The only thing I know about these family members (at least I think they’re family members, I found these four photos dated 1927 to 1938 in a shoebox of black and white photos after my father died) is that every one of them who was alive in November 1942 was definitely dead by the end of November 1942. I am awaiting translations of the inscriptions on the back of each, written in various Yiddish handwritings, as undecipherable as cuneiform to me. The translations will hopefully give a clue or two about who each person was.
All dead in a massive international pogrom, victims of one of the countless mass killings in those crazy days when Nazis occupied virtually all of Europe. Incidents of mass murder sadly consistent through the ages, continuing as we speak. Yesterday there was a similar massacre in Mali, over a hundred slaughtered.
The expressions on these faces seem to ask “how many American school children are taught about the two day Tulsa, Oklahoma pogrom of 1921?”
A “racial” massacre perpetrated by enraged racists, like so many others over the years, approved by local law enforcement. Like all others done by our countrymen it has been erased from collective memory (such as it is here) because, well, it does tend to make America look like the same kind of barbaric shithole that Belarus was for Jews back in those dark hopeless days. Like every other place where mass killing is winked at by the authorities, for a time.
My grandfather, who my sister and I always called Pop, was a physically strong man. Trim and powerful into his eightieth (and last) year, his large hands could open any jar easily and he could show you his strength whenever you asked him to, just by squeezing your hand. Those big hands were always very gentle whenever they touched my sister or me, he never hurt us for more than a second, to make his point when we pressed him. When we asked Pop if he was always strong he’d tell us about his youth back in Russia.
“They couldn’t put a finger on me!” he’d often say gruffly, meaning the many local Ukrainians, the goyim who periodically went nuts and started beating and raping Jews. He got along with the goyim, he told us, would take a wagon out to their farms and deliver goods, and he’d drink with them. He dressed like a Russian, he had blonde hair and pale blue eyes, he looked Russian. They respected him. More on this later.
The one story that stayed with me, and will stand in for all others, was about the time the wagon Pop was driving, a horse drawn flatbed that carried groceries out to the surrounding farms, broke a wheel. To replace the wheel they needed to jack up the wagon, prop it aloft for as long as it took to do the work. They were in the middle of nowhere when the wheel shattered and they had no way to prop the wagon up while the work was done. So Pop lifted the wagon off the ground on the side with the broken wheel. He held it up on his shoulder until his companion pulled off the broken wheel and replaced it with a good one. Then they went on their way. All in a day’s work for Pop. To hear Pop talk about his youth, he was one strong, silent, tough young Jew.
One night when my sister and I were quite young Pop babysat for us. We were older than babies, probably six and four, or maybe eight and six, but that’s always the word that’s used, isn’t it, babysit? Pop was in the kitchen, right next to the dining room, and my sister and I began to argue in the dining room. Things escalated quickly. Pop came out to intervene just as I grabbed my sister by the neck and started choking her. (My sister usually did just fine in physical and psychological battles, no worries, gentle reader). I don’t remember Pop putting a hand on either of us to separate us, I think it was his pure horror that made me drop my hands, made my sister and I instantly stop fighting.
Pop was so upset he retreated to the kitchen and started throwing up in the kitchen sink. My sister and I felt so bad we left the rest of our fight for the next time. There would always be time to continue our intermittent war, I guess we both reasoned, we were concerned about Pop who couldn’t seem to stop crying.
Many years later my sister and I were having lunch with Pop in the apartment in Miami Beach. Our grandmother had just narrated how Pop had gone next door to talk to their neighbor, a tough-talking old Jew both of them suspected (possibly because he always bragged about it) had been a Jewish gangster in his earlier years in Brooklyn . When the guy didn’t answer the door, and Pop could see him through the screen door, sitting in his usual chair, Pop tried the door, found it open and walked in. He found the neighbor dead.
“Wow, Pop, you must have been shocked. Weren’t you scared, standing there next to your friend’s dead body?” my sister asked.
