Friday, December 23, 2011

Artwork: Greetings from Bessie


In doing my oral history project I had the opportunity to interview a number of survivors.  Walter charmed me immediately with his faint accent and gentle manner.  A tall courtly gentleman of 90, Walter had a story that was different from many.  He was able to get out of Eastern Europe with his immediate family and then joined the army and went back as a Ritchie Boy, a unique unit from Camp Ritchie where German speakers, often Jews who had escaped Eastern Europe, were trained to interrogate prisoners of war.  (for more on the story of the Ritchie Boys).

I was going to school on March 15, 1935 on the day Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, I was there.  My parents were in Romania. I went to school on that day.  They had sentries in front.  I walked up the steps of the school.  By the entrance were a bunch of hoodlums with swastikas on their sleeve.   “Juden raus”.  They wouldn’t let any Jews into that school.
 
I went and packed my bags.  The railroads were already run by the German army so I had to get permission to buy a ticket.  There happened to be a sympathetic officer so I was able to buy a ticket.  I believe that was the last train that left Czechoslovakia for (Romania).

My mother’s history is that at age 5 her family moved to the US so my mother was brought up here.  At that time in 1939 the war started already and Czechoslovakia was already occupied and Romania was going to be next.  So my parents made frantic efforts to get out. They were on a quota system, so many but not more.  Because of her background in America, she went to school here.   She had to show evidence to the American consulate that she had been in America.  By chance her sister who lived in America was a good friend of her former teacher and she once met her and asked her, ”Is there any evidence that my sister Bessie was your student?” She says she has a class picture.  So my mother had to show that picture to the American Consulate and said, “This is me, I was there”.  And on that basis she was able to get a visa to get the whole family in.



When my family got out we boarded a ship in Genoa, Italy.  That was the last refugee ship that left Italy.  On the way to the United States, Italy declared war on France in 1940.  And from then on they dropped the refugees off in New York and the ship went back empty back to Italy and there was no more trafficking.
 
Walter was able to join the Army after Pearl Harbor was bombed.  Prior to that non-US citizens were not admitted.  He became a "Ritchie Boy", trained in interrogation techniques for German prisoners.  After the war he was stationed in Czechoslovakia, ironically the place he was when the war first broke out.  

Every time we went by jeep through a town I saw in the middle of town there was a big bulletin board.  This was a time when the concentration camps were being liberated and the International Red Cross published the names of the people who were released and they put them on the bulletin board.  My mother had a lot of relatives who were sent to the concentration camps and she got hold of one of those lists and she found a name that she knew, that was a second cousin of hers.  He had just been released from Theresienstadt and he was coming home.    My mother wrote to me, "Would it be possible for me to visit that family?"   I was anxious to meet a relative.  I found the address and I knocked on the door.  The people came to the door slightly opening it. What is a man in uniform doing here?  They were suspicious of people in uniform anyway.  So they opened the door and I said, “Bessie Schwartz my mother is sending you greetings”. 

Walter then told me that the cousin who went to Theresienstadt was Jewish, but his wife was not.  He had gotten a divorce in order to save her and they re-married upon his return.  Walter became good friends with the family and later in life reconnected with the daughter.  

 The image of the half-cracked door stayed with me and I decided to include it in the painting.  The connection with the family was an important element in Walter's story as well as his experience as a Ritchie boy.  I was also struck by the chanciness of his escape, the last boat, the last train and a school picture all figured in the story.  There is also a circular motif to reflect the oddity of his story coming full circle back to Czechoslovakia.


This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.



Monday, December 5, 2011

Artwork: Fallen Leaves

When I do an interview I begin with a basic history.  One of the questions is when their parents died and at what age, normally a routine question.  When I asked Boris, a Russian immigrant and survivor, when his mother died, I got the response "She was shot when she was 39".   With that I knew this was not going to be an easy interview.   He then elaborated and told me that his mother, father and two sisters were in a concentration camp and building a bunker for Hitler.  When they finished, they were executed.  Boris was a child at the time.

How this child survived was a tale of chance. Through an interpreter he told me that when the war broke out they were put into a ghetto.   They had to survive somehow in the ghetto and the Nazis, the Germans warned them that if they make one step outside of the ghetto they will be instantly executed.  His father had many friends among the Ukrainians.  They helped them.  They brought food to help them survive. From there they were taken to the concentration camp.

We were scheduled to be shot because we were useless. My aunt who was pregnant and the older people, but my parents were driven to the site of construction every day.  We were loaded onto open trucks and as we were leaving to be shot one of the officers, a German officer stopped the truck and said the site was not ready for the execution. 

She (his aunt) realized that they had to run.  Someone pointed her to a man who helped to lead people out of the camp.  She had coins, golden coins sewed in and she made arrangements paying with those coins and that man who would take them out.  When they got unloaded from the truck because the site wasn't ready this man who was paid with the gold coins took them out of the concentration camp.

Boris was unconscious because he was beaten severely and lost consciousness.  The aunt couldn’t carry him so she paid for a woman to help, for him and for herself to be taken out of the concentration camp.  They were taken outside of the camp.  There was another family. The man gave directions to everyone who he had taken out and they just started walking. It was in the middle of the night. They started walking and they asked some peasants around the area to be hidden for the day or two.  It wasn’t far from their town.  There were small towns. That’s how they made it to Mogilev Podolsk. 

They were subsequently caught and sent back to the camp.  By that time the Germans did away with everyone in the concentration camp and the Red army marched in and they were freed.

After the war he searched for a picture of anyone in his family.  This painting is based on the one image he located, a sepia colored school picture of his sister set in the shape of a leaf.  I decided to echo that form in additional leaves with the names of his family members who perished written in Russian.  I wanted the image to be muted as if seen through a glass.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Loss of a Leader

I recently received word from friends in both Poland and Israel of the death of Haim Kincler, a key figure in the worldwide community of Jews from Radom.  Kincler was the head of the Radom Society in Israel and was instrumental in the creation of the cemetery restoration project in Radom, Poland.  The original cemetery was destroyed by the Nazis who used the tombstones to pave roads. As I’ve written in prior entries, he facilitated the creation of a Lapidarium in 2010, a curved wall in which 70 previously hidden tombstones from the former Jewish community were embedded.  These had been hidden by a Polish tombstone maker during the war.  The Polish tombstone maker had hoped to sell them after the war, but was unable to due to Communist constraints on holding something of historic value. They remained hidden for many years. Kincler learned of them and got the children of the tombstone maker to contribute them to the city.  Ultimately they were returned to the cemetery as part of the newly constructed monument, a joint effort between Israel and Poland.

Kincler had survived the war in the East.  Later he arrived in Palestine on the ship Exodus.  He was blinded during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.  Despite this handicap, he finished law school and subsequently owned and managed a successful business.  Early this year I was in Radom with my friend Dvora.  Dvora was a school girl in Radom when the war broke out.  She was deeply touched that on this visit there were so many commemorative efforts around the former Jewish community.  Many of those efforts came about through Haim Kincler.  He was 93 and had lived a full life, but his loss is a loss to the broader Jewish community with ties to Radom.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

An Investment in Zionism

So often genealogists are faced with dry documents out of which they try to conjure the spirits of their long-gone ancestors.  A fortunate few have letters that create a fuller picture.  For me, knowledge of what my family valued came from an unexpected source.

