Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Broader Lens

Do you make New Year's resolutions? I don't do resolutions exactly, but I do set goals. I have this need to live purposefully and I confess to a bit of compulsiveness. I have reading goals and blog goals. I'm a little looser with goals for speeches and artwork, but I review my progress. I want to make sure that there is movement in the right direction, that inactivity hasn't taken root.

I turn a critical eye to my artwork. I've been exhibiting less as I create a coherent body of work with which I am pleased. I remind myself to be patient with the process. Sometimes I need to create something, anything, just to get the wheels turning before the good work will come. Sometimes I need to gestate, waiting for the work to arise in its own time. When to do which often remains a mystery.

Instead of my usual number counting at year-end, this year I thought I would think about the year through a broader lens. What did I learn about myself that surprised me? We start out with so many ideas about who we are and who we aren't. As we get older we have a chance to test those self-imposed boundaries. Sometimes we end up redefining ourselves, like learning as an adult that we actually like vegetables.

I am a believer in the idea that every situation can be mined for knowledge and understanding. That is a little different than the belief that things happen for reasons, more that I can find a logic or a lesson if I look hard enough. I once listed out the guys who had populated my life in my single days. Then I identified what I'd learned from each one. Some had introduced me to travel or art, elements that would become central in my life. Even bit players got me to explore running or cross-country skiing. One had introduced the idea of doing something creative and physical each day, an appealing idea for a goal-driven person like me. For at least one or two, my learning was "Phew... I won't do that again! " You take your lessons where you find them. It is in a similar vein that I consider what this year has taught me about myself.

I've learned that I like to talk, but not necessarily conversationally. I'm actually quite comfortable with living alone in my head much of the time, but I have found I like distilling ideas and sharing them through public speaking. Much to my surprise, I'm good at it. My scope has expanded. For a long time I had standard talks on themes in my artwork or genealogy, but I'm finding I like to create new material on different topics. I'm an idea person, I mull them around crunching on kernels, savoring the flavor of something new. Then I consider how to share it in an accessible way. I've begun to work with new material this year and have taken pleasure in it. I have a new-found appreciation for teachers who do this well and often. It is a lot of work. I have some talks next year that will allow me to find my voice in a fresh way.

Writing this blog helps me consider new ideas long before they turn into talks. It is a good vehicle for mulling, my first step as I consider ideas. Talking comes much later in the process. I don't like to open my mouth until I've fully considered what I want to say. I like things that many would consider tedious, taking a complex process or idea, and trying to distill it so it is understandable. Try writing about a genealogy search without putting people to sleep. Then try talking about it. It can be done, but it takes work, work with intention.

I have learned that time can be my friend as well as my enemy. I've been exploring a book on my interview series, as well as ways to fund it. I've been talking to publishers and other writers and learning as I go. All of this creates delays. There is an impatient part of me that says get this show on the road or bag it. I'm not good at living in the in between. Then I consider what I've learned by not pulling the trigger. It has not been wasted time. I know if I don't do something that is my best effort, it will eat at me. That is a learning I know well. So once again I remind myself to respect the process. Not everything must be done today. Time can be my friend as it allows understanding to deepen and ideas to unfold.

This post would not be complete without a comment on our larger political environment. I've learned that I care more about the future of our country than I would have imagined, as I watch values I cherish come under threat. I am reading the book Hamilton by Chernow. It is about the very thoughtful creation of our country as expressed by Hamilton and others of that time. As I read, I find myself encountering a response that is quite unexpected, sadness, sadness that we risk trampling on so many of the values that underlie this country. As we go into a new year I hope to find ways to support the world that I believe in, to not allow charlatans and those driven by self-aggrandizement and power to sully it. I didn't have to think about this before, now I do.

When to wait, when to move forward, when to practice so I'm ready when the time is right. When to consider my role and responsibility in the larger world. When to find the lesson to carry forward. Much of what we learn is that we need to unlearn. An impatient person must learn to wait. A hesitant person, must step forward. Being a bit of both, I suppose I must learn when to do which. And we all must learn how to make a difference in this world we inhabit.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Creative Legacy

I've written a great deal about my mother over the past several years, especially in this past year as I adjusted to her physical absence from my world.   As she lost memory in the last few years of her life she began to collage.  She used her newspaper for material and pasted it into lined spiral notebooks.  Every day she did this like a job, following her eye to where it took her, creating meaning for her days. Once I interviewed her about her process and she told me that these albums were part of her legacy.  