Pop scoffed. “A dead man, to me?” he said, and flipped the cloth napkin on the table with the back of his hand. My feelings about a dead man, his gesture said, are not even worth the couple of words it would take to dismiss them.
I knew, even as a boy, that “one day the letters from Europe just stopped coming”. The coins Pop’s father sent to my mother, and the Russian stamps, stopped in 1942, when my mother was 14. She used to practice her Yiddish writing to the grandfather she’d never meet. Nobody would ever meet him.
Along with the rest of Pop’s family the old man was marched (if he’d survived the privations of a year of hellish ghetto life– his home had been designated the eastern edge of the ghetto), by local Ukrainian goyim who couldn’t put a finger on Pop, supervised by Nazis who regarded Jews as dangerous, gigantic insects, to a ravine on the northwestern edge of town.
Eyewitnesses describe the ravine, raked in preparation by local Ukrainians, the softened earth waiting to receive layer after layer of dead Jews. I have read the chilling testimony, by those who saw the execution and somehow lived to talk about it. Fragments of bone from this killing place blow in the wind to this day, skitter across the dry ground, according to someone who visited and wrote about the town for the New York Times not long ago.
I never wondered, once I learned, as a boy, that the rest of Pop’s family (but for one I learned about recently, apparently as strong and tough as Pop, who survived the war in a series of harrowing Russian prison camps after being accused of disloyalty as a draftee in the Red Army) had been made to vanish, how somebody as strong as Pop could be so full of fear, and sometimes prejudice. They hadn’t put a finger on him in Russia, perhaps, but that was as much pure, dumb luck as anything about Pop’s impressive physical strength.
My grandfather, Pop, was totally against the idea of having a dog in the apartment. He wanted nothing to do with it. My grandmother, on the other hand, pined for an affectionate little companion to sit on her lap. I suspect now that some of this pining had to do with her lifelong sorrow about the loss of a loving little pet when she was a girl.
One of the few stories I remember from her childhood, most of which were fond and anodyne (you’d never suspect, from her cheerful stories, that she grew up in a region where Jews were routinely beaten, robbed, sexually abused) was about a kitten. She was a little girl and she had a beautiful little kitten that loved her and that she adored. She slept with the tiny cat in her arms and woke up, to her horror, next to the tiny corpse of the kitten she had accidentally suffocated in her sleep. A terrible, terrible story, even if we can call it a drop in the bucket next to what happened a few decades later to everyone else she ever loved in that accursed Ukrainian town she came from.
She wanted a Chihuahua, a small dog, perfect for a one bedroom apartment. My mother took her shopping and she found a Chihuahua that she instantly fell in love with. She bought it and named the fawn colored little dog Bunny. Pop, who had made his wishes plainly known, was furious when he got the news. He left the apartment and rode the subways all night long, never coming back the first night Bunny was in the house.
When he got home the next day the little dog approached him and, seeing his resistance, determined (in a way well known to animal lovers) to make him her’s. She sat in front of him asking to come up on his lap. He resisted, but eventually took persistent little Bunny on to his lap. She never left. Everywhere Pop sat, Bunny would be next to him or on his lap. It quickly blossomed into a full fledged love affair.
My grandmother was, understandably, upset by this quick betrayal by her new pet. I recall her, many times, sitting with Bunny on her lap, happily petting the little dog, and my grandfather walking into the room. Bunny would immediately indicate that she wanted to go to Pop. My grandmother would struggle with the little dog “stay, mommy, stay, stay…” she would say as Bunny wriggled out of her grasp and went directly to Pop. He’d shrug and pick Bunny up and my grandmother would fume.
My grandparents slept in twin beds. I don’t need to say which bed Bunny slept in. Pop reported that the tiny dog was a prodigious bed hog. Every time Pop rolled over, the dog would stretch her tiny legs and occupy more and more territory. Pop sometimes found himself pushed to the very edge of his own bed by the luxuriating Chihuahua. I asked him if he pushed her over to make room for himself. He smiled.
