Friday, October 29, 2010

Of Bicyclists and Water Carriers

I am continuing to develop the series on the Jewish community of Radom, the town in Poland from which my grandfather came.  I am using a 1937 homemade film of the Jewish community as source material and am painting in a size of 12 inches by 12 inches.  There is something satisfying about working in this size.  It is a study, a snapshot of a moment in time. Something I should be able to capture quickly, although that is not always the case.

I’ve learned that size has little to do with the amount of work a painting may demand. Someone recently asked me how long a painting takes me. Some paintings almost paint themselves. Others start with an idea that evolves. Sometimes there are happy accidents and sometimes it is a struggle and I paint over it several times before arriving at something with which I am satisfied. When I paint something that is representational it is easier in the sense that I know where I am going with it although I may struggle to capture it. When I am trying to capture a quality evoked through texture or layering, I may work it extensively. And there are those paintings that lean against the wall indefinitely waiting in vain to be announced as finished.

I am posting two that are still in progress.  The one on the left is of a bicyclist on a crowded street. As I look at a cross-section of seven paintings I find that there are qualities I like in some better than others. In some paintings I’ve used medium to build up the surface and then carved into it giving it a three dimensional quality. I plan to go back to the other paintings to try to create that same quality so they look more unified.

Since I began this series I’ve had a serendipitous development. I’ve been doing quite a bit of public speaking on genealogy and artwork and someone who heard me speak remembered that a woman she met is a survivor from Radom. I called her up and discovered a wonderful connection quite apart from our Radom link. We’ve been getting together regularly and I’ve invited her to collaborate with me in this project by sharing her recollections around some of these images. My new friend is now in her 80s, but was 15 at the time of the war so her recollections of Radom are of school mates, summer camp and visits to the country. Her world was one in which they didn’t want to speak Yiddish because they considered themselves Polish. Youth groups were focused on Zionism. The streets were filled with people who appeared very modern next to the older religious Jews in their long black coats, very much the imagery that the film captures. We talked about the stereotypes that were fostered by Roman Vishniac’s photographs and how little they represented the reality of a city like Radom. And yet there are the anachronisms that existed side by side those more cosmopolitan citizens. In the imagery from the film there is one image of a water carrier. It seemed like a very unusual image to me and I asked her about it. Who did he carry water for? “Oh there were people who didn’t have indoor plumbing who bought water from him.” She urged me to paint him as he was truly an image from the past.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Great Migration

Immigration records are often the starting point in a family history search.  The records of my ancestors who came over in the early 1900s frequently reveal their nearest relatives in Europe and who they were going to in the United States.  From these records we can observe how each new immigrant helped the next.  Each new immigrant goes to a brother, uncle or cousin who has already braved the journey. Parents are often the nearest relative in Europe and frequently remained behind as each child departed. 

Stories that have been handed down often indicate difficulties in leaving the country with my grandmother actually taking a bullet in order to leave the Ukraine.  What drove them to such lengths to leave a familiar place for such a long and unknown journey?  Often it was the threat of a stint in the Russian Army or threats to their life presented by Cossacks and pogroms. 

I recently read a fascinating book that focused on a different kind of immigration that echoed the experience of my Jewish ancestors.  The book is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson.   It addresses the migration of Southern blacks to the North and views them through the lens of immigration theory.  From WWI through 1970, six million black southerners migrated from the South to the North.

Although it took place within the confines of one country, it meets many of the characteristics of immigration.  The South under Jim Crow laws was unquestionably a dangerous, dehumanizing and limiting environment in which to live.  Lynchings and the inability to defend oneself were not unlike the pogroms that arose periodically in Eastern Europe leaving as many as 300 dead in their wake, the tally in my grandmother’s shtetl a year before she departed for the United States. The North, while by no means prejudice free, did not have prejudice embedded in the very fabric of its laws like the South.  It presented a land of opportunity to blacks in terms of quality education, the opportunity to move freely and freedom from threats to their life. 

As I read of their lives under Jim Crow laws I was surprised to learn how the restrictions arose after Reconstruction.  The North withdrew in the mid-1870s and Southerners began to take away the opportunities that had accrued to freed slaves in the intervening decades.  Freedoms were stripped away one by one, gradually dehumanizing them and constricting their world.  The restrictions that were imposed were eerily similar to many that were placed upon the Jews by the Nazis. 