When she passed away, her collage cutouts filled her kitchen table and her kitchen chairs had albums piled high. I took a photo of her work space before I took her clippings and put them in an envelope. I couldn't quite bring myself to throw out this last vestige of my mother.

 We were delighted that she had found this pursuit, grateful that she had found an engrossing activity.  I had another feeling, pride. So many people dismiss someone as they lose memory, their presence diminished in the eyes of the world. My mom did some beautiful creative work and it reminded me that the same person was still in there. I had admired her in all the different stages of her life and that continued into this final stage, creative and purposeful to the end.


After her death, as we divvied up the accumulation of a lifetime, I took the 21 albums.   Now they occupy a box in my studio and we have considered framing some of her work to exhibit in conjunction with work I am doing on memory.  I also have begun to use them for inspiration as I work on a series called Through Her Eyes.  I am always motivated by the idea of a series with a theme and it occurred to me that I had some great source material.  I'm not sure if it is a series yet as I only have two done, but I have so often felt as if I were seeing the world through her eyes, that I may well continue in this vein.  

 I started by painting what I recalled from her imagery.  She had a definite color palette and often used flowers and fruit, butterflies often made an appearance as well.  You can see some of her work above.  As I used paint instead of collage, it created an image with echoes, but a different feeling.

Another interesting feature in her work was crowns of fruit. I had once brought down printouts of family pictures and on one of my visits we made family history collages together. I left her with the surplus of images and on my next visit found imagery of my sister and my grandmother crowned with fruit (see below).  I was regretting not including pictures of myself after that.

I decided a painting of my mother similarly crowned would also be fitting.  It is an interesting companion to a piece I did on the wisdom of mothers, drawn from the notes on wisdom that she kept on the many books she read. The theme of that was apples as well.

So below are two of the paintings I've been working on using her collages as inspiration. 

You can find more on how my mother's collages developed at Always an Artist. It is an interesting exploration about how creativity remains even when memory flees.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Lies, Lies and Damned Lies

I have been slowly immersing myself in the news now that the election is past. I am driven to stay informed, but can only digest the news in small doses.

For over a year it has been a constant litany of lies that incite bigotry against Mexicans and Muslims.  Now we are post-election and it continues. The CIA reported its findings of the Russians trying to sway the election to Trump. Our President-elect retorted that he didn't believe them and his opponents just didn’t want to acknowledge one of the biggest Electoral College wins in history, in reality one of the slimmest. Any hope of lying ending with the election is indeed futile. We've just given him a bigger megaphone and a veneer of credibility. The continual piling of lies on top of lies, stirs a deep unease within me. 

Photo by Dorothea Lange
Now lying has history in the United States.  Lies don't just exist in isolation as a distasteful act, they are a means to an end. They till the soil in preparation for more disturbing actions.

This weekend I went to a talk on the Japanese-American internment during WWII and it reminded me of the damage lies wrought in our country at that time. Sally Sudo spoke of her relocation and imprisonment and that of her family during WWII. Sudo was born in Seattle and spent 3 1/2 years from first grade to third behind barbed wire and under armed guards in watchtowers. What were you doing between age six and nine? I doubt barbed wire and armed guards occupy your memories. Sudo’s first-hand story was a fascinating one and I found myself considering what meaning it carries in today’s world.

Lately there seems to be a convergence of information. When that happens I am inclined to pay attention. Earlier in the week I received an article that presented the photos Dorothea Lange took of the camps, photos that were purposely buried in the National Archives for many years because of the concern that they might present the camps a bit too honestly. Lange had been steered to desired images which she of course ignored, conscious that one can lie in images as well as words.

How did the camps come into being? It is an important question, particularly in light of the discussion of both Mexican immigrants and  the potential threat posed by Muslims that dominated our election.  Could something like that happen again and how exactly did it happen in the first place? I soon learned that there were several themes then, that also seem to be lurking in our current political environment; control by the military under the guise of security concerns and lying about the danger of the “other”.

When Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 it put the military in control of the internment. The man in charge was General DeWitt who is best known for saying, “A Jap’s a Jap, whether he’s an American citizen or not.”  He then went on to tar the Japanese-Americans with sabotage by the fact that there hadn’t been any sabotage. Yes, that’s right.  He claimed that the absence of any provable sabotage just meant they were waiting for the right moment.  