I had become aware of a site for The Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victim Assets  which seeks to reunite heirs to the assets their ancestors held.  Now I had no illusions of any windfall, but I was intrigued when I went into the database and typed in Radom, the Polish town from which one branch came.  Up popped twelve pages of names, among them my great-grandfather. In many cases I knew the descendants of many of those listed.  Now it didn’t appear any great wealth awaited as most had a listing titled JCT Shares.  The JCT stands for Jewish Colonial Trust and represented shares in the Jewish Colonial Fund established by Theodor Herzl in 1899 to serve as the Zionist Movement's financial arm.  I recalled reading that many people purchased one share and when you divide that up among descendants it is probably not worth filing from a monetary standpoint.

As a genealogist I had a different interest.  I was intrigued with the idea that my great-grandfather was enough of a Zionist to make an investment in the movement.  It appeared that he had purchased at least one share so I began the process to confirm that it was in fact him.  The data they asked for was easily accessible for a genealogist so I sent the forms back and waited.  Some time passed and I received correspondence verifying that this was in fact my great-grandfather.  While I doubt I will go the additional step to collect on the assets, I feel as if I have a fuller picture of my ancestors and their views.  I had previously learned, from a friend who is a survivor from Radom, that Zionism was an important part of the Radom community.  Apparently it was also something on which my great-grandfather placed value.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Artwork: Postcard from New Ulm

Storytime! Time for another story and another painting in the ongoing Identity and Legacy series.   One of my most moving interviews was with Trudy, a survivor from Stuttgart.  Trudy reminisced about food and her grandparents and then launched with some hesitation into the story that defined her youth, life in Nazi Germany.  She recounted the pre-war period in Germany where she first experienced the new regime through the loss of a friend.

I had a good friend, a girlfriend.  She was my age and we went to school together. We were close.  She lived just around the corner from where I lived.  Sometimes she stayed overnight at my house, sometimes I stayed overnight at her house.  She was not Jewish.  And it was about ’33, all of a sudden my girlfriend was a little strange towards me.  And one day she came and said, “Trudy, I cannot be friends with you anymore.”  I said, “Why?’ ‘Because my father worked for the radio station and if they find out that I am having a Jewish friend, then he will lose his job”.   

Trudy was fifteen when this occurred and it was the beginning. I was especially touched by this story as it spoke to the experience of a young girl and her friendships, irretrievably altered by a political regime.  Soon they couldn't get jobs anymore or go to school and they were evicted from their apartment.   Five years later, the morning after Kristallnacht, Trudy's father was taken to a concentration camp and then released on the condition that he leave Germany.  This was still early. Some German Jews were offered the option of leaving the country.  They desperately began to search for a country that would let them in.

My father had to report to the Gestapo every week about his immigration and he was in danger if he wouldn’t go away they would take him back  (to the concentration camp).  So we waited a little bit and they came up with a trip to Shanghai.  Shanghai opened, and let the Jews come in.  I was included too, my passport was not ready.  My parents had to leave.  My parents left in 1939, beginning September and they said two weeks later goes a second transport to China, Shanghai and I could be on that boat.  But in those two weeks the war broke out.  That’s how I was stuck in Germany. 

Trudy joined her aunt and uncle.  Ironically their son had gone to Shanghai with Trudy's parents.  Six weeks later everyone over 30 was shot, including her aunt and uncle.

Trudy told me stories about her time during the war and the ten camps in which she was held.  Many of the stories emphasized the sheer chanciness of her survival.

After the war the towns in Germany were abandoned as the Germans ran from the Russians.

Every night we stayed overnight in a different house in a different village and ... all the villages were empty, the houses.  The Germans did run away from the Russians, they left and left everything behind so we had food.... We went in and chose a house where we could stay and I was sick and a few of our friends were sick. ... Polish soldiers came and asking, they did go through the houses and asking if anybody was sick and I said, “I’m sick” and they had a cart, a wagon with cows in front pulling the wagon and take me to the hospital.

After the war Trudy was reunited with her parents in Minneapolis, a joyous occasion after a nine year separation.  Her father lived for six more years.

They (her parents) went on a trip to New Ulm and he passed away in the night.  After the funeral of my father I got a postcard in the mail from my father, from New Ulm, and he writes, “We have such a good time, everyone speaks German here, German, born in Germany, raised in Germany and the food is so good, German food”.

There were so many colorful stories that it was challenging to narrow the scope for a painting.   There was almost too much - Shanghai, the theme of separation and such visual imagery of abandoned houses and cow drawn carts. What especially stayed with me was the after-death postcard from her father and the fact that it represented his delight in all things German, a familiar home despite the war.  This painting, Postcard from New Ulm, incorporates many of the images from Trudy's stories with the postcard as the central image.  The monument in the foreground is nicknamed Herman the German, a monument in New Ulm, a Minnesota town with largely German roots.  A procession of vehicles includes an image from Shanghai, a boxcar and a cart pulled by cows taking those who were ill to the hospital.  Each is representative of a part of the journey undertaken by both Trudy and her parents which for her father ended in New Ulm.  The houses are abandoned with doors open and curtains flying in the wind.  The words of her father are on the card emphasizing the importance of their German heritage even when Germany had turned on them.


This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Artwork: Fire, Light and Legacy

This week I received the good news of a second grant to fund my ongoing oral history project on Jewish Identity and Legacy.  Early this year we completed a series of interviews with elders within a Jewish elder facility.  Our interviews were with Russian immigrants, Holocaust survivors and those who grew up in immigrant communities in the Twin Cities.  This second grant will enable us to focus upon cross-generational interviews and examine the question of how legacy transmits across generations.

I’ve been working on a series of paintings based upon the stories we’ve gathered and in the next few entries will share some of the artwork and the stories with you.  Some of the interviewees were truly amazing story tellers.  Fannie, who grew up in the Jewish community in the Twin Cities was one of the most prolific storytellers, perhaps because she had progressed to recording her stories in books.

When I begin a painting I reread the transcript for that particular person and think about whether there are some themes that emerge.  In the case of Fannie, every story related to fire, light and legacy.

Fannie had begun by telling us about her mother, a central figure in her life.  She related that her mother had told her stories when she was a child and urged her to write them down.

My mother was always afraid that we wouldn’t remember anything she said or did ... and she wanted the children to know that she had a life... all of the things that she did and saw and heard and she was afraid that it would all be forgotten.  And so she chose me as her spokesperson. She would always grab me in from play and there would be a cup of coffee and milk and a caramel roll and she’d say “Ess”, Eat, listen to what I say and then “Shreibses arupt”, write it down.  I said, uh huh,uh huh, and I’d  be busy eating my caramel roll and drinking my coffee and she’d keep me for about an hour and when she was all through talking she’d say, “Go out to play”.   I didn’t shreibe arupt, I didn’t write it down.  And one day I came home, she was staying with us and she was burning all kinds of papers, citizenship papers, a whole bunch of them was on the floor in a bag.  And she was destroying them.  And I yelled, “What are you doing?”  And she says, “Did you shreibe, write it down?” And at first I didn’t know what she was talking about, and I said, “no”.  "Well so what do I need all this for? Who’s going to care?  No one’s going to care! "  And then I said, “Mama, please.”  Well she stopped destroying and ...in my old age I discovered I could write, I didn’t know how, but the kids bought me a word processor.  I was 77 and I remembered Shreibses arupt, that would be the title.

When I asked her if there was something she grew up with that is still part of her life she replied "Benching licht".