Leaving was not an easy thing to do because Southerners didn’t want to lose their cheap labor force and often blocked their departure.  They had to plan their exit carefully often leaving from another town quietly to assure a safe exit.  Not unlike my family members who had to swim a river and were shot at crossing the border.

In the North the Southern blacks faced many of the challenges of other immigrants, compounded by the fact that race was a far more defining characteristic than ethnicity.  Wilkerson writes that immigrants who traveled the furthest against the most difficult challenges typically found a greater level of success.  Southern blacks were no exception to this rule spawning such well known names as Toni Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Jesse Owens, Oprah Winfrey, August Wilson and Michelle Obama. 

I found this book enlightening on many levels and thoroughly engaging.  Wilkerson follows the stories of three unrelated people from their experience in the South, their departure and their subsequent life in the North.  Her premise of “The Great Migration” as an immigration story creates a logical context through which to view the evolution of today’s black communities.  For me it created a level of empathy as I saw their experience echoed in my own family’s immigration story.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Solving the Puzzle

For the past few days I’ve been holed up in front of a microfilm reader at the Family History Library in Utah.  This is my annual trip to do genealogy research in the candy store for genealogists.  The library has many of the records that you would have to travel all over the US to locate.  In one place you can find a wide variety of records: birth, death and marriage records, immigration and naturalization records and countless other documents.  Not only does the library have US records, but they have European vital records. 

As I’ve been at this for many years, the discoveries are less frequent, but I had one exciting discovery on my first day.  For many years I’ve searched for my grandparents’ marriage certificate from the early 1900s.  I’m back to the 1700s in Poland, but I was quite frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t find a record that was slightly less than 100 years old in the US. I’ve researched records at the Family History Library in Utah and in NY and never had been able to find it.  There are sites that have developed finding aids, among them the Italian Genealogical Society which has an on-line index for brides and grooms in NY.  When you do research on the Internet, it is important to revisit paths you may have already explored.  As I was researching for a client, I decided on a whim to plug in my grandparents’ names despite the fact that I’d searched there unsuccessfully. To my surprise, the record came up.  Presumably it had been added since my last search.

When I arrived at the library, I made a bee-line to that microfilm.  There was the certificate with my grandmother’s brother-in-law and brother as witnesses.  My grandfather was the only one in his family who came to the US so had no family of his own represented.  Interestingly he indicated he was born in Warsaw even though I have his birth record from Radom, about 60 miles south of Warsaw.  My grandmother indicated that her birthplace was Vilna although she actually was born in a shtetl 75 miles away from Vilna, but in the Vilna gubernia. 

When I interviewed her daughter years ago she told me, “My father was from Warsaw, Radom.  Radom was a province of Warsaw.  My mother was from Vilna which was also a larger development. They were proud to be from large cities that represented more the intelligentsia.  People that came from small towns, they related to them as people coming from a "dorf".  A dorf is a forest, a wilderness, nothing.  In those years it was further to go to a school or to a development.  When my mother would relate (her past) she came from a shetl, a small town.”

In addition to my own records, I’ve been doing considerable searching for several clients and met with some success taking one family back to the client’s great-great grandparents.  It is often satisfying doing someone else’s research where there is still much to be discovered.  I am always fascinated by the process of unraveling the story.  In this case I did a lot of research on-line before I came to Utah.  I was able to find immigration and census records that built out the family tree to her great-grandfather and identified three of his siblings.  From the immigration record we identified the town the family came from.  In Utah I found the death certificate for her great-grandfather that gave his parents’ names giving us a solid base to begin to explore European records and a branch that immigrated to South America. 

The trio of records that I like to begin with includes immigration, census and death records.  Immigration records tell you who the nearest relative was in Europe, who they were going to in the US and the town they were from.  Once I determine the town, I map out all of the family names from that town and then start identifying relationships, frequently finding cousins and siblings.  Census records reveal immigration and naturalization dates and often verify family members with whom they were residing,  With some data points of ages, immigration dates and family members, I can verify death records which take us back one more generation.  My original search years ago was far more random as I had yet to learn the interconnections between the various records.

I often speak with fellow genealogists about what draws us to genealogy.  Solving puzzles is often the entry point.  In my work, I have always been intrigued with understanding the system, how one part interrelates with another and often leverages it.  Systems are a form of puzzle.   Just as a Suduko puzzle or Scrabble board is built on specific interrelationships, genealogy solutions also are derived from interrelationships. When you understand them you can use them as tools to solve the puzzle.