In justifying the detention, DeWitt later claimed that there was offshore signaling to Japanese submarines by Japanese Americans. The FBI and FCC reported this to be false and it was believed that DeWitt was well aware of this as he was advised of such by the FCC. In 1944 government attorneys became aware of this falsehood when defending a court case challenging detention. After some debate, it was ultimately not divulged lest it hurt their case. These “purported facts” were part of the fact base on which the Supreme Court supported the military necessity of the camps.  Their support only gave further credence to this action, feeding into racial bias in the broader population.

When I think of today’s environment, I can’t help but consider the heavy reliance on generals for advisers.  It gives me pause when coupled with the proclivity for lying. What exactly is his end? Or that of his cohorts?

So let's look back in our history to General DeWitt’s lies and where they led.   But first let’s take a look at the climate in which they occurred. In the US, Asian immigration began in the 1850s with Chinese immigrants, 10,000 of whom built the railroad. They were considered cheap labor and by 1870 represented 10% of California's population. They were soon viewed as economic competitors to white laborers (sound familiar?) and in 1882 further immigration was shut down by law. As my fellow genealogists know, immigration laws have always been a reflection of our prejudices as a nation.

Japanese immigration began in 1885, first to Hawaii and then to the mainland where they also worked on railroads and frequently as agricultural laborers.  The resistance of labor to Chinese immigrants was quickly transferred to Japanese immigrants. While Japanese immigration was halted in 1908, family members were still permitted and many secured wives as “picture brides”.  In 1924 all further Japanese immigration was forbidden by law.  Asian immigrants could not become naturalized citizens, although their children born in the US were citizens. This meant that when the 110,000 Japanese-Americans who lived on the West Coast were sent to the camps, two-thirds of them were American citizens, the balance largely would have been prohibited from citizenship by law.  The law did not allow them to become naturalized citizens until 1952.

The fact that one was a citizen didn’t exempt them from the camps. Today we have an issue with families potentially being torn apart where a child is a citizen, but the parent may not be, thus citizens are again likely to be affected by any action taken.

Sudo talked about the use of language, another way to lie by euphemism.They were not “evacuated” or “relocated” as if from a natural disaster, they were forcibly removed with no choice in the matter.  Interestingly the actual evacuation order spoke of “all Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien” for it no doubt felt sensitive to state “both citizen and non-citizen”. 

Pay attention to language. Let's not accommodate lying by euphemism.

I realized that I knew much more about the Holocaust than I did the Japanese-American Internment. While these are two distinct events with very different intents, I was struck by how many of the actions in the early stages were similar.  

Before Pearl Harbor we had a registry.  It wasn't focused upon Japanese-Americans specifically.The Alien Registration Act in 1940 resulted in the registration of anyone who was not a naturalized citizen.  This included any first generation Japanese-American who was not allowed to be naturalized by law. 

After Pearl Harbor, the homes of those of Japanese birth were raided. Then their assets were frozen.  They were taken to camps and held without trial. These were often the community leaders so it served the purpose of beginning to break down the community.  The Nazis also focused on community leaders initially with this aim.

With any edict you need to determine who is included.  Who is Japanese-American? Anyone who was 1/16th Japanese fell within this category.  Jews had the Nuremberg laws which had multiple tests to determine what constituted Jewish blood.

Contraband was confiscated and might include cameras, binoculars or family heirlooms such as ceremonial swords.  Dynamite used in farming was considered contraband and resulted in Sudo's uncle being taken in. Her mother under this decree gave away dolls that represented the Imperial court and were used to celebrate Girls’ Day. I found myself thinking of Jews on the other side of the ocean at that time being forced to give up electrical or optical equipment, bicycles, typewriters, records and ultimately radios.  

Japanese-Americans were forced on short notice to abandon homes and businesses, With no more than two weeks notice, and often less, they could bring one suitcase for each person.  Property was often stored for that unknown future. Eighty percent (80%) of stored belongings were “rifled, stolen or sold” in their absence.  Japanese-Americans played an important role in agriculture and 200,000 acres were confiscated or sold under duress to the FSA.  Many of those who sought the removal of Japanese Americans had an underlying objective of economic gain.  Bargain sales presented opportunities for purchasers. (for more info) In the camps the detainees earned $12 to $19 a month, an insufficient amount to pay property taxes on property they had hoped to retain.  I found myself thinking of the forced sales that Jews experienced in the early days of Nazi control, when escape was still an option if one was willing to leave everything behind.