Benching licht, Blessing the candles on Friday night.  My grandmother who came to live with us had her set of candles, my mother had her set of candles.  And you see my mother, when they were packing her up to send her to America so she could marry her boyfriend, you see the first thing that his mother put in the trunk were a pair of candlesticks.  They are over 200 years old.

Fannie also related a story about the candelabras that have been a part of a local synagogue since 1926.  The story began with a fire in the shteibel, attached to the synagogue. Her father was quite distressed by this as it was caused by candles and he thought they should have electric lights.

And he thought about it and he thought about it and one day he was walking home from synagogue with his neighbor and he was discussing the situation.  Mr Osias Silvers (his neighbor), said he was a smith… a tinsmith and he thinks he could make a reasonable pair of candlesticks. So Pa said, you mean if I get you drawings and patterns you will be able to make an actual thing?  Oh sure he said.  He does that every day for a living.  And so they started.

Mr Silvers went back to work and he asked his boss if he could have some metal strips, scraps that they didn’t want to use anymore, so that he could make something for the synagogue.   The guy says sure, so along the floor he picked up some brass strips and some metal… .And he put them in a bag and in a box and he brought them home. And he said, Mr Schwartz, nobody called anyone by their first name.  Mr Schwartz, could you make something out of these strips of scraps?  And he said, you know, I think we can make some candlesticks.  OK so he put them away and Pa went to work and designed a pair of candelabras.  They’re over five feet tall and he specified to be electrified for electricity.  And he brought them to Mr. Silvers and he said if we had a drawing he could cut it out.  He has instruments and things that could cut the metal to just like a pattern on a dress.  So Papa set about getting paper long enough and he had someone help him draw the outline of what he wanted and it was made.  The patterns were made and he brought them to Mr. Silvers and said, “Could you work from this?”  Absolutely he could work from this … and they set about making the patterning for the candelabras.


The candelabras have been in the synagogue since and in fact represent a multi-generational legacy.  Fannie restored them prior to her daughter’s wedding at the synagogue.

My raw material is story. Sometimes I have some imagery to work with as well.  In this case, I had images of the candelabras, the candlesticks and a photo of Fannie’s mother.  With fire as a central image I made the background flame colored.  I pulled out the suggestion of the candelabras at an angle and duplicated part of the image to fill in the left side of the canvas.  Making use of negative space I darkened the empty space that surrounded the form of the candelabra.  I sketched in one of the candlesticks with smoke forming an arc above.  The central figure was Fannie’s mother holding two papers just bursting into flame.  The figure is in front of the candlestick, but I liked the form of the candlestick and left the figure with some transparency so the candlestick shows through. The white of the papers, the candle and the face draw the focus.

I liked the idea of the candle burning representing the ebbing of time and the urgency to preserve legacy in the light of the flames so rapidly destroying it.  The candelabra represented a multi-generational legacy that continues to this day.

  This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Recommended Reading V: Favorite Fiction

I’ve saved fiction for last, a few have been mentioned elsewhere in this series of entries so let me address those that haven't been mentioned previously.

For the Jewish experience in France, there is Sarah’s Key, a book that was recently released as a movie.  It details the gathering of the Jews at the Vel d’Hiv, prior to their deportation.  The story is told through the eyes of a ten year old girl as well as a modern day journalist.    In a prior incarnation the Vel d’Hiv served as the arena for bicycle races, a location that is fondly remembered by Hemingway for the races that he attended there.  I am struck by how such different associations can be attached to the same location at different points in time.  The book was not one of my favorites, but it did illuminate the French history of the Holocaust.  My visits to Paris will never be quite the same.

Also capturing the French experience, although not specifically Jewish, are the two books listed by Irene Nemirovsky.  Although raised as a Catholic, but born as a Russian Jew, the author died in a concentration camp.  A well-known author in her day, in Suite Francaise she writes of the Parisians fleeing Paris ahead of the Germans.   Years later her daughter goes through her papers and discovers this last novel which was ultimately published sixty years after her death.   Fire in the Blood was discovered soon after.

 I just finished the book Smuggled by Christina Shea which relates the story of a Hungarian Jew hidden as a child in Romania by her non-Jewish father’s sister.  The story follows her life after the war under Communist control and is an interesting view of life under Soviet constraints as well as after the fall of Soviet control.

Rashi’s Daughters is a series of books by Maggie Anton and tell the story of the daughters of the famous Talmudic scholar.  I found these quite fascinating from a historical standpoint as they highlight the life of women within the Ashkenazic Jewish culture and present it from a female perspective.   Rashi’s daughters were very unusual in that they studied the Talmud with their father who had no sons.  The Talmud and Talmudic arguments are interwoven into the text.  The stories take place in eleventh century France and the professional roles of Jews as Talmudic scholars and traders are well represented.  The author’s extensive historical research as well as many years of Talmud study enrich these stories.

On the theme of Yiddish there are two books I would recommend in addition to the non-fiction Outwitting History of which I previously wrote.  A few years ago I wrote about my discovery of Dara Horn’s writing.  My favorite book of hers is The World to Come which melds a true story of a heist of a Chagall painting with Yiddish literature and Jewish mysticism. Horn artfully weaves characters from modern day New Jersey with Russian Yiddish writers during the time of Stalin. It has a very magical quality and draws heavily on Yiddish literature. The author won the National Jewish Book Award for her first book and has a doctorate in Hebrew and Yiddish Literature from Harvard.

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter by Peter Manseau is a well written and fascinating book about a Yiddish poet and his life in Russia and as an immigrant in the US. The poet has written his life story, but his book is in Yiddish so he connects with a young man to help him translate it.  The young man is Catholic, as is the author, and like the author worked as a Yiddish archivist.  I was very intrigued by the author’s background as his prior book Vows is a memoir of growing up as the son of a former priest and nun.  The book felt very authentic in the manner in which it addressed Yiddish themes and I would highly recommend it.

In my opinion Geraldine Brooks has never written a book that didn’t warrant five stars. People of the Book is no exception.  Here she traces the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah through centuries of history and the people who preserved it.  A rare book expert is her modern day character who works to restore the Haggadah and learn its secrets.   This is both a historical novel and a modern day love story.

Finally on my list is the book Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum.  In this book the main character is doing a series of oral histories with both German and Jewish survivors.  The author did Shoah interviews for the Shoah Foundation so writes from her experience.  This current story is interwoven with her mother’s secret love affair with a Jew and her subsequent coercive relationship with a high ranking Nazi.  I’ve heard Blum speak and found her a very engaging speaker as well as a talented author.

With this post, I’ve concluded my discussion of the books that are listed on this blog, but hopefully not my discovery of new books of similar genre.  I welcome any recommendations from readers of books that I may have missed.

Stay tuned for posts on artwork from the Jewish Identity & Legacy project.

Monday, October 10, 2011

In Search of Community

When I began to explore family history it had some unexpected consequences.  I began to develop a Jewish community.   As a non-religious Jew I had often developed friendships with others of Jewish heritage just because we shared a similar energy, but being Jewish was incidental to our friendship.  Suddenly my exploration of my own family history connected me with a genealogy community sharing an interest in Jewish heritage.  A number of my new friends have done adult Bat Mitzvahs as part of their exploration, moving from a cultural interest towards a religious one, but most importantly seeking out a broader Jewish community.   While I don’t see a Bat Mitzvah in my future, I did decide to explore a new direction during the High Holidays.

