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Once Removed: Discovering an Israeli Cousin

October 10, 2013
by David Laskin DavidLaskin_TheFamilyThe man who greeted me at the door to the tract house was a large, awkward stranger, barrel-chested, 60, with a thick accent and a gruff manner. I shook his hand and looked around at the cramped living room, spotless but drab. I scanned his face for signs of family resemblance and came up blank. “Welcome to Israel,” Benny boomed. Through the haze of jet-lag, I struggled to place him on the family tree — our family tree. Benny’s parents were my grandfather’s first cousins. His grandfather was my great-grandfather’s brother. His great-grandfather was my great-great-grandfather. Though we are almost the same age, Benny and I are a generation apart — once removed in genealogy-speak. “Do you like hummus?” Orna, Benny’s wife, asked as she led us to the patio. I had come to Israel because I was writing a book about the family that Benny and I have in common, but as we shuffled out to the small, fragrant back-garden, I was wondering if the whole trip had been a terrible mistake. These people were total strangers. All I knew about Benny was that he was the baby of his family, born three years before me, and that he liked basketball, about which I knew next to nothing. But we never got anywhere near basketball. Like-what-youre-reading“In 1992, I went to my mother Sonia on Holocaust Remembrance Day,” Benny started in, blowing by the small talk. “I took a recorder and asked her to talk about her past. It was a very hard evening.” I knew the story in broad brush, but in Benny’s telling, it took on urgency and pain. His parents, Sonia and Chaim, first cousins from neighboring shtetls in what was then Poland, went to Palestine as idealistic young pioneers in the 1920s, fell in love, married, and raised a family on a collective farm north of Tel Aviv. While Sonia and Chaim struggled to make the desert bloom, my branch of the family went into business in New York and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams (my grandfather’s sister, Ida Rosenthal, founded and ran the Maidenform Bra Company). All the relatives who remained in Europe perished in the Holocaust. As we sipped mint tea, Benny reminisced about my grandparents, who had been frequent visitors to Israel. We split hairs over fine points of genealogy. He confided, with a child’s flashing grin, that he loved to folk dance. By the end of the evening, we were friends. After a week together in Israel, traveling to the places where his parents had lived eighty years ago, we were something deeper and harder to name. It sounds strange to say that Benny and I fell in love, but that’s what happened. Love like brothers who are lucky enough to skate over the thin ice of rivalry and assist each other’s goals. Love like comrades bound together on a journey into the unknown. Love like boys standing wide-eyed together before some secret discovery. My obsession with the family history was partly professional — I had a book to write — but for Benny it was pure passion. What made him travel with me down this road? Maybe it had to do with being the youngest of four intense siblings. Maybe it was a kind of sacred trust passed down from his mother Sonia who had lost so much of her family to war and genocide — her mother, both her sisters, and all of her nieces and nephews killed in the Shoah; her first born son, Arik, slain in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. I had the feeling that the book released some spring that had been pressing at Benny’s heart for years. We embraced when we said goodbye. I returned to Israel the following year, and Benny picked me up at the airport. As soon as I climbed in the car, the revelations began. There was a new cousin, a baby girl, whose existence had previously been shrouded in mystery. She was eleven months old when the Nazis incinerated her in the Rakov synagogue along with her mother and 6-year-old sister and all the rest of the local Jews. Benny was almost too excited to keep his hands on the wheel. He came out with another story I had never heard about a cousin named Velveleh. Seven years old when the war broke out, Velveleh had spent the frigid winter of 1939 lying in bed under goose-down quilts because there was no coal to heat the house. He died three years later in a Polish gas chamber. I was reeling. Where did these new details come from? “The letters!” Benny practically shouted as we lurched through the thick traffic outside Tel Aviv. “It’s all in the letters.” Before she died in 1996, Benny’s mother Sonia had entrusted him with 281 family letters that spanned the early 1930s to the late 1940s. Neither Benny nor any of his siblings had read a word because the letters were written in Yiddish — a language that had died out in Israel even faster than in the U.S. (pioneers like Sonia and Chaim, casting off Yiddish as the language of the ghetto, made sure that their sabra children spoke only Hebrew). Now, on account of my book, Benny and his brother and