Once in the camps, Japanese-Americans experienced many elements of dehumanization. They were initially housed in former stables. The camps were in barren parts of the country often suffering from extremes in temperature. Crowding was prevalent. Sudo’s family with ten children was allotted two rooms and there was no refrigeration or running water. Communal living resulted in much of their time spent waiting in lines for food. Laundry was done by hand so Sudo’s mother did the laundry for her family of ten children in this manner. Latrines were in the center so they walked to them through rain or snow. And latrines and showers were also communal with no walls dividing them for privacy, similar to what I recalled from my visit to concentration camps in Poland.  

Dehumanization is often a gradual process.  A friend of mine who is a Holocaust survivor, often speaks of how they gradually got used to each progressive step, like a frog in warm water that is slowly brought to a boil. 

There is a common progression that was reflected in both Japanese internment and the treatment of Jews by the Nazis, perhaps common to any effort to isolate a section of the population regardless of the ultimate aim. It is important for us to be attentive to any actions today that reflect any elements of this progression.

-Denigrating a group based on religion or nationality
-Defining the category to be isolated
-Identification via registration
-Removal of community leaders
-Confiscation of “contraband”, particularly that used for communication
-Forced sale or confiscation of property
-Concentration and dehumanization

Ultimately the families were released with a bus ticket and $25 each.  It was not until 1988 that Japanese-Americans received $20,000 and an apology, small compensation for the disruption of lives and the accompanying dehumanization.

We owe a deeper obligation than money and an apology.  We need to take the lessons from that disturbing chapter and apply them to today to assure that we never use bigotry and lies to diminish who we are as a nation.  Now would be a good time to start.

Sally Sudo’s talk was given at Or Emet. Below are some additional sources I found helpful as I considered this topic.

Final Report, Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942  - documents underlying the evacuation 

Good Overview Sources

Densho: A grassroots organization dedicated to preserving, educating, and sharing the story of World War II-era incarceration of Japanese Americans in order to deepen understandings of American history and inspire action for equity

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Birthday Greetings

Early this month I had a birthday.  When I opened my eyes and remembered what day it was, I reached for my iPad.  I've had a birthday ritual in recent years.  Five years ago my parents had called my answering machine and sang Happy Birthday to me.  Every birthday since, I have played the recording of their birthday greeting. 

Three months after that call my father died. Three and a half years later my mother joined him, saying "bye-bye" as she whimsically put it. Now I had only their voices from which to conjure their presence. Last birthday it still felt a little raw only four months after my mother's death. This year it felt right as I played their recording. They were sending me greetings from afar. I listened to their voices and was transported back in time. At the end my mother sang Da da, Da da and my father joined in with a chorus.

I had done a painting of it , a realistic one of them by our old phone, the one I used to speak on in high school, talking each night with my best friend. I used to sit on the hallway floor as I twisted the cord between my fingers talking about how we would live our lives someday. What would we do? Would we have kids? Questions that lent themselves to long conversations. After about an hour my father would yell, "Get off the phone!" concluding our conversation. When I picture my parents calling me it is always on our old dial phone, long gone, but deep in my wiring.

Sometimes a realistic painting has to come first. I need to paint it out of me before I can play.  Perhaps I also had to wait a bit to let go of their corporeal form, but I took another run at it in a looser form, taking the key elements that stayed with me. My mother's birthday cake made an appearance, well actually several as it rotated through the years. Every year she did the same one, laden with airy chocolate frosting. We usually had it at Thanksgiving as my sister was a November baby also so we invariably shared the cake. My niece, who took over responsibility for Thanksgiving from my mom, continues that ritual, the annual birthday cake from my mother's recipe.

Now as I played with imagery, I pictured flames atop candles flickering, glowing like sparks, shooting through time and space with a suggestion of my parents in a chasm, another dimension, mouths open in song. And there was that phone cord twisting through time connecting them with me like an umbilical cord. 

There is a coda to this.  I was down in Illinois a day after my birthday to close on the sale of my mother's home.  As this was likely to be my last visit for the foreseeable future, I did a stop by the cemetery where my parents now reside.  I put a stone on their grave and told my mom about the new owners of the house, the parents of her neighbors. It is a solution we feel sure she would have blessed as they are new immigrants to this country just as her parents once were.  I was feeling a bit foolish speaking to the air and a tombstone, not quite sure how to have this conversation in this way, before a marker of their presence.  Then I had an idea.  Out came the iPad and their birthday song filled the air.   I wasn't sure if I was being irreverent in this act, but my family often erred on the side of irreverence, and in some strange way it felt like the most reverent thing I could have done.  I closed my eyes and felt their presence surround me, molecules of air vibrating with their energy once again.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Commitment of Values

I have not previously written about politics in this blog. I have, however, written about values and it occurs to me that politics are values. My values are an important part of who I am and what I hope to express in my life, my artwork and my words.   

