The author’s grandfather, Solomon/Zalman (later, Bernard), is at top right.
I have been researching my family history for some years now. Usually, over the winter break, when life slows down to a dull roar and I can spend time at the computer. I pore over JewishGen for hours, entering names of people and places into search engines. The same searches over and over, hoping that databases will have been updated; that something in my mind will click; that I will finally reach the right person; that the right person will still be alive – that someone will be able to tell me what happened to the women in that photo. The photo from Vienna. The photo of the family that could have been. That should have been. These four brothers and two sisters. The brothers who escaped. The women who did not, and perished. Where? How? The women whose stories have never been told. Or maybe they were told to someone in the United States, Argentina, Scotland or Mexico – but not to me.
In recent months, I have started to ask new questions. These new questions are concerned, as ever, with the people in the photo. But they are also about my own motivation. Why do I feel compelled to keep searching? Why do some people live by the adage that it’s all water under the bridge, while others steadfastly paddle upstream? Would it not be easier to drift with the currents of time, away from our family’s past and just meander, uncomplaining, toward the future?
People used to tell me that true self-knowledge only comes to us when we have children of our own and are challenged daily, hourly, to face ourselves. We find out if we have truly stuck to the resolutions of childhood. You know, the resolution that we’d do things differently, be more engaged, more sensitive, empathic, less busy, more patient – that we’d truly remember what it was like to be a child.
Sure enough, since my first searches brought me in touch with my many cousins, I have had children of my own. I watch our older child leaving behind his early childhood, becoming more and more aware of our small family unit. I hear his wistful questions during each year’s big festivals and explain that our family is scattered across the world. I set up Skype for him to speak to relatives on other continents. His curiosity, persistence and intellect are bound to lead to more searching questions, questions about who we are and where we came from. And since he is already attached to his Jewish roots in our household of mixed traditions, I know that I’ll need to get my story straight soon enough. I know this because it is already beginning. Perhaps this is why I search, I wonder? So I can look him in the eye and know that I don’t have to fudge it?
But then I realize that my motivation comes from a more complex place than one where i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. It’s not just about information; it’s about education.
There is certainly no education quite like motherhood. Children are such dogged teachers. Their curriculum may seem haphazard at times, their lesson planning a little sketchy, but when I take a step back – a really big step back – I find that what they are teaching me has as much to do with my ancestors as the two little chaps asking me to help them finish a puzzle, reassemble a broken toy or read a particularly difficult word.
Researching one’s family history is a gesture as deeply spiritually maternal as the act of raising one’s own children. Yes, there is a visceral desire shared by all humans to know where we come from and who we are, but there is an added layer of compassion, of love, of nurturing that comes when the people we love are gone.
Researching one’s family history is a gesture as deeply spiritually maternal as the act of raising one’s own children. Yes, there is a visceral desire shared by all humans to know where we come from and who we are, but there is an added layer of compassion, of love, of nurturing that comes when the people we love are gone. And not only are they gone, they left us too soon and in a manner so horrific that time and again, the adjective I hear from survivors’ children and grandchildren is “secretive.” So often, people simply don’t want to talk. They don’t want to share their stories because that would mean choosing to relive the horror, to tell tales that are replayed in dreams over and over again. The ones that wake them up at night and destroy the possibility of sleep for hours to come.
Those of us who grew up in the safety of this part of the world, we who are too young to have been witnesses to these crimes against humanity, we are aware of our good fortune. We know how lucky we are to have grown up in peacetime and, yet, we can feel somehow diminished by our lack of suffering. At the same time, and as we become parents ourselves, we dream of extending our parental love back through time to embrace and soothe the wounds inflicted on our forebears. We recall those who died in infancy or childhood. Having expanded our capacity for love, our fluency in that subtle language, we want to communicate absolute safety to that vulnerable child, the terrified adult unable to keep her children safe. We are challenged by the desire to reach out to our tormented and murdered ancestors, adults and children alike, to lift them out far beyond the atrocities and into the warmth of our own homes, our present, a safe and comfortable existence that they never knew.
And yet, unable to do so, we do what we can. We learn their names and we express our empathy and our sorrow by inscribing them and their stories in Word documents late at night while our children sleep, so that tomorrow, when they wake up, their parents can let them know, as they do every single day, that they are loved, that their world is safe and that, as small as it is, the human heart embraces the whole wide world.
Shula Klinger is an author-illustrator in North Vancouver, B.C. Her young adult novel, The Kingdom of Strange, was published in 2008 by Marshall Cavendish.