It’s difficult to do family research under the best of circumstances. Unless you come from royalty or from a line of nefarious evildoers or from people who etched their names onto the planks of the Mayflower, chances are the just plain folks of your family lived and died in relative obscurity.
My family tree has added difficulties. It is populated by people who spent most of their time hiding from other people. Family names changed, depending on which people were in charge of which territory. The names of villages either changed or the villages themselves disappeared, again depending on which people were in charge. The same first names were used over and over. Birth dates weren’t important enough to record. Last names, themselves, were a fairly recent convention, forced upon people by royal edict. As such, they were often copied from other people’s names or chosen because that was the town they happened to live in or that was the line of work they did. It didn’t matter much, because chances are, the names would eventually be changed anyway.
There is precious little of any substance to hold onto. Just when my cousin and I think we have a thread and gently tug at it, it turns out to be one that unravels other parts of the cheesecloth that we were trying to hold together. Still, we slog along. And sometimes we remember something that we had forgotten.
I had postcards. Many postcards. Sent by my uncle in Pinsk, Poland to his brother, my father, in the US. Written in tiny antiquated Yiddish script across now-yellowed paper, up margins, wringing the last bit of space afforded. Many years ago, I had put them into a photo album in the attic. I had given them no further thought. Until now.
My cousin and I have begun the task of translating them. They were written in the early 1940s, as the Nazis were occupying Poland. They stopped just before the Pinsk Ghetto was established. By then, my uncle was taken in one of the round ups. His wife and son were moved to the Ghetto and from there to a concentration camp. No one survived.
I had no expectations that any family history would reveal itself. Neither did I believe that anything in the postcards would enlighten me to the perilous situation in which they found themselves. The first postcard translation confirmed this: General greetings and well wishes from various family members who would not live out the year.
We have just had the second postcard translated. This one is different. It is a list of books my uncle is recommending to my father: Spinoza, Shalom Aleichem, Jules Verne, Tolstoy. And so on. It is this postcard that gets to the heart of me, this knowledge that my uncle loved books.
When I was growing up, we had few books in the house. My mother read cookbooks and magazines. My father read the newspaper. I never knew where my love of books came from, only that it was a fact of my life for as long as I can remember.
Now something has been revealed to me about this man who, until now, has remained a mystery. One of the millions who had lives, then didn’t. I ask myself what kind of person would, in the midst of horror, not only continue to read, but would continue to care enough that others would do so as well.
I would. And for the same reason. Because a book in my hand is what transports me and gives me solace from events that I can’t control. Because I continue to bombard my family and friends with book recommendations. Because when I am alone in an unfamiliar place, I am fine, as long as I have a book in my hand. Because books, after people, nourish my soul.
This postcard has been a gift beyond measure. This is how I can now say that I know my uncle, how he speaks to me across the years and across the miles. This is how I know that had he lived into my childhood, we would have bonded over books.
More postcards are waiting. Perhaps more family members are waiting to speak. I can’t bring them back. But I can listen to them.