Under normal circumstances I accept that politics may argue for different approaches to create a better world. I may disagree with those approaches, but they are legitimate topics to debate in the public arena.

This election feels different. It is an election built on sexism, racism, xenophobia and the fundamental breakdown of social norms of respect and kindness.  If you doubt that, you need only look at the actions of people post-election as bigotry emerges.  I am angry and I am disgusted and beneath that lies a deep layer of sadness. I had thought I lived in a world with people who shared those social norms and values.

When the world turns upside down, I try to reestablish order, to make sense of it. That starts with asking myself what I can do to make it better. I think of my mother's mantra of "take your piece of the world and make it shine".  But I am just one person. How can I make a difference?

I have to believe in the butterfly effect, that small actions can make big changes even if I never see them. I've accepted that belief in my artwork. I believe the stories I tell with my art are powerful and touch people and may create an action in their life that I will never know.  On that blind belief I continue to create.  It is also on blind belief that I carry forward in this fractured time.

My process begins by thinking about my values. What do I believe in? What is threatened or will be threatened? What can I support? What can I shore up in a time of threat?

What we believe in is influenced by our experiences in this world and mine may differ from yours. I am a woman who values her autonomy, I am a Jew who lost family in the Holocaust and I am the grandchild of immigrants. I was raised by a father who valued acting on one's beliefs and speaking up for what is right, by a mother who expressed kindness and compassion in her daily life.

As a woman who seeks to have some measure of control of her life, I support women and our right to self-determination. That means control of our bodies which is fundamental to control of our lives. It means feeling physically safe in this world, not subject to threat. It means being able to use my talents to compete on a level playing field without being denigrated. I was appalled at the vicious denigration directed at our female candidate.  Disgusted beyond words that this was allowed to exist and flourish and disturbed by what it revealed about how outspoken women are truly viewed.

I oppose discrimination in any form.  As a Jew I am quite aware that discrimination against anyone is but one step away from anti-Semitism and anti-Semitism was already evident in this campaign. I am committed to safeguarding the rights of gays and minorities with a sharp awareness of that slippery slope. We are all connected and what affects them affects me.  The KKK that supported our President-elect views us all through the same lens.

I believe that immigrants can enrich our nation. My grandparents were immigrants. One grandfather was a tailor, the other ran a surplus store.  One of my grandmothers never spoke English although she understood it. Like many immigrants, her children navigated the world on her behalf.   It is because my grandparents gained entrance to the US that it in turn benefited from my mother who was a beloved teacher, my father who was a highly respected college professor who started a public TV station.  Suffice it to say that education matters to me as does the critical thinking which should grow out of education. In one of my volunteer roles I make loans through a development corporation, providing financing to minorities and immigrants to start and run businesses. On more than one occasion it has caused me to think of my own family's journey.

I don't have the sense of immunity that many Americans carry. I believe it is my heritage as a Jew that causes me to feel a certain underlying sense of threat. I do not blithely believe America is safe from demagogy and discrimination.  That was the beginning of the events that led to the extermination of my grandfather's family in Eastern Europe.  I don't know where it leads here, but I know it is nowhere good. I am on guard when I see the wall of respect breached, even more so when much of our country signs on, joining with white nationalists to vote in a candidate who exhibits demagogy and disrespect.  So yes, I am deeply disturbed by the values that are the hallmark of our President-elect and I believe we all should be.  His election does not make it OK, only more frightening.

So what do I do?  I have been identifying organizations and causes that support my values and will be making contributions of both money and time. I already work with many organizations and causes that support my values but will plan to step it up.

I will join protests that align with my views and make my presence known. I will not be silent in words or action.

I am wearing a safety pin, a symbol that I will step up to support anyone who is harassed.  I will be a safe place for others. I think of this symbol relative to the star of David which my grandfather's family was once forced to wear so they could be identified, isolated and ultimately murdered. Instead of creating a boundary and a separation, this symbol removes boundaries. It signals that I'm with those who are the target of discrimination or harassment, that I will act with them and in their behalf. It is a reminder to me of this commitment.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Goodbye Home

We pulled up at the title company to close on my mother's home. In the vehicle parked next to us were the neighbors along with their parents who were buying the home. It was a moment which held a mixture of feelings. I was about to let go of my childhood home and with that a tie to my past and yet there was also relief to let go of our responsibility for this emotion-laden property. Sadness, relief and also happiness. It felt right to be selling the home in this way.

