It’s addicting to press onward, despite knowing that the end of the trail is never very far away, and that it ends in violence, mass graves, and, a little further back, if you’re lucky, a lack of last names. The new book, I think it’s called The Bloodlands is controversial because some people say there’s no comparison between the Holocaust and the rest of the mass slaughters across Eastern Europe. The thing is, for me, there is. If it wasn’t Hitler who killed my family by taking them in to the trenches, stripping them naked, and shooting them, then it was Stalin, and if it wasn’t Stalin, then it was the Cossacks, and if not the Cossacks, then Nicholas II or Alexander III.
Yet before the Cossacks, life was beautiful, they said, they’d iceskate in the winter. And then the Cossacks came and began lopping off the heads of Jews in the streets. And the Jews who hid under the floorboards, the Cossacks would stabs the floors with their swords to kill them.
Their parents told them Odessa. The naturalization papers, the ship’s passenger lists, and the WWI draft cards say Rotmistrovka, or Thormistrovka, or some variation. Over 400 km from Odessa. Perhaps that was the lie they had to tell, because the village seems to be more or less gone now. There was a Jewish population, I know this, there’s a picture of a rabbi from the 1800s I’m researching. And now, what I want to know, is what this Congregation Rachmistrivka in Brooklyn is all about. My family wasn’t living in Brooklyn–one of them worked in Brooklyn, but they lived in Manhattan.
At lunch with cousin Julia, it’s funny to hear about my grandfather as a little boy, hugging and kissing her because he’s so excited, about my great-grandfather as a very handsome man who she was so proud to walk next to when he’d visit, about how New York was a very antisemitic place, how any good that Roosevelt ever did was thanks to his wife, that his economic policies were poor, how Truman’s wife was an antisemitic bitch, how the German Jews were a bunch of arrogant Nazis, Nazis and Germans first, in denial of being Jewish, hating all the other Jews in New York for being non-German and unassimilated. Until afterwards, when they found out what happened to those that had stayed behind in Germany, about how Hitler had to teach the German Jews that they were Jewish, to remind them that they weren’t Germans after all, and the ones who’d moved to America were the last to find out. About how everything that was good about New York is gone now, that it used to be a place with thoughtful and intellectual people, that there was no place in the world like it, that now it’s just another city, the attitudes are gone, the people are gone, they could live without it now. When you’re born in 1919, that’s what you remember. You remember being a gorgeous model, you remember being sent a letter from President Hoover because of your intellectual brilliance, you remember living in the Village with the other artists and writers, about the early marriages that ended poorly after everyone in the family warned you they would, about sneaking onto the subway as a little girl, about how you once saw a photo of your father, who died on the day you were born.