Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Pathways of One's Life

Have you ever thought about how each action lays the groundwork for the next?  Any genealogist soon learns how each document provides information that leads to the next piece of information.  A census record helps you to hone in on an immigration record, a death or marriage record gives you the names of the prior generation.  Step by step we construct a family tree by leveraging off prior discoveries.  It is only when we look behind us that we realize how far we’ve come.

Lately I’ve been thinking of the process of genealogy as a metaphor for understanding the pathways of one's own life, not just the lives of our ancestors.  Just as with genealogy, we begin to understand and manage our path through life when we understand the way each step opens the door for new paths and how multiple paths can begin to weave together into a more powerful direction than any one path in isolation.  The often innocuous discovery can lead to opportunity.  Sometimes the opportunity is right in front of us, but we don’t recognize it until we are ready. 

I am an “ incrementalist” by nature, realizing that the big stuff grows out of many little steps.  And perhaps I am more focused on this than most, going so far as to keep a spreadsheet of steps taken and what they lead to. 

Let me give you an example…Recently I was invited to show my artwork on Radom, Poland at the arts and culture center in the city of Radom.  I’ve had many people ask how that came about and I realize there is no simple answer, multiple threads connected to create that opportunity.  Just as I often retrace my steps in genealogy to understand how I solved the puzzle, I began to retrace my steps in life.

In actuality it started over five years ago when I tracked down a second cousin in Israel.  His daughter who spoke English became my point of connection.  When she was going to a conference in Montreal, I flew up to Montreal to meet her.  There I also met her cousin who is head of the Radom Society, the organization for survivors and children of survivors of Radom who live in Montreal.

And another thread…Early this year I developed the Shtetlink for Radom, Poland.  The Shtetlink is a website for that is created to help others researching family from that town.  In developing the site, I connected with people all over the world sending out 400 e-mails to fellow researchers.  One Israeli friend provided me with a homemade film of the Jewish community of Radom that dated to 1937, five years before that community was annihilated.  In taking stills from the film for the website, I realized its potential as source material for artwork.  That same friend connected me with the arts and culture center when I was planning a trip to Radom.  They very kindly assisted me in getting the key to the cemetery as well as providing photos for the website. 

I’ve been working on a series of artwork on Radom, but feeling the need for story to breathe life into it.  My work typically is a vehicle to tell a story and while the Radom work captures a picture of the former Jewish community, it needed more.  I do quite a bit of public speaking and it was through an arts connection who heard me speak that I was introduced to a woman in my community who is a survivor from Radom.  She has graciously agreed to let me interview her and incorporate her memories with my artwork.

So we have the website, source material feeding into a body of artwork, a survivor’s story, a connection in Radom and a connection in Montreal.  Now we have only to set it in motion.   I have a mental image of a pinball machine shooting the ball forward. A month ago I received an e-mail from the head of the Montreal Radom Society telling me about a new development in Radom.  I’ve written about it in this blog at An Unusual Collaboration , but essentially it was the discovery of 70 previously unknown Jewish tombstones that had been hidden away and are now incorporated into a monument, that had recently been dedicated.

Now to appreciate this fully you must realize that the Nazis used many of the Radom tombstones to pave the roads, not only destroying the synagogue and the people, but also destroying the history of past Jewish families as reflected in the cemetery.  I promptly decided I needed to get pictures of the tombstones for the Shtetlink, but how to do so?  An e-mail to my contact at the arts and culture center soon secured their agreement to send me photos.  Of course, I also shared with them the link to my artwork on Radom and the story of my interviewing the survivor.  They quickly responded with a request that I consider showing my work in April when they do a focus on the former Jewish community of Radom.

 And that is how things happen.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Budapest Brain Drain

My travels and research are often accompanied by a reading program on related topics.   In recent years I’ve been particularly intrigued by the cities of Eastern Europe and especially the Jewish experience.  While the Holocaust was a defining historical event, I am also interested in the Jewish experience pre-war as well as post-war.  What was life like? When did they begin to sense danger in their environment, a danger that exceeded the “conventional’ anti-Semitism of that time and place?  After the war, many Jews continued to live under Communism.  Others immigrated and attempted to rebuild their lives as survivors.  Obviously the Holocaust would have marked their experience and responses to their environment, but in what way?