The last time I had seen the neighbors was when my sister and I stopped by the house after my mother's death. The neighbor had seen her leave her home for the last time in an ambulance. She told me that my mother didn't look like she wanted to go. Was she afraid she'd never come back even then? Later, when she was doing rehab for a stroke, my mother told me that she didn't think she was going to get out of there, a prescient observation I wasn't then ready to acknowledge. Now we told them of her death and they gathered round us offering exclamations of distress at this news, murmuring words of comfort over the woman they called Lola Rose*.

We began to tackle the home, emptying it of a lifetime of belongings. My sister made many trips, the only one of my siblings still in Illinois. On one of those trips she chatted once again with the neighbors and learned of their interest in the home. The neighbors are Filipino, the parents fairly new immigrants. Family is important in their culture and parents often live with children.  It was clear from their response to my mother that elders were respected and valued. My sister and I agreed that we wanted to make this happen, but would need to step up if we were to do that.

Now we were at the final stage. The neighbor with whom I communicated told me her parents were so excited they couldn't sleep. Neither could I. It is those transition points that are difficult, even good transitions, fraught with the awareness of change as we cross a boundary.  My house, not my house. 

We sat across from them at the table as we signed document after document. I congratulated them on their new home when we finished. Their happiness was palpable. "Thank you for trusting us,"the mother said. "We will take good care of the house".

"This is right," I thought. The kind of right with the universe feeling I get when actions align with what is supposed to be. 

We met up once again at the DMV where I transferred the title of my mother's old car to them. They got new plates and then thoughtfully asked me if I wanted the old ones. Little did they know that those plates were significant. My father taught at a university and there he started the public radio and public television station. For years his plates read BU 4747 after both the university and the TV channel. "Yes," I replied and I told them the story of how he was in line for plates at the DMV  when he heard the sequence of numbers they were offering and traded places to get 4747.

We had gone to the house the evening before when we arrived in town, but this felt very different. It was no longer my home. I waited for them to open the door to their new home.  We walked downstairs to the garage.  The day before when I had come downstairs with my husband he suddenly said, "There's a critter."  It had stopped me cold as I thought in despair that we would have to hire a service to catch it before we could sell the home.  As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw it was a paper-mâché sculpture of a kangaroo,  no doubt one of my mother's creations from her teaching days hidden deep in darkness.

Now we went and stood outside the garage and waited while they took off the old plates and put on the new ones. A clear demarcation. Out with the old, in with the new.  I stood outside, not wanting to intrude on their space until they invited me to go back through the house on my way out.

"Goodbye basement" I said aloud to that space that once housed a cluttered tangle of bikes and work bench and garden tools.  "Good bye kitchen," I said as I looked at this familiar kitchen, home of countless birthday cakes, Thanksgivings and treasured chats with my mother. Goodbye house, goodbye tree. Goodbye, goodbye. Be well. Be happy.

*Lola means grandmother in Filipino

Friday, November 4, 2016

Right Things-Right Reasons

I've always had a bit of a mantra. Do the right things for the right reasons. It has been my experience that when I do that, I am rewarded in ways I cannot predict and mysteries unfold. Yes, I realize that sounds a little out there, but it has happened often enough that I have come to trust in it. And whether you believe that or not, shouldn't we be doing the right things for the right reasons anyway? Often it requires an expenditure of time and effort, a giving of self. It is not always easy. 

At no time have I been more aware of this than in my shared time with my mother in her final years. As her memory began to fail, I stepped up and came to visit more frequently and for more extended time. One of the right reasons for this was
 to cherish the time I had with my mother, suddenly painfully aware that it was limited and would end. The other right reason was to relieve my sister who lived near her and took on more of the burden. I didn't want my sister to feel overwhelmed and abandoned as she assumed responsibility. And I wanted her to know that I appreciated what she did. 

When my mother took a turn for the worse, I knew the right thing was to be there for her. To be present. We held her hand to the end, surrounding her with love. It was both hard and profound and I am incredibly grateful that I had that opportunity to be there for her. Later my sister and I tackled the house. I went through my parents' papers, experiencing them through their thoughts and the eyes of correspondents. My understanding of them deepened and as onerous as that process was, I was grateful for the understanding I gained.

