Family History

Last winter, in the context of talking about the endless ms. I’m working on about my father’s world, a friend told me about a memoir of a holocaust-era family history she’d picked up.  It was written by a Jewish fellow our age, who, like us, had grandparents who came to America shortly before the Nazis began their determined effort to cleanse the genetic pool of Jews.   

“That’s a nice way to put it,” said the skeleton of my father.  “Some very fine folks, among the Nazis, as your current president might say, very cultured, committed people.”

I’m trying to write like your New York Times. 

“Effort appreciated.” 

So she goes into the other room and brings me this book, a thick, glossy paperback, seemingly unread.  I tell her I’ll get it from the library and begin to jot down the title and author, but she insists I take her copy.  She tells me she’ll buy another.   We go back and forth a few times and I thank her and take the book.    I probably got as far reading it as she had, realized she’s probably not buying another copy.   Not that it was bad in any particular way, this search for answers about what happened to his relatives during the Nazi’s Thousand Year Reich.

“The Grey Lady is not snarky like that, Elie,” said the skeleton.   

Yeah, I know.  Too dignified and evenhanded to gratuitously mock fucking Nazis that way.  Anyway, the author of that book got a nice advance from a major publisher and went on a research trip back to the old country.  A different memoir than the one I’m working on, but related, in the search for what happened to a world that is gone.  As I read, one thing became clear at once and soon blinded me to whatever merits his book may have had.

His German-Jewish grandmother had not only been charming, talented, determined and ambitious — which could have been said of my Russian-Jewish grandmother — but also a woman of great refinement who forged great business success in America.  She founded a very lucrative business empire, an eventual multi-million dollar corporation that advertises its famous wares to this day.   Her children, who took over the business, were wealthy and her grandchildren were born set for life.   The author of the book gratefully acknowledges these things, as he sets about thanking his Ivy League friends and connections, including, one presumes, the good folks at the major publishing house.   

“I can see why your mouth began to fill with bile as you read that, Elie.   But such bitterness is beneath you, and irrelevant — plus, actually destructive of your purpose here,” said the skeleton.   “Even if you hadn’t fucked off in High School, gone to City College, even if you had a favorite chair at the Harvard Club, somehow I can’t see you hobnobbing and networking with the children and grandchildren, and in the case of the Harvard Club, great-great-great grandchildren of rich people anyway.”   

You’re probably right.   I’m still not 100% sure why I reacted that way.   I lost interest in his story when I found out I was reading a memoir not of my people, poor Jews who were simply disappeared without a trace, (the two or three survivors here acting brave, never talking about it, drinking vodka) but the story of striving, refined, gifted Jews who persevered, grew rich and conquered America.   The story of blessed winners living the American Dream, like the privileged Jared Kushner’s richly rewarded refugee grandparents.  What kind of story is the story of my impoverished, invisible Jewish ancestors?  What kind of fucking story?

“The story you write,” said the skeleton.  “The story you pull together out of these 1,200 pages, and the pages you haven’t written yet.  Our story will be the story you tell.  You’re telling it, how can you wonder what the story is?”

Hey, fuck off!  Easy for you to be a wise-ass.  Your talent for it when you were alive was only the fucking beginning, I see.

“Leave me out of this, and while you’re at it, take yourself out on a nice date, get lucky and go fuck yourself,” said the skeleton, turning away.  

My mother told me that her father’s family was fairly prosperous, they sold food to the goyim, they were wholesalers.  In fact, Pop’s childhood home was in town and became one end of the Jewish ghetto when the Nazis showed up and drew the boundaries for where the condemned would live. 

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I learned that detail recently.  It was a jolt seeing my great-grandfather’s house mentioned.   Nobody alive knows his name, or any detail about him.  There are not many traces of my family back there.  A publisher would be wasting money on that research trip.  Shards of bones, or the place near the ravine where the bone shards used to skitter, would be about all I could find of my people.

Maybe what stopped me from reading that book by the highly literate scion was the memory of a one-time friend of mine, born the favorite grandson of a very wealthy man.  An excellent writer, several years older than me, he’d expressed fascination about the ms. I was writing, the grappling with my difficult father’s complicated life.   I told him I’d love his feedback and he told me cheerfully to send him some of the recent pages. 

After I sent him a few samples to read I had only one direct response.  It was his favorite cartoon from the New Yorker.  A guy saying “I’ve never exactly had anything published, but I’ve had many of my works professionally typed,” or something equally droll.

This man always worked, and publishes short, well-crafted pieces occasionally (he’d been a journalist and later a well-paid freelance corporate writer).  His main livelihood in recent years coming from a series of low paid jobs.  Doing good work, helping the wretched of New York City for a few years as a JASA Adult Protective Services case worker, more recently helping striving immigrants master reading and writing English.   

When I mentioned being hurt by his lack of response to the pages I emailed him, he told me he did not specifically recall any pages, and was sure, by the way, that if I had sent him pages, he had almost certainly responded.   That there seemed to be no email with any response from him was a mystery, he conceded.   It wasn’t long before things took a decidedly ugly turn, with his eventual multi-part if-pology making things much worse.  I thought that his unyielding defensiveness had to do, somehow, with the twenty or thirty million he has tucked away, in unfathomable secrecy, as this salt of the earth man continues to work minimum wage jobs past the age of retirement. 

I’ve been realizing increasingly, as I write these pages, as the base side of human nature expresses itself worldwide in fresh paroxysms of rage, hatred and violence, as our corporate democracy is finally led by the very best that inherited wealth has to offer, that humans are, for the most part, irrational and insane. 

The wealthy are certainly not exempt from this plague of madness, even as many of them ‘walk around with their ass on their shoulder’ (as they used to say in Harlem), even if many, no doubt, truly believe that their excrement emits no foul odor (as the New York Times might phrase it).   

My favorite Yiddish curse lately is:  may you be very successful, may you grow very rich, may you build a house of a hundred rooms.  And may the devil chase you from room to room.   I have a very successful, rich friend (self-made wealth, baby) to whom (NYT style book) this very curse is currently happening.   It’s the damnedest thing, literally.   We can rarely escape, in our deepest recesses, the things we fear the most.     

Which is an essential part of this Book of Irv, I realize now.  For all his success, his unlikely comfortable middle class life, his education, wit, restless intellectual curiosity, his deeply held humanistic principles, my father, when he got home, was an infant fearfully waiting for his mother to fly into a rage and begin whipping him across the face with the heavy cord of her steam iron.   As John Sarno’s shrink helped him understand: the worst wounds endured in childhood are as raw today when probed as when they happened.  The subconscious has no sense of time passing.

 “Ain’t dassum shit….” said the skeleton. 

Hoy, listen, I’m sorry I lashed out at you before. 

Nay wahr-ries, mayyyt.  I’m beyond holding a grudge now.  Bunk dat shit, homey.   You certainly know that I am not the same person, now, that I was when I was alive and dreaded.   In fact, I’m not even the same person, or skeleton, if you want to be more precise, that you began talking to almost exactly two years ago.”

Ain’t dassum shit?


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