We are the stories we tell ourselves and the storieswe tell our children. This living, collectivenarrative provides meaning and hope to a people. Whenthose stories perish, so too does a culture.
At the end of January, we marked the liberation of Auschwitz, 60years ago. Despite the passing of time, Auschwitzremains a powerful black hole in human history — adark, gravitational force so great that no completeindividual or cultural memory from a time before itscreation can escape its pull. All that survives arefragmented stories.
These stories were passed piecemeal, from grandfatherto grandson, sitting at a kitchen table over plates ofeggs and toast, walking through a farmer’s field tothe fishing hole, and riding in the torn passengerseat of an old Ford van. And though the stories reachback a thousand years, they are, in the end, just ashand smoke travelling on the winds without context orcoherent meaning.
Feigel Washinsky was born in 1891, in Grodno, Lithuania. Grodno was one of the oldest and largestof the Lithuanian Jewish communities, a thrivingcentre of learning, with a number of Yeshivas — schools for study of the Talmud.
Grodno was also a rich town with large markets, thickwith the smell of smoked meats and braided breads. Wasthere the kinetic energy of Klesma music? Thechattering rhythm of Yiddish words? Or are thesememories just reflections of painted, sky-blue Chagallfigures, floating, hand in hand, high above idealizedshtetls? Or does it really matter? They are mystical,Kabalistic truth, not real to the touch perhaps, buttruth nonetheless.
Then there are other truths: In 1939, the Jewishpopulation of Grodno was 25,000. Upon its liberationin July of 1944, the living Jews in Grodno numbered200.
There are no surviving stories of Feigel in Lithuania,and so we might imagine her in a peasant’s dress andwith a kerchief on her head attending to the mattersof keeping a household.
Akiba Kriegman was born in 1889 in a small Ukrainianvillage called Novgorod-Volinskii. It too had a richJewish culture, a farming community with a smallwooden synagogue and modest clapboard houses. Akibawas a young man with a passion for politics and thepromise of a new century. His search for meaning tookhim down a different path from his ancestors. Heturned his back on the orthodox religious beliefs ofhis father, became radicalized by the politics of theday, and mixed with the Russian revolutionaries of1905.
Of Novgorod-Volinskii and its people after 1939,little is known — because nothing is left.
For Feigel and Akiba, fate had its ironies. Theyescaped the later destruction of their villages andfamilies. In late 1905, Feigel left Grodno, and Akibafled Novgorod-Volinskii. They traveled separately toAmerica, to the port of Boston. And there, theold-country names and old-country customs wereexchanged for new-world names and new-world customs.Feigel became Fanny. Akiba became Edwin.
Edwin made shoes in a Brockton, Massachusetts factory.He remained a radical — an active unionist andcommunist. He knew and worked with Sacco of Sacco and Vanzetti, the two turn-of-the-century anarchistscoldly executed by an America lost in one of itsperiodic convulsions of fear.
And at some moment, lost to memory, Edwin met Fanny.They married. They had five children. Their firstborn, David, was a free spirit and unconventionalhumanist. Like his father, he was not religious, norwas he much interested in the old ways or the oldcountry. And yet, he taught his grandson something ofthe ethical spirit of eastern European Judaism — thefaint ghosts of the Yeshiva perhaps, or the residualshadows of the shtetl: read many books, questioneverything, seek truth, have compassion for allpeople.
Edwin’s first grandchild — David’s first-born — was agirl and Edwin’s great joy. Later that girl had a son.And to this first-born son — in the old Jewishtradition — she gave Edwin’s name. And to that sonwere given the fragmented stories to hold.
But Grodno and Novgorod-Volinskii, and their thousandyear histories and thriving Jewish cultures, are allgone, and so too are Edwin and Fanny and David — allreduced to smoke and ash and fragmented memory.
Certainly, we should never forget Auschwitz. But letus hope, as time passes, Auschwitz will not be all wecan remember.