All my relations, Part 1: Unpronounceable town

by Wolf Pascoe on July 3, 2011

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
— William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

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Solomon SchechterI 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 ….

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THE PAPER IN THE DRAWER

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Carpathian MountainsWhen 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.

wailing wallWhat 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

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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.
. . .

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RELATED POST:

This is the first post of a three-part series. All My Relations continues next time with Scroll.

Tending ghosts

Legacy

Strange visitor from another planet

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Family Search — Search online for your family tree.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

BigLittleWolf July 3, 2011 at 11:00 am

Very cool! The fourteenth century!

I haven’t done this and wish I had more stories beyond my grandparents. (Maybe you will inspire me to use the Internet to search back… )
BigLittleWolf recently posted..Kids Waving the Flag on the 4th? Be Careful Out There!

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Wolf Pascoe July 3, 2011 at 11:32 am

Well, wait until you see how this turns out …

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Alameda July 3, 2011 at 11:21 am

What is it that draws us to look for our roots?
If you want to be philosophical about it, aren’t we all descendants of some beginning form of life?

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Wolf Pascoe July 3, 2011 at 11:35 am

There is a theory that everyone’s mitochondrial DNA is traceable to a single female in Africa, two hundred thousand years ago. This has been called, appropriately, the Eve Hypothesis.

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David July 3, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Whoa! Bet there are some skeletons in that closet!

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Wolf Pascoe July 3, 2011 at 11:39 pm

In a manner of speaking …

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Planner2015 July 3, 2011 at 11:26 pm

What fun! Next you must go to the town with the unpronounceable name. And I want to hear all about it.

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Wolf Pascoe July 3, 2011 at 11:38 pm

Ah, but we make an unexpected left turn.

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cbaloha July 4, 2011 at 2:39 am

Lucky you and Nick! it makes me sad, however that in my own lineage there is a regretful (to me) disinterest in geneology. I muse about how not having that record locator subtly affects my sense of place in the world.. or lack thereof???

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Wolf Pascoe July 4, 2011 at 10:32 am

It’s good to know where one comes from, and where one is.

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Barbara S. July 5, 2011 at 10:05 pm

I love it! I have an addiction to family history myself – I haven’t been able to indulge it as much as I’d like to the last ten or 15 years, but I understand that magic. I wish I had time now to dive back into it. I’m hoping my personal history business will be the excuse (and monetary support) I need!

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Wolf Pascoe July 5, 2011 at 11:53 pm

I have a feeling it will.

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Clark Kent's Lunchbox July 6, 2011 at 12:07 pm

This sort of thing fascinates me. What I have are fragments too. Still, I’m very intent on preserving at least some sense of my family’s history.

We must be on the same wavelength, though. I’m working on a series of essays (hopefully enough for a book) tying my small hometown’s influence to major events in US History (hence very little blogging). In my research I found that one first residents was a highly regarded man who built the flat boats that helped get the locals tied to the bigger cities. Turns out this man is my great, great, great Grandfather.

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Wolf Pascoe July 6, 2011 at 8:57 pm

Book vs. Blog. Is there no way to do both? Sigh. Very cool the way your research dovetailed with your family tree.

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Sirena July 6, 2011 at 12:39 pm

And then what happened???!!!! Well, I guess I’ll have to wait until the next installment. How very cool you know your family history. I had to make mine up in 10th grade English class and it was so wildly outrageous and “good” that I had to read it in front of the class and a very hard time to keep from laughing hysterically. Maybe you’re related to someone famous like Atilla the Hun….

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Wolf Pascoe July 6, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Atilla and I are one.

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