my father's side says my great grandfather was in the Kaiser's court. Most likely mopping it, I think, until he got a little too friendly with ladies in waiting and bid an encouraged retreat to Pennsylvania.

  3. My ancestor on my father's side is credited with introducing the concept of slavery to England.

    My mother's side is all horse thieves.

    Of course I like my mother's side best.

  4. The one commonality between my father's side and mt mother's side - which is lousy with Revolutionary War soldiers fighting for the colonies - is a distaste for royalty.

    So of course, where the two sides meet, I turn out to the big old Queen. The irony isn't lost on me.