“I give her a futz, and she runs,” he reported. Bunny, apparently, didn’t like being farted on any more than the rest of us do.
There is no real reason to add this detail, outside of my lifelong mania for the entire, truthful story, as accurate as I can get it. When Bunny died my grandparents quickly got another Chihuahua. The second puppy was sickly, had terrible diarrhea, and they brought it back after a day or two. They brought home a healthy little male puppy that they named Bunny. Vu den? It was this second Bunny who Pop reported his sleeping war with. What he actually said was “I give him a futz, and he runs!”
The second Bunny loved Pop too. He also liked to get me to chase him around the apartment. He was impossible to catch. Bunny was agile, quick and nimble. He was also small enough to get everywhere. One day I feinted one way and managed to corner him behind an easy chair he couldn’t crawl under. I reached down to pick him up and he sunk his teeth into my hand. I loudly complained (though he didn’t do any damage).
“Sure he bit you, ” Pop piped up, immediately defending the little biting bastard, “I’d bite you too, you trapped him!”
I recall telling Pop I’d prefer to be bitten by him, and his dentures, that Bunny’s teeth were as sharp as needles. He continued to insist that it was my own fault, trying to trap the poor little dog who just wanted to play. How far he’d come from that long night riding the subways in protest of a dog in the apartment!
I had a thought the other day about my massive on-line manuscript for the book about my father — write a detailed, sanitized version that gives only the many reasons to like and admire the man, as a preface to the whole deeper portrait. Write the anodyne account, the one anyone could read with no fear of being confronted by anything unsettling or upsetting. No harm in that.
The original first draft of the manuscript included everything I could remember about my father and his life, the noble things he did and the traumatic harm he also perpetrated — along with the unspeakably terrible details of the horrific childhood he survived. I conducted a two year-long interview with my dead father (seriously) to help me speculate about things I knew almost nothing about — for example, a black and white photo, taken some time after World War II, of him looking happier than I’d ever seen him. To my amazement some of the things my father’s skeleton “told me” took me by surprise. These revelations, spoken to me in his voice, furthered my understanding and changed my evolving view of this complicated and challenging person, dead now fourteen years.
People who loved my father could easily have been horrified, on his behalf, at my first draft’s open recitation of some monstrous behavior, always done in the privacy of his family home. Airing this kind of “dirty laundry” is generally frowned upon. Every family has it, it always stinks, why wave it around? Nobody wants that. Unless, of course, you are determined to understand the forces that shaped your own challenges.
I realized the other day that it’s possible, perhaps even desirable, to write an andoyne version of my father and his life — one that shows only the many good sides of my complicated old man, only hinting at the understandable human foibles that we, all of us, are subject to. Picture reading the inspirational story of a person born into unimaginably desperate circumstances who simply would not allow the past to hold him down. Someone imbued by the privations he suffered for the first eighteen years of his life with a hunger for justice, a better world for everybody. A man intimately connected to a sometimes terrible history, who did not shrink from doing all he could to help bend the moral arch of history towards justice.
As any writer who seeks to seduce a reader knows, we must draw the reader over to our point of view by giving her (at least at first) treats she can readily chew on and digest. My father was funny, clearly very bright, an idealist. You see, here he is again being bravely idealistic, pelted with rotten vegetables as he speaks to New York City parents and teachers about the importance of de-segregating the schools in the mid-1950s. Here’s a throw away line of his that always got a chuckle. Look how tender he always was with animals, how playful with little dogs and young children alike! Now we’re talking.
Fortunately for Hal, who’d had a novel published to good reviews when he was fresh out of college, he came of age in an era when such things could be parlayed into a comfortable life. Hal was a tenured professor of fiction writing by the age of thirty-two and never had to worry about making a living after that.