A new friend had shared with me her enthusiasm about her Jewish humanist community.  I decided to attend their High Holiday services as part of my exploration of Jewish identity.  As someone who has not attended a temple or synagogue regularly for many years, it was an interesting experience.  To my surprise, I found that I liked the sense of community and the thoughtful commentary by members.  I especially liked the involvement of young children.  Much of my adult life was lived without family around me and I used to think of religious bodies as focused on families rather than people like me.  Now I find I rather like the involvement of children as it speaks to legacy, passing traditions on to a new generation.  I also loved the music, singing familiar songs, but frequently with a twist in the words to accommodate a humanist orientation.  The cello and violin performances were a joy that alone would have made attending worthwhile.

Now humanist services are not quite what I’m accustomed to from my Reform Jewish upbringing.  God isn’t really a part of them.  Instead they focus on the human spirit and the recognition of the joys and challenges we face in being human.  At the same time, humanism isn’t so different from my early religious exposure.   I remember my rabbi leading a discussion in my confirmation class about whether God existed and if so in what form.  I rather liked that.  I like when everything is up for debate.  One of the reasons I identify with Judaism, at least the Reform variety, is it has no dogma.  The mere fact that we could have that debate sold me on the religion which is in large part a religion of debaters.  Jews challenge, they test, they question.  That may have begun as part of the religious culture, but it is also very much a part of Jewish identity, even without the religious underpinnings.

I believe religion is how we explain the unknown and I'm willing to live with the fact that I don't know.    And even as I say that, I also figure I can anthropomorphize God with the best of them and my version has a sense of humor, is often bemused by me, accepting of my foibles and gives me the benefit of the doubt, something we all could benefit from doing with those around us.  Perhaps the humanist version would say that represents me being kind to myself.

I noted that many couples in inter-faith marriages attended the services.  Not surprisingly couples who come together around shared values, despite different religious traditions, are likely to seek a community that  accommodates those values.

I find it a bit amusing that Jews have a humanistic group that isn’t God-centered.  I suppose it’s the Unitarian version with heritage.  Long ago in my prior marriage we were exploring different religious options and my then-husband was very interested in the Unitarians.  We went to a gathering and I came away thinking, nice community, not at odds with my beliefs and values, and yet I hesitated.  In trying to explain that hesitation I recall saying it seemed a bit bland to me.  I had a rich heritage that I didn’t want to give up. 

I haven’t yet come to a conclusion on whether a humanist gathering is the right one for me.  I liked many things about it, but part of me really missed the traditional Kaddish.  I’ve recited it at many grave sites in Eastern Europe where a humanist version just wouldn’t have felt right.  Part of honoring the ancestors is to do it in a way that would have felt familiar to them.

And yet… Jewish humanism has its place for those of us who value our culture, but are not religiously bound.   Even as a non-religious Jew, Jewish identity is intertwined with the person I am.  It relates to my social and political values, to my need to question and find my own path, and to the value I place on intellect, education and achievement.   Those are qualities that I value in myself and in others and any gathering that fosters those qualities is one to be celebrated.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Making Knishes

It has been a while since I wrote about the artwork I’ve been doing for the Jewish Identity and Legacy Project, but I have been hard at work.  Several paintings are in various stages of completion.  As you will recall I had been working on a series of paintings based on the oral histories from Sholom Home, a Jewish elder facility. Interviewees represent Russian immigrants, Holocaust survivors who came here after the war and those who grew up in early Jewish immigrant communities.

One of our interviews was with a woman who lived on the Iron Range, an area in Northern Minnesota where small Jewish communities have largely disappeared.  She had fond memories of Virginia, Minnesota which today has a population of around 9,000. 

I really liked living (there). We had a Hadassah, we had every organization the Jewish people have in the cities on a smaller scale and we made different affairs to raise money.  It was wonderful living there.


The synagogue has been turned into a community center as only two Jews remain.  Because the Jewish population was small there was much more interaction with their neighbors and she fondly remembers sharing traditions with her non-Jewish neighbors.

I never once met a person that I thought was anti-Semitic.  My friends in Virginia were some Gentiles and they had us for Christmas and I had them for Yom Kippur, I did.  They learned how to make knishes.  I taught them how to make knishes. I used to make bagels.  We were the best of friends.

 Minneapolis was known as a hotbed of anti-Semitism at that time, but she does not remember encountering it in her small town where the religious communities were well integrated.

I had little in the way of direct imagery from which to work so in this case I had to decide how to portray the intersection of cultures.  I decided to build on the idea of making knishes. 

To that end I viewed videos of women making knishes and decided to build an image of women’s hands in action, one of those gatherings of women engaged in a common activity that bridges differences.  Behind them is a Christmas tree to represent the sharing of cultures.  The painting is titled Making Knishes.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Question of Identity

Have you ever noticed that when you are tuned into something, you spot it everywhere? Perhaps you had a particular type of dog once upon a time and now you are always on the lookout for that breed.  Since the loss of a wire-haired terrier, I’ve been known to follow after people walking white dogs with jaunty tails just to pet the pup.  I’ve spotted wire-haired terriers all over the world.

As I’ve become interested in the question of identity it seems to pop up everywhere and there I am following behind.  I started this exploration with the oral history project Jewish Identity and Legacy, but am finding that many of the same issues cut across racial identity, gender identity and many other identities.  This week I attended a talk by Michelle Norris of NPR who has written a book called the Grace of Silence.  Originally this was to be a book focused on the emerging discussion about race after the Obama election.  Instead it took her into long buried family secrets and questions of identity and legacy.

I quickly read the book prior to her talk and would highly recommend it.   She talks about her family’s focus on outdoing the neighbors to counter black stereotypes, from keeping the nicest yard to being the first to get the snow shoveled.  I loved the impudence of her mother in the stories about neighbors selling their homes after they moved in.  When the real estate agent showed up with potential buyers she would send her children out to play, emphasizing the presence of a black family next-door.  She then delves into what wasn’t spoken about.  Her father’s shooting by a Birmingham police officer, her grandmother’s work as a traveling Aunt Jemima and the unease with burdening the next generation with this history.

At the talk she asked the question, how often do you think about your race?  Many non-whites at the event replied, “Every day”.  One woman said she didn’t think about it when she lived in New York, but upon moving to Minnesota she was far more conscious of it because there was less diversity.

I turned that question around a bit in my mind and thought, “How often do I think of religious or ethnic identity?”   When I was growing up, I thought about it with every well-meaning teacher who asked me to talk about Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday that has the distinction of falling close to Christmas.  I thought about it when we sang Christmas carols at school and I would go silent on the words “Christ” or “Jesus”.   As the only Jewish kid in my grade school classes, I felt painfully conscious of differences, but I participated in the culture that surrounded me. I helped my friends decorate their Christmas trees and paint their Easter eggs.  I even looked into the sky for Santa on Christmas, a little Jewish kid believing in a myth that wasn’t even mine.  And I vividly remember when my parents tried to end the one effort they made to allow us to share in the celebrations around us.  When my siblings and I were young our house was the only one on the block that wasn’t lit up on Christmas.  No tree graced our living room, but my parents broke down on one small thing.  They allowed us a stocking that they filled with stocking stuffers.  One day they guiltily decided they had to end this ritual, but how to do so?  They finally settled on a myth to counter the myth, a hair of the dog that bit us.  They announced that they were going to call Santa and tell him we were Jewish and he didn’t need to stop at our house when he made his rounds.  I still recall them on the phone as we screamed, “Noooooooooo!  Don’t tell him!!!”  So what did I learn from that?  If you tell people you are Jewish, you won’t get the goodies.