Since my mother passed away, I have been experiencing her in a different way, creating artwork and writing about her. I finally was able to give what I was doing a name when I read about the artist Tobi Kahn. When his mother died, he, an observant Jew, said the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. But he also said it in a different way. He decided that during his year as a mourner he would create works of art that related to his mother's life. When he described it as saying Kaddish visually, I understood exactly what he meant. This also was my way of saying 
Kaddish for my mother, integrating both her absence, but also her continued presence into my life.

We are at the close of a chapter, but I still feel like mysteries are unfolding. My sister and I have both been doing the right things for the right reasons. We are honoring our parents in many ways as we let them go. We have created a force field, out of which good things come.

I was speaking to my sister recently when I said, "Have I told you lately how grateful I am that I have a sister?" One of the good things that came out of this was a deepened relationship with my sister. While we are only three years apart in age we often lived in different worlds. I was away at college while she navigated high school. She was raising a family when I was single. At crisis points we pulled together, but for much of our adult lives we were a tangential presence in each other's life. 

Now with complementary, but different skills, and with a deep love for our mother, we stepped up together to support her and to deal with all those end of life challenges. Holding up my end of things was the right thing to do. Really getting to know and appreciate my sister on a whole other level was one of the gift that I received for that effort. And then there are the mysteries...

My sister and my niece were at the house for the final time. My niece was going through an old purse of my mother's and was convinced there was something in it. She felt around in the lining and extricated a star of David necklace that my mother had gotten in Israel. I remembered how my mother had focused in on that necklace in the shop. I had suggested she might want to look at others, but she was insistent that that was the one she wanted. Soon after we returned she lost it. I had thought of it often, wondering if it would reappear. I hated the idea of losing it. It seemed somehow fitting that it was resurrected at the 11th hour by my niece, a legacy passed on to my mother's granddaughter with a sense of discovery surrounding it, almost as if my mother had handed it to her.

The other good thing that has arisen is that a neighbor has bought the house. I'm in town one last time for the closing. The young neighbor couple and their child have the wife's parents living with them. The parents, who are new to this country, were interested in purchasing the house. That somehow felt so right to both my sister and me. "Mom would love the idea" we said to each other. We still seem to have a pretty direct channel to her. She would have liked the idea of family members supporting each other.  Her parents were immigrants too and she looked after her mother who lived with us when we were young.  I think she would have identified with the neighbors. Actually she would have liked for us to have lived next door to her.

There is a huge tree in the front yard that grew from a twig. The neighbor's mother said that she loves to watch it as it goes through the seasons and has named it Orlando, echoing the name of the street although I keep thinking of the Shakespearean character. My mother loved her house and I think would be very pleased with a new owner who names and cherishes the tree that graces the yard.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Taking Stock

Part 3 of a genealogy story, please read two prior posts first...

It was time to gather my findings and take stock. My original mission was to find the married names of Sara and Szajndla Ruchla, their husbands and their children.  I also needed to link them to Chaia, the mother of Sara and grandmother of Szajndla.  I had indeed found the married names of both Sara and Szajndla as well as the names of their husbands. I had also found Sara's two other children, and the two children of Szajndla. One of the challenges is to be able to say with some certainty that the records that were discovered apply to the right people.  There were lots of Saras and Szajndlas in the Lodz community.

Testing Validity
To test the connections I decided to try some mind mapping.  I wrote about this in a blog entry after the IAJGS Conference (the international Jewish genealogy conference) where I attended a session on it.  Mindmapping is a visual way of looking at data from multiple sources. For each key person, I noted data sources and the data that each provided. I look for at least two data points to validate my conclusions and ideally they fit into a web of data. The mind map is a way to visually see those connections and the mere act of laying out the data is a part of the thought process.

There were three women who I was trying to validate; Chaia, Sara and Szajndla Ruchla.  It is the women who are often the hardest to anchor in genealogical records even as they play such a central role in their family.

In the first records of Chaia from the early 1916-21 registration cards, she tied out to her town of origin, her husband and her father's given name. Her year of birth fell in the expected time period based on family story and was consistent through multiple records. Chaia's death record also tied out to her father's name and his name was also found in relationship to Chaia in the Lodz cemetery.  Her granddaughter, named after Chaia's mother, was with her at her death validating the family relationship. 