When Hal’s father died, Hal got drunk. He got the news from his sister, who’d been at the hospital when their angry, hopeless father breathed his last. The old man was pissed off that Hal couldn’t make it back to the hospital to say goodbye one last time. Hal had been at the hospital all day, went home to make dinner for his daughter, and his father was bitter about that last bit too, according to his sister, who had no reason to lie.
Hal told his sister he’d see her the next morning and went into the kitchen where he kept the Scotch. He drank a good deal of that fine single malt, which the label said had been aged in a sherry cask. The warm feeling came over him. He sat quietly at the kitchen table, in a comfortable chair that could tilt any way he leaned.
When Hal’s daughter came in, her father was already drunk, that familiar blank look on his face. He changed his facial expression slightly as she came into view, but the effect wasn’t exactly a smile. She already knew that grandpa was finally gone. She’d had the text from her aunt. She went into her room, locked the door, and a few moments later, tweeted that she was going to kill herself.
“This is your autobiography, Al,” his friend Tova told him, walking in through the back door, gesturing toward the bottle, the daughter’s locked door. “As you have been telling your students for decades, even back when you were still writing, ‘all good writing is autobiography’.”
“Yeah, yeah. I was full of shit,” said Hal. “All bad writing is also autobiography. A meaningless cliche, like all the other ones in the vast imaginary forests of bullshit. Vanity. What the fuck was I thinking?”
“You made a good living,” Tova said.
“Yes, there was that,” Hal said.
Tova had a notification from her phone. She read the screen. “You’d better call David, your daughter is going to kill herself.”
David was still seven hours away, driving through the foggy night from upstate. Even in good conditions, it was a long and tedious drive. David was the only person who could talk to Debbie in a way that made any sense to her.
Hal found himself thinking of the family roots. His father had been the last of thirteen children, from some benighted hamlet in Poland nobody had ever bothered to put on a map. Just as well, everybody there was dead, murdered one chilly afternoon in 1943, by people smelling of vodka. Hal’s father was in the United States twenty years by then, the only one. Nobody had a crystal ball, or the money to consult one, otherwise they all would have tried to come to America before that madman marshaled an army of murderous zombies.
“Look, Hal,” Tova said, as she had many times, “I’m sorry you came from such a poor, shit family and got no rachmunis from anybody when they were all slaughtered, may they rest in peace. I, and I don’t need to remind you, I have the papers to prove my right to be fucked up, both of my parents got checks from the German government until the day they died, as you know. They were certified Holocaust survivors, I am a certified, official child of Holocaust survivors. You, on the other hand, are a melodramatic self-pitying drunkard masochistically fond of brooding on history that happened while you were in boot camp.”
“I could have been Charles Kushner,” Hal had taken to saying recently, “son of two Holocaust survivors who got out of Europe in time, their assholes crammed with enough diamonds to build a small real estate empire in New Jersey.”
Charles Kushner, the billionaire son of Holocaust survivors, begat Jared Kushner, who was so righteously outraged when his father was imprisoned briefly for simply hiring a prostitute and a filmmaker to make a video blackmailing his uncle, a man who was about to turn rat.
The blackmail video was necessary to shame Charles’s sister, who Charles believed wore the pants in her home (and, also, appeared to be susceptible to the threat of public shame). If she said the word, the fucking rat would not take the stand against her brother. Otherwise, her husband was scheduled to rat him out at the federal fraud trial that was about to start. Charles had been given no choice, as he explained to Jared in the weeks before he was convicted, sentenced and disbarred. The brother-in-law was the only witness who could really hurt him, and they seemed to be on the same page going forward, but the prosecutor flipped him.
“Fucking rat,” said Charles, when he gave the money to the scumbag who set up the whole ill-fated prostitute and surveillance thing.
“Who knew my fucking sister was also a fucking rat?” Charles later asked a pigeon sitting on the window ledge of his cell at the federal prison. “They never revealed if she’d worn a wire that day or not, the treacherous bastards…” The bird nodded.
“Why is Debbie going to kill herself this time?” Hal asked Tova.
“The tweet is vague on that,” Tova said.