Growing up Jewish in a Midwestern town reinforced a sense of otherness even as it allowed me to develop a chameleon-like veneer that allowed me to fit in.  I still remember when I began to do work in New York.  I felt as if I expanded into myself, the kid raised by two Jews from Brooklyn, who had to fight for air time in family discussions came into her own.  No more reining myself in to keep from interrupting or finishing people’s sentences lest they take offense.  In New York that seemed to be just a conversational style, one I was very familiar with.  Discussions were infused with a familiar energy, one that I grew up with in my home, but squelched in public.

When I think of identity, I think of otherness.  Being different, being excluded, reining myself in lest I transgress on the norms of those around me.  It has less to do with religion, but far more to do with being different. When my friends visited family they went to the family farm, I went to Brooklyn.  My experience was different and different not only from my Christian Midwestern neighbors, but different from many Jewish communities.  I was a small-town Midwestern Jew and didn’t have the cultural affect that made many East Coast Jews more visible.  I wasn’t sure what my community was as it was an amalgamation of many and not clearly any one.  Perhaps that is why identity is a topic that interests me.

When I contrast my experience with that of race, I realize it has a different dimension than that of those who wear their otherness on their skin.  I don’t wear my ethnicity openly and given my Midwestern roots, I don’t display it in my manner.  In some ways that may make it more complex as I can choose when to introduce my different background, or conversely not to do so.  My name is a Jewish one and I have always been glad I kept it upon marriage as I’ve come to embrace my otherness.  My name is the tip off that my background may be different, not quite the same as many of the people around me.    For other Jews it is the tip off that we share a common heritage and creates an openness that might not exist as quickly otherwise.

Since I’ve been working with material that relates to ethnic heritage I think about it far more often.   My current bodies of work deal with the traces of the Jewish community in Lithuania and in Poland.  Some of the Lithuania work has dark stories related to the Holocaust and how it is addressed there today.  I find that when one does work related to family history, and one’s history is Jewish, the Holocaust is a topic that is hard to avoid.  When people come into my studio or to talks, I discuss the work and the journey.  There is a part of me that always feels a bit apologetic when I share the stories with Jewish content when my audience is not Jewish.  I hasten to add that I realize this is not a rational part of me.  Everyone should know about the Holocaust and my artwork and stories help to make it accessible.  It is not just a Jewish story, and yet….there is that irrational hesitance.   I am often surprised that interest in this story is by no means exclusive to those of Jewish ancestry so this hesitance is more about me, me declaring my Jewish ethnicity, me declaring my differences very vocally.  Perhaps it is about the chameleon Midwestern me who got used to flying below the radar, who feels some discomfort at being public about my differences.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Recommended Reading IV: Memoirs and History

We have but a few non-fiction books remaining on the list, two memoirs and one history.   Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky details the creation of the Yiddish Book Center. Outwitting History tells of the early days when Lansky, then a graduate student, set out on a mission to save Yiddish books about to go to the dumpster.  He loaded his truck with books that few could actually read, believing there was a larger purpose in their preservation. The immigrants who called him would often feed him and tell him stories of their early life which adds considerably to the flavor of this book.  Today the Yiddish Book Center has over one million Yiddish books, has helped establish Yiddish collections at many libraries and makes them available to the public digitally.

The other memoir on the list is The Jew Store by Stella Suberman which seems like an odd name for a book, but in fact was what stores run by Jews in the South were often called.  I read this after I had read the Help and it provided yet another view of the South, the experience of being the only Jewish family in town forced to confront the racism towards the black population while trying to become part of the community in which you live.  Suberman’s father, a Russian Jewish immigrant established a store in a small town in Tennessee.  In 1920 they were the first Jewish family the town had encountered and over time came to think of it as home.  After eleven years they returned to New York largely out of concern that there was no Jewish community within which their children could marry.

I am currently reading a book that was recommended by one of the lecturers at the International Jewish Genealogy Conference.  Titled the History of the Jews in Russia and Poland by Simon Markovich Dubnow, it is a three volume work translated from Russian.  I dove into volume two which covers the 1800s, the period in which I was particularly interested.  This is supposed to be the definitive work on this topic and it is an eye-opening and interesting read, not at all hampered by the shift from another language and time.  As I was listening to the lecture, I went in on my netbook to the library and ordered it so it would be waiting on my return.  The second volume of the book was available, published in 1918, it details a period in time without the prescience of events yet to come.  The library book smelled musty and came with a library card detailing the first check out in 1926.  This must be what people who abhor electronic readers refer to when they say they like the smell and feel of a book.  Nonetheless I was thinking there were passages I’d like to mark and it dawned on me that Amazon might just have the book available electronically, something that hadn’t originally occurred to me because of the age of the book.  Much to my delight, not only was it available, but it was free.  If you prefer to get all of the volumes in hard copy you can get the three volume bound set through Avotaynu.  I highly recommend this book for any family historian exploring Jewish ancestry as it creates the historical context within which our families lived.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What I Do and Why I Do It

My artwork based on the former Jewish communities of Lithuania and Poland is currently in a solo show in St. Paul, Minnesota. I will be giving an artist talk in October and it has me reflecting on why I do what I do and what exactly is it that I do? Artist talks are an interesting exercise because they seek to put words to a process that evolves in part out of the subconscious. Even when I begin with a direction in mind, the painting often takes on a life of its own.

Not only does the individual painting evolve, but the series evolves over time. Often earlier work in a series is more representational and later work is more semi-abstract. It is as if I need to paint through the representational work to get to the other side before I can begin to experiment more with imagery. It is a mining process where I bring what is closer to the surface up more fully formed. The stratum below requires more exploration to take form and often takes me to interesting places because of the exploration required.

There is the individual artwork, the series of artwork and the larger structure within which it resides. For me that structure is story. Over time I’ve begun to realize that my artwork is all about story and artwork represents one medium among many that I may use to tell a story. I always include text and when I speak, I tell stories. More recently I’ve also been working with video. A friend of mine says I do performance art. I find that idea rather amusing as it conjures up images of the more dramatic performance artists, a Karen Finley smearing her body with chocolate. Not exactly me, but there is an element of performance in telling stories, albeit a little more sedate than the Finley variety.

There are different schools of thought about how much explanation an artist should provide. Should we be inscrutable and mystifying? I remember going to the Dali Museum in Figueres, Spain where Dali had no labels on his paintings. He wanted the viewer to make of it what they will. I’m at the other end of that spectrum. Very scrutable. I have a story in mind that I want to convey. You can see what you want to see in my artwork, but I also want to make sure you know what I see. I’m someone who reads everything around me, so text enriches my personal experience and I hope it does the same for my audience.

Five years ago I did an exhibition of work on family history. I learned a great deal from that exhibition that began to define how I work. I remember when I was preparing for an artist talk and expressed concern to my husband about whether anyone else would care about my family stories that were embedded in the artwork. My husband urged me to tell the stories and I was subsequently surprised to learn how much people resonate with story. One viewer wrote in the exhibition book that she didn’t know much about her family’s history, but knew it was similar to mine so pretended my family was hers as she went around the exhibit and viewed the artwork and read the text. For me that underscored that story is one of the ways we put ourselves in the shoes of another person. Of course, that is the magic of story, it allows for an empathetic response, something very important for the material with which I work. Since that exhibition, everything that I paint is about story. I often feel like a journalist asking “Where’s the story?” as I evaluate if I have enough story to spur my imagination and begin painting.