My family history research has awakened an interest in history as it provides a context for understanding it on a personal level. The books that I find most enlightening are those that present history through the lens of those living it.  I only wish that I had been able to learn history in this manner originally as it would have captivated me much sooner. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Budapest and learn more about the history of that region.  When I stumbled across a book by Kati Marton, I was intrigued by its focus on Budapest and its mention of familiar places that we had visited.  As the daughter of Hungarian journalists with Jewish roots, she has a unique connection to the city.  Her parents were journalists in Budapest during the Communist regime, arrested, imprisoned and finally released, ultimately immigrating to the US.  Years later she goes back to Budapest and reads the files of the secret police, realizing the constant surveillance that her parents had been under in both Budapest and the US.   Her book Enemies of the People paints a vivid picture of life under the Communist regime.

While Marton’s maternal grandparents had perished at Auschwitz and her father’s career options were restricted by his Jewish heritage, the family raised their children as Catholics. It was not until Marton was an adult that she stumbled across her Jewish roots.

Marton’s book, The Great Escape also focuses upon Hungary, in this case the stories of nine Hungarian Jews who left their country as Hitler came to power.  Settling in the US and England, these nine Jews became major figures in physics, photography, film and literature.  While Marton’s memoir Enemies of the People, tells one story in which she is herself a character, The Great Escape captures a broader experience by virtue of the multiple and often intersecting histories it presents.  The Great Escape looks at the story of four scientists: Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann. These scientists were key figures in the creation of the atomic bomb. In addition von Neumann, a renowned mathematician, was known for inventing Game Theory and pioneering the computer.

The book relates a fascinating journey by Szilard and Wigner to visit Einstein in Long Island.  There they discussed the experiments in Germany which suggested a nuclear chain reaction could be created by bombarding uranium with neutrons. They then added a piece of information that Einstein had not yet contemplated, that this in turn could create atomic bombs.  Much of their impetus for their involvement in the creation of the atomic bomb was the fear that the Nazis would get there first, a fear colored by their realization of the danger presented by the Nazis long before the US shared that understanding. Several of them had studied physics in Berlin and knew the advances in science that could make this possible. Einstein was alarmed enough to sign a letter to President Roosevelt to alert him to this threat which ultimately led to the Manhattan Project.  After Hitler’s death, the creators of the atomic bomb assumed opposite sides of the issue. Szilard opposed the use of the atomic bomb convinced that the mere threat of it would have been sufficient.

Marton also tells the story of Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz, major figures in modern photojournalism.  Michael Curtiz, the producer of the movie Casablanca and Alexander Korda, a major producer/director are also chronicled.  Marton rounds out the nine with the political writer Arthur Koestler. While all are interesting lives, the preponderance of the scientists who were so central to key world events causes these segments to dominate the book.

Marton hypothesizes that the position of these men as outsiders contributed to the remarkable roles they ultimately played.  They were outsiders on many levels, as Jews and as Hungarians.  Marton makes the point that Hungary was isolated by way of being landlocked and “language” locked, the language having no relationship to other languages and thus limited to a small segment of population.  In fact, many of those of whom she writes had extensive language skills that eased their transition between cultures.  She also notes that they were all nonobservant Jews, a product of the secular world of Budapest and its cafĂ© society.  Many of these men came of age in a period of rich cultural ferment prior to WWI.  Many went on to study in Berlin.  They were worldly and well-educated and highly sensitized to changes in the political environment.  Enough so that they saw the impending dangers, departed and re-established their lives and careers.

I found the consideration of “outsider” status of particular interest as I believe the outsider role frees one up to challenge the conventional wisdom, to “think outside of the box”.  I think it is likely that the considerable success of many Jews is partially attributable to that factor.  When one doesn’t have access to the traditional rewards of the system, one is strangely freed up to do the unexpected, to create one’s own path.