Web Essays

What I Don’t Know

At the heart of my family tree are only questions and mysteries

By Lynne Sharon Schwartz | April 14, 2022
A 1907 photograph of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island (Library of Congress)
A 1907 photograph of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island (Library of Congress)

When in my reading I come across sentences like this one—“Her great-great grandfather was the principal advisor to the Dutch royal family in the 18th century; a great-grandfather made a killing in the Gold Rush; and her mother was descended from George Sand”—I feel a trifle bereft. I don’t crave the descendants’ social position or wealth, simply their connection to a history, going back centuries, that for me is blank, as if my family sprang from nowhere. Of course, my forebears must have existed in those centuries, but who were they, and what and where? Nobody tells.

There is no shortage of information about my 12 pairs of aunts and uncles, transplanted from Ukraine (which makes me wonder about any distant relatives who might be suffering in the current war), and my 26 first cousins, born here and mostly gone now. Rumor, usually in the voice of my mother, had it that one uncle killed a pedestrian while driving; two other uncles supposedly lost their wives very young and were left with infants to raise. A cousin left her husband of one day for another man; a second was shot to death by his Cuban refugee wife. One headed west to escape his humble origins, another because he was secretly gay. And so on. Some of the stories are tragic, some the ordinary sprinkling of drama in any large family, from anywhere. They have the piquancy of gossip, yet they do not intrigue me. What I wonder about is the unknown earlier world, the past in which suffering was a daily event on a mass scale. So awesome that it mustn’t be spoken of. Like the name of God, which religious Jews never write in its entirety, only in abbreviated form.

Grace Paley once warned a group of students not to simply “write what you know.” No, she said, you should write what you don’t know about what you know. For me that is a wide barren stretch, blank pages.

What I know for sure is that my ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower. My grasp of family history goes back only to my grandparents on either side, with the name of an occasional great-aunt or great-uncle thrown in. For instance, I was told of an uncle on my father’s side named Peter, who went from his native Ukraine to Jerusalem—how? when?—where he worked as an architect. So, on a trip to Israel, I looked him up in histories of local architecture but with no luck. I thought he might have been part of the Bauhaus group that flourished in Tel Aviv in the 1930s, and I visited a neighborhood known for its many examples of that style. I strolled down the boulevard lined with handsome Bauhaus buildings, but nothing suggested my great-uncle or brought me closer to him. Maybe it was all a story.

Then, for a while, there was a family suspicion that we were related to Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister. Sharon was my father’s last name, shortened upon arrival in the United States, as Ariel’s surname had been changed from Scheinerman, Hebraicized when the family fled Russia for Palestine in 1922. My mother insisted that Ariel resembled my father’s brother George (a fat George, she called him), a notion supported by photographs, and Ariel’s aggressive temperament fit well with my father’s family. But a bit of research showed there was no connection. I’d had vague fantasies about introducing myself and through him meeting important Israelis. But in the end, I was relieved; the possibility made me uneasy.

My father’s parents came to the United States early in the 20th century. I don’t know the name of the ship. Nor do I know from which port in Europe it came. Has anyone ever investigated those ships that brought immigrants from Ireland and Italy and Eastern Europe? What were their names—the names of ships are always colorful. How seaworthy were they? I wonder. Did any sink, with their hopeful boatloads?

I don’t know how my father’s family got from Kiev (now Kyiv), their nearest city, to that European port. I don’t know if they all came at once or in groups of two or three—there were the parents and eight children. I know that my father was 11 at the time and that his eldest brother remained near Kiev: I heard a vague story that he was already married with a family and was established in some career related to music; I like to imagine he was a pianist because I play the piano, but I really don’t know.

I asked my mother if this oldest brother had kept in touch; she said for a while he sent letters and then they stopped coming. Did my father miss him? I couldn’t imagine asking my father about him. My father never spoke of his first 11 years. It was as if they had never happened, which was perhaps what he wanted to believe. Indeed, it is hard to imagine my father, with his elegant, perfect English, in his neat suit and tie ready for work, or behind the wheel of his DeSoto, in some dusty shtetl maybe with chickens hopping around.