In addition to story, I also found that I needed to work with a series. While each painting may have an individual story it is by grouping multiple stories that we begin to tell a larger story, much like chapters in a book. Multiple stories can amplify each other or reveal different facets of the larger story.

I stumbled into story in my artwork, but in hindsight I realize it has been a theme in everything that I do. In fact, I often tell people that what I do is solve puzzles and tell stories. That is true of my prior career in finance and my subsequent pursuits in genealogy and artwork. And yes there are stories to be told through financial statements just as there are stories to mine through genealogy research and to tell through artwork. Those two constructs, telling stories, solving puzzles, link together seemingly disparate pursuits. It is not surprising that I’ve learned story is a guiding principle in my artwork.

If one’s focus is on telling stories through a series of paintings it follows that it is important both to focus on solo shows that share a body of work, to welcome opportunities to speak publicly about one’s work and to write about it as well. It also means that artwork is a medium for story telling rather than the end point in itself. It is a means of communication, not just about creating a pleasing image to hang on the wall. And it means that I choose stories that have depth and meaning, that are about topics I care deeply about. And that is what I do and why I do it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Recommended Reading III: Germany During the Third Reich and Jewish Cultural Revival in Poland

Sometimes I find a book that is challenging to read, but an informative and important source.  Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich is such a book.  It is a book of oral histories with German women who were young women during the Third Reich and their late in life recall of their reactions and awareness of what was occurring.  I am very interested in the question of how humanity fails.  How do we allow genocide in our midst? What do we see? What do we close our eyes to? What do we reframe to make it acceptable?  I found I couldn’t read it straight through because of the content, so interview, pause, next interview became my rhythm.  Owings interviews a cross-section of women, from a prison guard, to members of the Nazi party to the widow of a resistance leader.  Along the way it forces one to imagine one’s own response to similar circumstances .

Also based in Germany is the recent book In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larsen.  This fascinating book is based on the experience of Ambassador Dodd, a history professor who becomes the Ambassador to Germany in 1933.  He has a front row seat to the emergence of the Nazi party and the people whose names we associate with evil.  His daughter has an initially sympathetic view of the Nazi government until events cause the family to recoil in horror.  Dodd is not in the mold of the typical foreign service ambassador and struggles with the good old boy aspects of the job.  Upon returning to the United States he spoke widely of his concerns about what he observed.  The book also presents an interesting view of the anti-Semitism embedded in the State department that sought to prevent wider awareness of what was occurring.  Their main concern was with collecting money Germany owed to the US.

There are two books that I read prior to going to Poland to build a backdrop for my travels.  One is by Ruth Ellen Gruber titled Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.  Gruber writes of the resurgence of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe despite the fact that few Jews remain in that region. Jewish museums, klezmer music and Jewish cafes are suddenly in demand and embraced by non-Jews.  Gruber explores the reasons behind this.  When I attended the Vilnius Yiddish Institute there were many students who were not Jewish.  American students found this unusual, but many of the students from Eastern Europe viewed the Jewish history as part of the history of their country as well.  In Radom, Poland I observed first hand this renewed interest when I exhibited artwork on the former Jewish community.  In fact, the arts and culture center does a focus on the former Jewish community each year and the former Jewish school has been adopted by a Polish school on the same street.  They seek to commemorate the students and teachers on a website.  It is a phenomenon that I find quite interesting and somewhat puzzling.

The second book that helped to build some context for my travels in Poland was Shtetl by Eva Hoffman.  Hoffman traces the history of Jews in Poland and focuses in on one town to explore the often intersecting lives of Poles and Jews.  As both a Pole and a Jew, Hoffman brings an objectivity to her subject.  While sometimes dry, the book added to my understanding of the history of Poland and the shared history of the Jews and Poles.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Finding Your Family's Ancestral Towns -Part II


A few years ago I was doing research for a client in LA.  She had family that came to St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1800s and didn’t know where they came from.  While I was quite envious of the extensive research she could do in the US, I realized that I had an advantage in having my European origins in the more recent past, relatively speaking. Records after 1906 provide much more extensive information and her relatives had been here for several decades by then.  I had traced her family through the census and had searched for immigration records.  Immigration records were difficult to find and there was often no way to confirm that it was the correct record.  Without those critical two points to draw the line between (relatives in Europe, relatives in the US), we had only supposition.   Early naturalization records are also just as sketchy as early immigration records. 

I decided to try a new tack, probate records.  I was able to find an index listing for my client’s great-grandfather for a will in the Minnesota Historical Society Library.  A fabulous place for anyone doing research on Minnesota relatives, this library offers birth and death records, countless newspapers, city directories and more.  A friend was able to find his relative’s personnel file in the records of the railroad.  I took the index number over to Ramsey County Courthouse where I located the Probate Office.  They quickly settled me at a microfilm reader and pulled up the great-grandfather’s will from the 1930s. 

The will offered a wealth of information.  It identified family members, in one case a sister of whom we hadn’t been aware.  It noted causes that he gave to, property he held and lo and behold---the town of birth.  The will noted the town of Good Levey, Poland.  I went to the Town Finder at Jewishgen and input the name.  Up came the town of Garliava, Lithuania.  The Russian and Polish name was Godlevo.

But we had another clue in the sister’s name.  We began to search that new branch and learned that the sister had sons.  We found their immigration records in 1907 which was a challenge as the name had converted from Bartelstein to Burton.  In the record it indicated that they were going to their uncle, my client’s great-grandfather in St. Paul and gave their town of origin.  This was further validated by another source.   As young men her sons had to register for the draft in WWI.  Their draft registration also indicated the town from which they came, a town just 35 miles away from Garliava. 

Emboldened by my success in the St. Paul court records, I explored the Surrogate Court (same as Probate Court)  records in Brooklyn for my own family.  While no one had the wealth to justify a will, I did find guardian papers and records that unveiled other mysteries.  One relative who lived in Brooklyn, but had died at her son’s in Morristown had a document that listed all of her children with their married names.  It was quite simple to go to the court office, check a card file and have them pull up the requested documents. 

There is no magic bullet for discovering the town of origin.  Immigration records post 1906 are the easiest route.  Even if the family came in the 1800s, it is possible that a family member came to them after 1906.  If immigration records are not available you will need to continue to explore other avenues.  Probate records provided an unexpected source for this information. 

I am currently working with another person whose family came over in the 1800s where we are trying to find the ancestral town.  We’ve been successful in working our way back through census records.  We then found burial records on the Jewish On-Line Worldwide Burial Registry.  This program, that I often contribute to when I photograph tombstones in Eastern Europe, also has many photos from the US.  In this case the family cemetery was well documented and provided some information that may prove helpful.  It gave us both her great-grandfather’s Hebrew names and the names of his father.  The great-grandfather’s name in the US was Louis, but his Hebrew name was Nachum Leib.  I have found that these names are often used interchangeably so we can now search using one or the other or both.  With the names of her great-grandfather and his father we can search in European records, but it is still a broad universe within which to search without the town of origin.  The next step would be to find death records for the great-grandfather.  Death record information is as good as the knowledge of the person providing it. As his wife was still alive upon his death, she would be familiar with the town he came from.  If we are lucky it will give us something more than the ubiquitous “Russia”.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Finding Your Family's Ancestral Towns I

One of the most perplexing questions people face when they begin genealogy research is identifying where their family came from.   I have been working with a friend to determine the answer to that for her family and am reflecting on how I first learned of the ancestral towns of my family.  I’ve known them for so long now that I forget there was a time I didn’t.