“I haven’t been much of an improvement on my old man,” said Hal. “I have no clue how to help that kid.”
“I’m going to make coffee,” said Tova.
“To ruin a perfectly good buzz,” Hal said, pouring the last of the single malt into his glass.
“Buzz-kill is what they called me in college,” said Tova.
“You went to a top school full of smart bastards, didn’t you?”
“Not like the place you teach, professor,” said Tova.
“No, not like the place I teach,” said Hal, drinking up.
“No matter, David will be here soon.”
“Let’s hope he can stay awake on the highway this time,” said Hal, tilting back in his chair. There seemed to be no end to nights like this one, he thought.
(to be continued, or not)
My grandfather was a mild-mannered man. He had big, powerful hands he used for years professionally in the delicate art of egg candling. He held an egg in front of a bright light, (a candle at one point, one supposes) and inspected it to see if the yolk had the shadow of a spot in it. If so, this spot of blood indicated it had been fertilized and wasn’t fit to eat. I don’t know if this was under Jewish law or American health law, but he sat with cases of eggs, in the basement of his friend Al’s (who my grandmother once said smelled like a camel), grocery store, or Julie’s appetizing shop, picking them up in his large hands one by one, gently turning them in front of the light and looking through their shells to see if they could be sold.
The year I was born, Pop, at one time a prodigious cigarette smoker (Camels, if memory serves), underwent late stage lung cancer surgery. They removed one of his lungs. I was a few months old at the time and remember only what I was later told about it. We have the snake plant that was delivered to Pop in the hospital as he recuperated from the surgery. The plant is almost 63 years old and doing well. Pop had an excellent recovery from the surgery and lived twenty-two years with only one lung in his powerful body.
One of his doctors recommended that he add bacon to his diet, for health reasons. There was some kind of bullshit rationale involved, which my grandfather explained to me at one point. So in addition to his usual kasha, boiled flanken, boiled chicken, soup and several slices of whole wheat, pumpernickel or rye bread Pop ate a few strips of bacon from time to time, at his doctor’s recommendation.
Pop was a well-built, trim man who weighed 168 pounds for his entire adult life. One year at his physical he weighed in at 169 or 170. He and the doctor were both surprised. The doctor asked pop how many slices of bread he ate a day. My grandfather counted and told the doctor seven. The doctor said, “eat six”. Pop did. At his next physical he was 168 pounds.
The lived philosophy of that, food merely fuel for the optimum running of your body, still fills me with wonder and admiration. Pop would eat a Danish from a bakery from time to time with his coffee, but couldn’t care less if he did or he didn’t. He always handed my sister and me each a candy bar (it was Chunkies for a long time, a chocolate chunk filled with peanuts and raisins, then mainly Nestle’s Crunch Bars with the occasional Mr. Goodbar thrown in) as soon as he saw us. For himself, he never ate anything just for the taste of it.
Pop was retired for most of the time I knew him. His favorite pastime in those years was watching a good shooting picture on TV. He’d scan the TV Guide, a small booklet that came out every week and told you what was coming up on each of the seven or eight stations available in the media mega-market of New York City and later Miami Beach. When he spotted a good shooting picture, also known as a Western, he’d tune in and watch the good guys triumph over the bad guys.
“Sit down,” he’d say, if I asked him who was who on the screen, “watch and you’ll know.” In most of the shooting pictures Pop watched, Hollywood movies of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, it didn’t take long to figure out who was wearing the white hat and who was the evil, sadistic, murdering bastard who needed killing, the one glaring provocatively from under the black hat. Simpler times.
Pop loved Bonanza, and Gun smoke, two shows he caught every week, my parents and I loved those shows too, my sister would also watch them. Outside of those, he’d catch every western on Million Dollar Movie, a show where they played the same black and white movie several times in a given week. Pop would watch pretty much any movie where good guys and bad guys dressed like cowboys, (or Indians, for that matter), chased each other around in the dust of their horses and shot it out at the end.