The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
— William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
I love this picture. In a closet in a Cairo synagogue, an unknown genius began storing documents a thousand years ago. Your attic to the tenth power. Down through the years, whenever someone didn’t know what to do with a manuscript, a book, or a piece of paper, he stuffed it into in a box in the closet where it lay untouched, age after age, bathed in the melody of prayers. Old poems and texts, notes, legal documents, grocery lists.
The commonplace history of the medieval world.
The closet was forgotten, remembered, forgotten, remembered. Solomon Schechter, a Talmudic scholar, brought the collection to England a hundred years ago and the closet’s contents were given a room in the Cambridge University library to breathe in.
Schechter poured over the recorded detritus of generations. That’s him in the picture above. I don’t know a better picture of someone trying to unravel the past. This is how he described the scene of his struggles:
It is a battlefield of books, and the literary production of many centuries had their share in the battle, and their disjecta membra are now strewn over its area. Some of the belligerents have perished outright, and are literally ground to dust in the terrible struggle for space, whilst others, as if overtaken by a general crush, are squeezed into big unshapely lumps ….
THE PAPER IN THE DRAWER
When I was young, I sat down with some uncles and aunts and said, “Tell me about the family tree.” A town with an unpronounceable name was mentioned. It was in the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe, and was home to my father’s grandfather. This man’s name was Joseph, and he had six children, including my grandfather. I wrote all the names down, and saved the paper in a drawer.
Many years later when Nora and I were trying to conceive, it occurred to me that my progeny-to-be needed a location in history. The old paper had curled itself into a yellow scroll. The diagram on it, so impressive to me as a boy, seemed merely a skeleton. I looked at the names. What had become of these people? What of their children, their ancestors? What were their stories?
I began calling relatives, people I’d never spoken to, the older the better. They lived in New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio. Some hung up on me. Others gave recollections, new names, and phone numbers. Some wept. An older cousin, a man of 90, said to me:
“You must send it to me when it’s finished,” he said. “You must send me the document.”
“I promise,” I said.
I created lists and lists and put them in drawers. The drawers overflowed. The computer, I thought, the computer is the answer. I bought a piece of software and entered every name, date, and detail I had. The computer responded with charts. I began to assemble them.
There was a problem.
What I had, the computer made clear, was fragments. I couldn’t connect the dots. For example, my father’s brother, Saul, and Saul’s wife, Mary, were said to be third cousins. But I couldn’t trace it. I couldn’t find their common ancestor. My charts, all of them, went back about a hundred years, then hit a wall.
All my sources had been born in the United States. The generation that had been born in Europe, my grandparent’s generation, was gone. That generation had grown up in the town with the unpronounceable name, and knew its stories. I had never met my grandfather, who died five years before I was born.
But weren’t there synagogues in Eastern Europe like the one in Cairo? Didn’t they save documents? Wedding agreements, certificates of birth and death? Weren’t they somewhere?
They were not. Half a century before, the firestorm of the Holocaust had immolated the shtetl towns of Eastern Europe and turned the names to smoke. The documents, preserved for a thousand years, were gone.
THE WOMAN WITH STORIES
I had begun to hear of a woman, 95, who had been born in the town with the unpronounceable name. She had come to the United States as a little girl, but gone back to the town as a young woman. There she had lived for twenty years before coming back again to New York in 1938. This woman knew the stories. She knew the connections between the names. This woman was still alive.
I called her daughter and told her what I wanted.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “My mother had a stoke six months ago. She can’t talk.”
“Can she write?”
“She’s paralyzed. I’m sorry.”
I was outside the closet door. Inside was a battlefield of stories struggling for breath. The door was locked. What I had, I had. What I wanted would remain forever out of my grasp.
Then, a breakthrough.
I heard of another cousin, this one in Israel. She was young, but she was said to have a document. A family history, written in Hebrew, each generation adding their names. It had been handed down and down.
I called this cousin, a fifth cousin it turned out, in Tel Aviv. My Hebrew is pitiful. She spoke English.
“You have the paper?”
“The scroll, yes,” she said.
“You can send a copy?”
“In English,” she said. “It’s been translated.”
“How far does it go back?”
“To the fourteenth century,” she said.
. . .
This is the first post of a three-part series. All My Relations continues next time with Scroll.
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