In the case of my Kishlansky branch, I had a three page history written by my grandfather that told me of Kamenetz-Podolsk as his town of origin.  My mother also told me that she remembered her mother talking of Kamenetz.  She thought she was saying Communist and it was not until much later that she realized it was actually the name of the town of origin.

My Belarussian ancestors are all buried in the cemetery section in New York for people from Dunilowitz.  Many Eastern European towns had burial societies in the US, especially in places like NY.  People from the same shtetl often ended up buried together, recreating their original community beneath the ground.  A cousin of my father’s clued me in to this detail which was later confirmed by immigration records.

My other town is Radom, Poland and I believe family was aware of this town of origin.  I know that my aunt told me of it when I did an oral history with her 25 years ago.  Obviously asking family members is the best place to start with this research.


Having the town made my search for immigration records more focused.  Any family name from those towns was a possible relative.  Even with this advantage, it still took me several months to find all of the immigration records.  Names were spelled a variety of ways and often transcribed incorrectly.  Town names also varied significantly.  When in doubt I input the town name into stevemorse.org and went through every person who came from that town.

I was fortunate in some respects in that many family members came over after 1906 when the immigration records began to offer greater information.  After that time they tell you who the nearest relative was in Europe and who the nearest relative was where they were going.  For my more unusual names I built a database of every person who came to the US with that name.  Then I started playing the match game looking for relationships between those two data points of European family and American family.

When I build the database, I use filters so I can sort it easily by different details.  I have a column by year and I code the family names and towns so I can sort them even if they are recorded by a variety of spellings.   I then sort by immigration date and relationships become much more apparent. Often it is a game of tag.  My first intrepid ancestor was my grandmother’s uncle Morris Kishlansky.  He went first to the UK with his wife where they had two children.  In 1898 he came to the US as Morris Kislianski indicating he had no relative at the other end to greet him.  I wonder what that experience was like.  He’d had a few years in London with his family to learn the language, but his mission was to establish a solid foundation for his family in a new country.

He must have succeeded as his wife followed a year later with her two children indicating they were going to her husband.  The record noted they were from Russia and were coming from London, still no ancestral town was recorded.  In 1902 I see a record of a different last name going to the original stalwart immigrant.  Srul Baron was going to his brother-in-law Morris Kislynsky and he gives his home as Kamenik, the first mention of the ancestral town in immigration records.  I knew from my grandfather’s written history that my grandmother had an aunt Sarah Baron.  In 1903 my grandmother’s oldest brother Itzek makes his way to America to none other than Srul Baron, his uncle, followed in 1904 by Srul’s wife and children.  Now Itzek is tagged and his brother Benjamin comes to him in 1906.  It is late in 1906 that the laws change requiring more information in the manifest. Through this point there is no record of the nearest relative in Eastern Europe, but the town of origin is noted as Kamenetz.    But wait, Benjamin is coming from Chotyn.  What’s that about?  I map it relative to Kamenetz and learn that it is 30 miles away.  There was a time when Jews could not live close to the border of the Pale and were displaced from their homes.  Kamenetz Podolsk was close to the border. Perhaps this accounts for the periodic movement I see between Kamenetz and Chotyn. 

In 1911 my grandfather comes to his brother-in-law Itzek giving an address that I can look up in the 1910 census.  He too notes his town of birth as Kamenetz, but most recently was in Czortkow, Austria, a town not far from Kamenetz, perhaps a way station on his path to Rotterdam.   Interestingly he indicates he has no relative in Europe, despite the fact that his wife was still there.  My hunch was that he hoped to start a new unencumbered life.  When I painted this gentleman I called him The Enigma as he remains a puzzle.

In 1912 my grandmother’s brother Frank or Frajina makes his way to Itzek, noting both Kamenetz and his nearest relative in Europe, his father Avriam Kislanski.  A long period passes before further branches of this family immigrate.  There is a war to settle in Europe and a series of pogroms that break out in the region post-war.  In 1921 within a week of each other, my grandmother and her brother and sister-in-law, come to the US.  My grandmother is going to her husband giving his original name, not the one which he later assumed.  The family is back in Chotyn (Hotin) now where her nearest relative is given as an aunt.   I’m wondering if my great-grandfather is still alive.  Yes, I conclude when I find the records of her youngest brother and his wife, also from Chotyn (Hotin).  Her brother has indicated Abram, his father, as the nearest relative in Europe and Frank as the nearest relative in the US.  I’m curious about this aunt who took the place of the father as nearest relative in my grandmother's manifest.  That move to Chotyn, did it come about because of the pograms? All mysteries to which I may never know the answers.

I had an advantage in my research that many others don’t have.  If family came to the US in the early 1900s it is both easier to trace due to more information in records and family members are often more likely to know of the original town. What do you do if family came in the 1800s when records seldom indicated the origin?  Stay tuned and I’ll clue you in on some approaches.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Trusting the Process


I am a big believer in process.  I am often far more focused on the process than an endpoint, as I find that it leads me to places I never could have imagined. The process requires a willingness to experiment, to risk and to embrace the unknown.  Not to mention a little patience and faith that interesting things will happen, but not necessarily on my schedule.  All of these are things I’ve had to learn and sometimes relearn.

Lately I have been thinking of process in many realms of my life.  When I am in the process of doing a painting I frequently take photographs of its progress.  When I run those images through a slideshow I can watch my painting materialize through all of its stages.  This exercise never fails to reinforce my appreciation for the creative process. I have learned that there are often very small changes that can make a dramatic change in an image.  At times the process can seem glacial.  When I first had the flexibility to focus more time on my artwork, I thought I’d be at the studio every day.  I soon realized that gestational time was as important as painting time.  Sometimes ideas on how to develop a painting occur to me when I’m driving or doing something totally unrelated to painting.  The diversion allows my subconscious to kick in.  I’ve written in these pages of a time that I painted over a painting in frustration only to discover that the partially hidden image spoke to me in a way that the original didn’t.  When I’m not satisfied with an image I have been known to glaze it with a wash of white or gold paint, often improving the image in ways I would not have expected.  Sometimes it takes enough dissatisfaction to take the very risks that could ruin the painting, if they don’t save it.  I have learned it is all part of the process.

I don’t think this fascination with process is a new thing for me. I still have boxes of old letters I wrote in high school and college.  I once knew someone who after he was forty got rid of all his correspondence, not wanting his private life to be too visible to others should something happen to him. Conversely I am enamored with the process of how we become who we are, some characteristics visible from the beginning, others gradually unveiled as we get more comfortable in our own skin.  I keep that record of correspondence because it reveals the “me of then” on the way to becoming the “me of now”.

