A few months ago, my family gathered in my Uncle Marc’s living room, excitedly anticipating the birth of my cousin’s twins. She was due to give birth in a few weeks, and we spoke of the usual pregnancy obstacles and asked what the baby’s names would be.
“Henry and Hazel,” she replied proudly. There is so much history in a name, always a story to unearth beneath its surface. Henry was the name of my grandfather’s cousin who had fled the Holocaust around the same time as my grandfather. Ever curious, I asked my uncle for more details about our ancestor. I am so grateful to him for being the keeper of history in our family. Somehow, he has kept records of our family trees, pre-war letters, photos, and keepsakes spanning generations.
Access to ancestral information is a privilege that is not awarded to most – genocide, slavery, war, and white supremacy has robbed millions of access to their ancestral records. I recognize the privilege of being able to not only know my family surname before arriving as refugees in America, but having extensive access to family trees, photos, and detailed records of occupations and life paths. Robbing people of their ancestral records through slavery and genocide is one of the many acts of violence white supremacy has committed, and it is a rare privilege to not only have oral storytelling of my family’s past, but written records as well.
My uncle quickly produced binders full of family history, each page offering more questions than answers. I thumbed through the handwritten family trees, scanning for any crumb of connection. I initially was excited to learn I had an ancestor named “Scholmo,” which in my mind proves my Jewishness! As someone with Jewish ancestory only through my paternal bloodline, the validity of my Jewishness is often questioned. Per the Halakha, Jewish ancestory is only valid through maternal bloodlines. It has been explained to me that this is due to the fact many Jewish women were raped while in exile, so the only “true” way to judge if a person has Jewish blood is if they were birthed from a Jewish womb. Regardless, I’ve always felt self-conscious of only being Jew-“ish.” It doesn’t help the cause that I wasn’t bat mitzvah’ed, but I joke this is because my dad was too cheap to pay for Hebrew school, so who’s the real Jew here! (In his defense, he gave my brother and I the choice, but we both declined as going to school on the weekends wasn’t very appealing as a child). I’m not sure rabbinic law would accept my logic that having an ancestor named Schlomo grants free entry into the Jewish club, but hey, good enough for me!
Finally, I landed on a page outlining a family that lives in Haifa, Israel. The next page revealed we have family all over Israel – from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This branch of my family tree had remained hidden for years, and coincidentally showed itself weeks before I was set to visit the “Holy Land.” I immediately turned to Google (what would we do without Google?!), and mined the internet for any ancestral gold. I anxiously messaged a half dozen Israelis on Facebook with my cousin’s name, “hi we might be cousins do you have a brother named Zachi and a dad named Amnon who has a sister named Tamar?!” After half a dozen “no, crazy lady” messages, I was close to giving up. After all, even if I did find my maybe-third cousin, what would I say? We are separated not just by time zones, but by languages, cultures, and likely by worldviews. Maybe he isn’t as fascinated with family history as me, or maybe he won’t be interested in meeting. As a last ditch effort, I typed a different combination in Google and found a link to Tel Aviv University’s Master’s in Social Work faculty page. There was a photo of my cousin, Guy Feldman, who is a faculty member in the very field I just received my master’s in. I was renewed with hope and sent him a similarly anxiously message, but this one was met with wary excitement (“wow, yes that is my family. But…how did you find us?”). We exchanged some basic information about our families and set a time to meet him and his father, Amnon, in Israel. Amnon’s mother was first cousins with my grandfather Kurt, and the story goes they were close friends as well as cousins. My grandfather passed when I was a child, but my memories of him are of a stoic, serious man. I remember being scared of him, sensing even as a child that something in him had become undone, at the time not understanding the impact that war, genocide, and trauma has on a soul and a body. My father’s memories of Grandpa Kurt echo the same sentiments – he was very serious, strict, never spoke a word of German nor about the Holocaust, and rarely spoke of his childhood. My grandfather’s past remained a question mark for me for years; I knew the fact he fled Hitler’s regime from Austria was something to be proud of, and the loss of his family members was something to mourn. The weight of his choices didn’t hit me until adulthood – how do you choose between fleeing your home to save your own life, or staying put to stare a murderer’s regime in the face in order to stay with your mother and grandmother? Kurt was not even 20 years old when he fled to Switzerland, eventually landing in the foreign land of the United States. I believe he held the weight of his impossible choices – and of all the unanswered questions about what happened to his family thereafter – until his final days. As I anticipated meeting the children and grandchildren of his close cousin, I felt the weight of his pain.
I met Guy and Amnon in Mehane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Amnon immediately asked, “how did you find us? How did you get our names?” And marveled at Uncle Marc’s record keeping skills. He sighed, “my mother’s childhood has always been a black hole to me. Maybe you and your uncle can help me fill it in, all these years later.” He shared his maternal grandmother passed away when his mother was little, and her stepmother kicked her out of their home when his mother was only 12 years old. “I know Kurt’s mother – your grandmother – welcomed her into their home, but I don’t know if she lived there until adulthood. I don’t know where she went.” The pain of not knowing was palpable. Regretfully, I had no answers for him. My knowledge of my grandfather’s childhood is as much of a black hole as Amnon’s knowledge of his mothers childhood is. But I like to think somehow, even in us meeting from halfway across the world, we were able to bring a bit of color to the black holes of our history. I found out my cousin participated in community organizing efforts with Palestinians around the common goal of affordable housing, which is inspiring to me as a community organizer who advocates for affordable housing in Seattle. Guy and Amnon found they have a whole branch of family in the United States, complete with a new generation budding with the namesake of our shared cousin, Henry. We may never know the entirety of our family’s history, but for now, this is enough.