At 21, I was planning my first trip to Europe. I asked my father, who seemed profoundly uninterested in my plans, “Don’t you ever want to travel? Like, don’t you ever want to go to Europe?” “I’ve been to Europe,” he said, in a way that promptly shut me up. He was bitter. To send his five sons to a good school in Kiev, my Jewish grandfather had to pay four times the ordinary tuition for each, my mother told me. And, she said, the boys had to wear a yellow star, which shocked me because I thought that began with Hitler, decades later. But in fact the “badge,” as it was called, originated in the Middle Ages, in various shapes and colors.

Irrelevantly, she added that my father would never eat a banana because it was not something he knew from his youth. This was curious because in all the years since my father emigrated as a boy of 11, he tried many things he had never encountered in childhood, such as fried clams and lobsters, which he and I would eat at Coney Island while my mother, who kept our home kosher, fled to the mountains for the summer.

For a long time, after I learned about the war and the concentration camps (from books, not from my parents), I assumed that the Nazis must have thrown this oldest brother and his family into the ditch at Babi Yar among 33,000 others, an incident made famous by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his 1961 poem protesting the Russian government’s refusal to acknowledge the deed. But shortly before she died, my older sister, an occasional source of information, said she’d heard that this brother and his family might have emigrated to Israel.

Which was it, Babi Yar or Israel?

Some years ago, one of my father’s brothers made a family tree to give to the younger generation. From this tree I learned that my paternal grandfather, whom I had known as a wizened old man shuffling around a three-room apartment in Brooklyn, who spoke no English but could read it, had once been a steward for the estate of a Polish nobleman. I don’t know if this was an important position or nothing much; whatever I know about stewards is from old novels or Chekhov stories. I suppose it depends on the size of the estate. Did he supervise serfs, I wonder, like the serfs in Tolstoy’s stories?

From the family tree I learned that the maiden name of my father’s mother, a small wrinkled woman with gray hair who smelled of rotting apples—not bad, a kind of sweetish smell—was Nuzzi, an Italian name. Since I have always wanted to be Italian, I seized on this information with enthusiasm. Someone told me it was a northern Italian name. I checked with Ancestry.com—only the chance of my having Italian genes would make me spit into a tube and mail it—but it turned out there was nothing Italian in my DNA, only Eastern European heritage and a couple of remote percentages so small, I’ve forgotten them. I sometimes invent stories about how my grandmother came by that name.

I don’t remember her death, but I do vividly recall learning of my grandfather’s. I was six and walked the five short blocks home from school with friends. I opened the front door, and instead of finding my mother I found my 17-year-old sister, all dressed up, her hair in a pompadour, sitting in a large throne-like chair with elaborate woodcarving, a chair that faced me as I walked through the living room. She was sitting very still and somber. She had a flair for the dramatic. “Zadie died,” she announced grimly, and it was clear to me even then how much she was enjoying the drama of the moment and the role assigned to her, to be home when I returned from school and convey the news. It didn’t mean much to me—I knew Zadie as the severe old man who, according to my mother, had been a harsh disciplinarian and learned to read English by studying The New York Times. All I recall about his death is the image of my sister, stately and funereal, occupying the big chair as though she were royalty.

I know even less about my mother’s parents, not even where in Eastern Europe they came from. I’m not sure my mother herself knew—she was one of the younger children born here; for her, life began in calm Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Without any bitter history to bury or repress, she was not as chary with information as my father. She said her father crossed the ocean on his own and established himself in Manhattan with a pushcart, selling old clothes, before sending for his wife and two daughters. While she waited to be summoned, my grandmother, a charismatic and enterprising woman, the sort people call a force of nature, ran a hardware store back wherever they came from. I would have liked to ask her about running the store but though we communicated in some fashion using Yiddish and English, neither of us was fluent enough in the other language to discuss the intricacies of the hardware business.

At the time I was born, my maternal grandparents lived in a five-story brownstone in Brooklyn, with each of their four daughters and their families occupying a floor. How this family and all the others like them managed the travel arrangements, the slow air mail letters, the packing, the procuring of tickets, the trek to a seaport, is a mystery. Another mystery is how my grandfather progressed beyond a rickety pushcart to that sturdy brownstone.

But the mystery that nags most is about my unknown uncle: Babi Yar or Israel?

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