When I speak publicly I often tell stories about my artwork as well as the story of how one series of work has led to the next and opened up new doors along the way.  That too is a process.  I once took an art class from Minnesota artist David Feinberg.  He said something that I’ve always remembered:  He told us that our second painting would be similar to the first, the third would be similar to the second, but the tenth would not be at all similar to the first.  He was of course speaking to the process by which each step influences the next until we look behind us with amazement at how far we’ve come, often to a very unanticipated place.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Recommended Reading II: Family Searches and Unexpected Places

This is Round II of recommended reading.  Many of these books I’ve stumbled over by accident, others have been recommended by others.  If you are aware of other books that you would recommend, please don’t hesitate to share them.

In the course of my reading I’ve read several books on the search that others have pursued for their family roots.  In the case of Jewish roots that often takes you headlong into the Holocaust.  Perhaps the best known book of this genre is The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn who launched an extensive and well documented search into the fate of relatives from the town of Bolechow, Ukraine.  I feel a certain kinship as his guide on this effort was Alex Dunai, who also accompanied me to the Ukraine. 

Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History by Helen Epstein chronicles three generations of Czech women.  It presents the impact of the Holocaust on the Czechs, but is also an interesting story from the standpoint of the lives of the women it chronicles.  

The Pages in Between by Erin Einhorn relates the story of her mother, hidden as a child in Poland in exchange for the family’s property.  Erin’s grandmother dies in the Holocaust, but her grandfather survives, reclaims his daughter and moves with her to the US.  Einhorn, a journalist, goes back to Poland to find the people who hid her mother and finds that a property transaction lies unresolved raising many of the sensitive issues that remain between Jews and Poles.

A family history written from a very unique angle is the recently released The Hare With the Amber Eyes by Eduard de Waal.  This book tells the story of the Ephrussi family, a wealthy banking family, through the lens of netsuke that were collected and then gifted within the family.  Originally from Russia, he traces the family through Paris and Vienna.  This is not your typical family history.  These family members were written about by Proust and were friendly with and collected artists such as Moreau, Renoir, Whistler and Monet.  The author’s grandmother corresponded with Rilke.  They lived in a rarefied world, but were ultimately driven from their home and property by the Nazis. Today the netsuke that have made this arduous journey through time reside with the author and his children play with them.

There are also a cluster of books about the families of those with Jewish heritage from regions quite outside the typical Eastern European roots.   The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado  chronicles the move of her family from Egypt to the United States reminding me of the mass exodus of Jews from Arab lands after the creation of Israel.   From comfortable and settled lives, they became immigrants, not always ready to embrace this new world so different from what they had known.  Often they struggle with living at an economic and social level much lower than their prior status.

My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel  Sabar  looks at his father’s prior life in Iraq.   His father is now a preeminent Aramaic scholar and part of the story is about the son learning to appreciate the color and texture of his father’s life.  His father came from a Kurdish enclave in Iraq where Jews had lived for 3000 years.  Jews were expelled from Iraq in 1951 and his father moves to Israel.  Here he experiences the low regard in which Kurdish Jews are held, considered to be rather backward and at the bottom rung of the society. Ultimately working his way into Yale, he becomes the expert in Aramaic, the language spoken by those who lived in Kurdish Iraq.   This book is in part a family roots search, but in the framework of an unexpected region.  It also is a story of a son coming to an understanding of his father’s life experiences.   

In the same vein is a fictionalized story, Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer.  The story tells the harrowing tale of a Jewish family in Iran in 1981.  The author’s family escaped from Iran in 1982 after her own father was imprisoned so one gets the sense that this is semi-autobiographical.

The Girl From Foreign by Sadia Shepard is a journey into a Jewish family’s past in India and Pakistan. At her grandmother’s deathbed the author learns that her grandmother was born as a Jew in India and moved to Pakistan after becoming the third wife of a Muslim businessman.  The book is as much about the search as the discoveries and takes the reader along on the journey into a world that is both foreign and fascinating.

I am struck by the fact that several of these books were written by authors who were not raised as Jews and come from mixed marriages.  The search into their Jewish heritage was often a search to better understand an aspect of themselves.  Virtually all of the non-fiction memoirs were written by journalists or in one case a documentary maker.  All were very accustom to finding and telling a story.  The one exception to this rule is de Waal who is actually a very accomplished potter.  He too succeeds in crafting a compelling story.  And for most the story is as much about the search as the discoveries, a lesson all genealogists know well.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Recommended Reading I: Jews of Eastern Europe

You may have noticed an addition to this blog.  On the right of the page you will find a list of books that I’ve read in the past few years with Jewish content.  They cover a wide range of subject matter, but all have been helpful to me in expanding my understanding.  Many of them are nonfiction although there is also some fiction among them and some of them I’ve written about in these pages.  I find that many of the ones I enjoy the most are written by journalists as they seem to have a unique talent for taking real events and crafting them into a rather gripping story.  As my discussions of recommended books have become buried in these pages, I thought I’d cull them out and in subsequent entries provide brief comments on some of those I haven’t previously discussed.

In this blog entry I’ll focus on the ones I’ve discussed within the blog already and where you can find them.  While I’ve included the books with Jewish content on this list, they provide interesting reading for a broad range of readers, Jewish ancestry not required.

You will find discussion of Masha Gessen’s book Ester & Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace in Jewish Life in the Soviet Union.  This book provided insight into both the war time and post war period and its impact on Jews in the Soviet Union.  A good companion book on this topic is A Hole in the Heart of the World by Jonathan Kaufman which follows the life of five Jews from the war to post-war in Eastern Europe.  You will find some discussion of it in my entry Readings on the Jews of Eastern Europe.  I found these books both very readable and very important in increasing my understanding of Jewish life in Eastern Europe post-war. 

Also in Readings on the Jews of Eastern Europe is The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe by Eli Valley, a must read prior to visiting Budapest, Warsaw, Cracow or Prague, unfortunately too big to easily carry on your travels.  Filled with historical anecdotes it brings color and context to your travels. 

The Kati Marton books on Budapest are discussed in the The Budapest Brain Drain and I highly recommend all of her work for both insights into post-war experience and the many influences of Budapest Jews on the United States. My favorite book was The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World

 In Favorite Travel Tools and Books you will find discussion of The Zookeeper’s Wife that I suggest you read prior to visiting Warsaw or to learn more about the Warsaw ghetto.  It is based on actual people and events and we were delighted to find references to the people of whom we read at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Also in that entry you will find discussion of Not Me, a fictional story that was interesting reading that also touched on Madjanek. 

Anton, the Dove Fancier is discussed in How They Lived, short stories based on Radom, Poland by a survivor.  These are beautifully written with a photographer’s eye for detail.  In A Contact, A Book and An Interview you will find mention of Everything is Illuminated and The Heavens are Empty, books based on the virtually all Jewish town of Trochenbrod.

In Across the Pond you will find discussion of the Ponary Diary which I often reference when I speak about my Lithuanian based artwork as it recounts the story of the Vilnius Jews murdered in Ponar.  As background on Vilnius you may also want to read Lucy Davidowicz's From That Time and Place which is discussed in Jewish Ghetto Walk.  While not easy reading and filled with names, it is a first person account of Vilnius in the pre-war period and a sad recounting of the fate of many of Davidowicz's friends.

In addition to these books I also wrote of The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson in the entry The Great Migration.  While not Jewish in content so not on this list, it sparks insights for anyone with an interest in immigration and certainly made me think of Nazi Germany in its description of the South at the time of the Jim Crow laws.

In subsequent entries I will address some of the other readings that have informed my search, deepened my understanding and provided context for much of what I've observed.