I also felt quite confident that I had Sara's marriage record because it referenced her parents and maiden name correctly. Her husband was also found at the same address with her in the prewar period as well as during wartime and also reflected in the marriage record. Her anecdotal death in the ghetto was also validated by the Holocaust Museum records.

Szajndla Ruchla was found in the 1916-1921 registration cards, together with her parents. Later when she was grown her linkage was to her grandmother at the time of her death. A further linkage was the fact that her siblings moved to the next door address. We also have a naming pattern connection with her great-grandmother.  Not only do multiple data points exist, but there is truly a web of connection.

Based on their married names, I searched for  individuals of the same surname and address.  Thus children and husbands were linked to the family member with whom they lived and whom multiple sources had validated.

We still have a multiplicity of maiden names, but my previously outlined theory that Galinski and Walinski are one and the same seems sound. Cyralnik or Soralnik arose several times and in fact there is another individual named Sonia Cyralnik at the same address where Chaia was at the time of her death. Both of them are also listed at the same address outside of the ghetto before it was formed. A Yad Vashem record indicates this new Cyralnik has the married name of Lapin, perhaps a version of Lape and another possible point of connection.  Sometimes names derived from the mother so perhaps Soralnik refers to a long-ago ancestor named Sora. Given the fact that Chaia's daughter was named Sara, it is quite possible it was a family name that dates back in time.   Galinski, Walinski and Soralnik all appear to have originated as patronymics or matronymics, taking a parent's name and adding an ending signifying "son of" or "related to". Silversztajn remains a puzzle. It appears only once and after some preliminary searching presents no corroborating evidence or thread to pursue at this time.

The other puzzle is when the relationship between Sara and Kalma began. The timeline indicates that Kalma's first wife was alive through 1913 when it appears her last child was born based on the early registration cards.  Here it shows Kalma as a widower with four children and we know from another source the year one son was born so can date this card to 1916.  Szajndla was born in 1913/1914. Sara moved to Lodz in 1918 and Sara and Kalma married in 1924. Is Szajndla the child of an earlier marriage or did this relationship develop as Kalma struggled with loss and if so where did Sara and Kalma first connect? It helps to remember the human dimension as we consider how events unfolded.  And while we know something of Isser's future (Kalma's son from his prior marriage) what about those other children? Perhaps a third puzzle, albeit off the track of our inquiry.

Next Steps

I never wind up a search without suggested next steps.  Seldom is this work completely ended and tied with a bow. If there are mysteries, I consider how to tackle them.

Some record indexes were found with the organization CRARG. One was the military record of Kalma's son from his first marriage. The second was the marriage record between Sara and Kalma. A full translation of the marriage record could provide Chaia's maiden name. It's possible that they also hold other Gliksztajn records that I had not yet discovered that might help us gather more information on the timeline of Kalma's life.

A number of Cyralnik names are found in Yad Vashem from Narewka submitted by a survivor in 1999.  While I did not see anyone who shared a father with Chaia, it may be worth mapping out relationships and seeing if naming patterns reveal anything.  I would pay particular attention to Sonie Cyralnik who shared a maiden name, ancestral town and two addresses with Chaia. Sonie was a student in Lodz and was born in Narewka in 1919. There are records of testimony submitted by her sister who survived. It is likely that she is related and if so, we know that her sister who provided testimony survived.

When I started this search I had no idea where it would take me. I hit dead ends at the beginning as I searched their towns of origin unsuccessfully.  Records may not exist and even if they do, they may be buried in archives with no on-line index or hidden behind privacy laws.  Most archives do not do research for you so you need to be able to identify what you are seeking.  Keep in mind that everything I uncovered was solely from my computer and existing indices.  It was when I turned my attention to the registration cards and the Holocaust records that I began to find a way in.

Even when you identify a database, you still need to explore how best to mine it. That is where that art of genealogy comes in, finding connections between disparate pieces of data, always asking the next question. The person for whom I did this research described this work as a mosaic and spoke of weaving elements together.  I think that describes the process well. With each new piece of data or each new hypothesis, I had to go back to earlier sources to see how it fit against existing threads.

As I've noted,a genealogy search requires the ability to hold conflicting information in your head, always weighing it against a burden of proof and allowing for the possibility that transcription and translation errors may corrupt or alter the data.  You also need to consider the practices of the time.  Is a different given name from a double name or possibly an altered version of the original name (Chaim, Kalma) Could a religious marriage occur separately from a later civil marriage? Each piece of data opens up a new door to potential linkages, some of which will be dead ends and some which may just solve a mystery.