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Americans

June 26, 2018

Lazer_Moishe

Last Saturday night I dreamed about my father for the first time since he died. We were at a social gathering at someone’s house and it was time to go. He and I were going to walk together to the bus stop. Most of the dream slipped away from me upon waking, but I remember the feeling of assurance that he and I would be walking together. The bus stop was far way, but he would have the strength for the walk. We would walk. We would talk. But I got hung up in that house trying to find umbrellas for both of us. When I finally got outside with two umbrellas he had gone on ahead of me into the rain.

Later that day, Sunday, I told my older son what I could remember about the dream.

“But what happened next?” he said.

“Nothing. The dream ended. It changed to another dream.”

He looked at me with his blue eyes. Earlier in the night he’d been goofing around with crossing his eyes, and when he got tired of that he started messing with my watch, pulling the dial out to stop it. But he didn’t do any of that now. He just looked straight at me like the boys in the photograph at the top of this page are looking at you.

“Maybe you’ll dream the rest of it tonight,” he said.

***

My father is the younger boy, the one on the left. He’s about the age of my younger son, who just turned four, and the other boy, his brother Dave, my uncle, is two or three years older, about the age of my older son. The clothing they’re wearing seems like it’s from some far-off place. The photo was taken in 1928 or 1929, less than a decade after my grandmother and her two oldest surviving children, my Uncle Joe and Aunt Helen, fled the Galicia region in central Europe to reunite with my grandfather in New York City, who’d fled to America a few years before.

Fled.

As is common in the stories of how families come to live in America, fled is the correct word, illustrated most vividly by the family tale of the death of a third child born in Galicia to my grandfather and grandmother. In the story, which takes place during World War I, a soldier entered the inn run by my grandmother’s family and demanded food. My grandmother was holding the baby in her arms. She said that they have no food, that the last group of soldiers coming through took it all. The soldier pressed the blade of a bayonet to her neck. She had blue eyes, my grandmother. Maybe the soldier noticed this.

“We have nothing,” she said.

The baby fell sick and died soon after. The story goes that the sickness began with the terror flowing from my grandmother’s arms into the soft, warm flesh of the baby.

It was a time and place for such stories, according to “The Jews of Galicia under Austrian-Polish Rule, 1867–1918,” by historian Piotr Wrobel:

Jews who remained in Galicia under Russian occupation [during World War I] faced a worse fate [than those who had fled to Austria]. Their status was “equalized” with the legal position of Russian Jewry. Galician Jews were removed from self-government bodies and the civil service, they could not live in the countryside nor leave their districts. Their civil rights were withdrawn and their religious sensibilities insulted. Frequently, they were accused of spying or siding with the enemy. Almost every Russian unit upon entering a city, and later the last units to depart it harassed and robbed the local Jews. Some of these events turned into regular pogroms, which lasted several days and caused the death of many Jews. Collective responsibility was enforced; Russians took hostages and executed innocent people to terrorize the civilian population. The Jews were harassed also by bandits in “no man’s land” between the fighting armies.

***

Sunday, after I woke from my dream, the sun came out and stayed out. We went for ice cream. I got a chocolate cone and finished my younger son’s chocolate cone too. After that we went to a playground. My boys played together on a structure that they pretended was a spaceship and I sat on a bench with my wife. I looked at her and at my boys and could not understand what I’d done to deserve a day like this, a life like this. After a while she and I started looking at her phone for ideas for a sign to bring to a protest march next week. But I don’t know how to put what I’m feeling into words.

***

Neither boy in this torn photograph is smiling. Dave’s chin is tucked in, his head down just slightly, so he’s looking up at the camera a little, giving his expression a tone of intensity. He’s not without some apprehension, even fear, but he also seems determined. His hand is on the outside, covering the younger boy’s hand, protecting it. The younger boy, my father, seems more open, curious. The world for him would not be something to withstand, like a blow, and then overcome, but something forever baffling and amazing.

The two boys will discover the world together. They’ll discover art and books and Bach and Handel. They’ll discover beauty. They’ll survive their impoverished childhood, as will my Uncle Joe and Aunt Helen, but two of their siblings will not (in addition to the baby who died in Galicia, another baby will die in New York City). They’ll survive the Depression. They’ll survive the suicide of their father. They’ll serve their country during World War II. They’ll find work and work hard and find love and love deeply. They’ll have children of their own. They’ll have grandchildren. They’ll grow old.

At the end of Dave’s life, my mother drove my father to see him. Dave was just about gone, unable to talk, unable to open his eyes to see his brother one last time. My father reached out and held his brother’s hand. My father hummed Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” As he hummed he began to feel something in his own hand. His brother’s hand was moving to the rhythm of the song.

8 comments

  1. your writing slays me. thank you for this. my heart is with you.


  2. Grand Slam!!!!!! Thank you.


  3. I’m usually here for baseball and baseball cards… but this post kept me enthralled from beginning to end. Great post.


  4. Meaningful post and mesmerizing photo, Josh.


  5. Josh, this is really a beautiful essay! perhaps the best I’ve seen from you. Just one small thing, I don’t think any of us ‘deserve’ the lives we have; they are just what is given to us, for better or worse. What we do with them, however, is mostly up to us. Writng this piece and sharing it is surely a very good thing to be doing with yours. Thank you.


  6. In this moment we are going through, I often look at my beautiful children, just beginning their discovery of the larger world, and I feel helpless and afraid and full of rage. They seem increasingly likely to have to cope with a level of ugliness unlike anything I’ve known.


  7. Your essay deeply moved me. By chance, I happened to visit on an unusual day, one when I’d spent a good deal of time thinking of my own ancestors. They were Sephardic Jews who fled a town they had called Monastir, prior to World War I, in what is now Macedonia. They fled to Indianapolis, of all places, later moving to the lower East Side in New York City. They left behind a smaller Jewish community in Monastir (a.k.a. Bitola): men, women, and children who the Nazis later shipped to Treblinka and murdered.

    Reflecting also on Ian Wilker’s comment: It horrifies me to see the hatreds that drove the Nazis being stoked again, both there and here. For the past few years, I’ve worried it would be my son’s fate to navigate such a future. But I fear it is coming faster than I had imagined, and I will see much of it myself.


  8. Wonderfully written reflection; however I fail to see how some have made the leap implying that antisemitism is as fervent in the US as it was in Germany circa 1937.



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