sister had hired someone to translate the letters from Yiddish to Hebrew, and he promised to send me copies so I could have them translated into English. Before we parted, I gave him an extra squeeze. “Don’t forget. I want those letters.” Eight months later, this message appeared in my inbox along with nine attachments: “David, The 900 letters, Benny.” A born historian, Benny had grouped together letters written from the same place and numbered them in batches — the 900 letters were from Volozhin, the 100 letters were from Vilna, and so on. Over the next two months, I received messages from Benny just about daily with a new set of letters attached. I found a translator and began the long, slow, costly process of rendering them in English. First to be translated were letters from the early 1930s steeped in the sturm und drang of 22–year-old Sonia’s departure for Palestine, her struggle to find her feet in a strange land, the rapid progress of her relationship with Chaim (the first cousin who had come to Palestine eight years before her and whom she married in 1933). There were scores of letters devoted to births and deaths, tasty bits of gossip, marriages and sick children, the deteriorating economy of Poland during the Depression, cash gifts from the American relatives — illuminating but mundane. But once the war broke out in September, 1939, the letters, especially those written from Vilna by Sonia’s oldest sister Doba, became electrifying. “Who could have imagined that so horrible a war had begun?” Doba wrote in January, 1940, from Soviet-occupied Vilna. “We have a wealthy family [in New York], and they prefer to send money instead of inviting us [i.e., sponsoring their immigration to the U.S.]. I am angry with the family and cannot understand why they have not sent all of us an invitation.” “They will never invite us,” Doba wrote on February 19, 1940. “Too much of a burden for them. It is very cold and the children spend the whole winter in bed. Thus we pass the days, while in America when it gets too cold they go to Florida.” March 26, 1940: “Thousands are fleeing from here. They get their travel permits by cable. Naturally we ask why our family, who are people of means, cannot receive us? This question has cost me my health.” My face burned as I scanned the lines. The family in New York that Doba railed against was my family. My grandfather — Doba’s first cousin — ran a successful wholesale business with his brothers. Their sister, Maidenform founder Ida Rosenthal, was the head of one of the largest family businesses in the world. Three-and-a-half years after Doba wrote pleading for an “invitation” to America, she asphyxiated on carbon monoxide in a gas chamber at Sobibor. Why didn’t my grandfather and his siblings do more to get her out of Vilna while there was still a chance? I had to talk to Benny. We spent an hour one Saturday morning (night for him) shouting into our computer screens over the crackle of a bad Skype connection. It was difficult to look him in the eye. I felt guilty by association, as if I had turned my back on a brutal murder. I worried that Benny would somehow blame me for the sins of my grandfather, if indeed they were sins. “It was very hard,” he said over and over. “No one knew how bad it would get. They did what they could.” Benny and Orna have three strapping sons. They have all done their time in the Israeli army. They live a score of miles away from their sworn enemies, while our plush suburbs and sprawling cities are buffered by thousands of miles of forest and ocean. Benny’s aunts and uncles and cousins and grandmother froze and starved and died agonizing deaths while my aunts and uncles and grandparents drove to work in Oldsmobiles and vacationed in Florida. In the days that followed, I couldn’t stop brooding over our family’s past and present. What if something went very wrong in the Middle East and Benny and Orna and their sons and grandchildren became refugees? Would I “invite” them to come live with me — or would I send money, waffle, temporize? I judged my grandparents for not doing more, and my parents for keeping silent — but what if my back were to the wall? Would I be any different? One night last winter, soon after I had finished the book, I sat on the sofa with a glass of wine in my hand musing over the history that has made and broken our family. Unbidden, a gust of emotion filled my chest — reverence, pride, love for my collaborator and friend. When the gust subsided, a chill of anxiety took its place. Benny doesn’t yet know that I have dedicated the book to him. I’m certain that when he sees it, he’s going to call or email me with a long string of exclamations prefaced by “You can’t believe!” his favorite English expression. But I don’t know what he will feel in his heart when he reads it. Love binds family together. But even love may not be strong enough to withstand the nightmare of history. David Laskin’s family history The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century has just been published by Viking and goes on sale on October 15th.