Sliding Back to America from the Marmara Sea

Last week, at a playground on the banks of the Marmara Sea, I stood with a stranger and watched his daughter and my grandson chase one another up and down the slide. They were laughing, enjoying the game. We were encouraged by their easy palship to attempt a conversation.

“Where you are from?” the man asked me. I faltered a moment, embarrassed.

“From the U.S., “ I finally replied.

“Ah. I am from Syria. I came here five years ago.”

Unsure what to say next, I stammered, “You are kind to speak English with me.”

“Oh,” he laughed. “I am a teacher of English. I love to have the opportunity to speak!”

“Ah.” I could have been quiet. A socially adept person might have stood there simply enjoying the mirth of our children and the sparkle of the sea. Instead, I pressed on.

“It must be difficult to be from Syria. What’s happening in your homeland must be painful for you.”

He nodded solemnly for a moment then looked me in the eye. “Well,” he ventured, with a new twinkle of mirth emerging from his own, “No more painful than being from America, I’ll bet.”

Déjà-vu.

In 1970, when I first ventured to Europe, a sweet Italian boy asked me if I were an Ugly American. I spent the next 9 weeks of my trek across the continent proving in every way could that I was not. My encounter with the Syrian English teacher was not the first time I realized I was experiencing a resurgence of what I felt about my country in my profligate youth.

“Speak to me in German,” I begged an Iranian neighbor in the courtyard of the apartment complex where I was staying one morning. I couldn’t bear to hear American English coming from my mouth as I spoke to her.

Being an American, especially being an American abroad, is indeed excruciating. Every day of the two months I stayed in Turkey I faced news from my beloved country that made me shudder. Child abuse by US officials. Refugee incarcerations. Racist slurs against respected politicians. Rallies inciting brainwashed multitudes to chant hateful slogans. Ostensible newscasters spewing toxic lies to widen the chasms that divide citizens. Threats of war both civil and foreign.

Early in the morning three days before my flight home to the States, I received an email from my airline instructing me that because of heightened security in the US, all passengers leaving high-risk areas must undergo extreme scrutiny by security personnel. I was therefore instructed to be at Istanbul Airport at least three hours prior to flight time.

I closed the email, shuddering at the thought of having to leave the apartment at 2 AM for a 6 AM flight. Shivering with resentment that my prosthetic hip would set off the metal sensors and force me to endure inevitable pat-down humiliation.

Before I could shut down my email server and go brew a cup of coffee, my news feed blasted pictures from El Paso. Twenty people killed less than a week after the Gilroy Garlic Festival massacre. I sat and wept. Before my tears abated, news of Dayton. I remain inconsolable.

I am hyper-aware of irony. It underscores the absurdity of life around me and ordinarily gives me a healthy perspective on what I observe in the world. While irony often makes me laugh, it is equally capable of reducing my soul to painful shards that impair my vision, alter my hearing, infuse me with the bitter taste of helplessness.

By the time I read those three notices, my toddler grandson and I had spent 60 days frolicking in various playgrounds in our Istanbul suburb, interacting with people from all over the Middle East. I didn’t like everyone, and I am sure there were those who disliked me. Human interaction is like that. I’m not historically ignorant, and I know there have been times when I would have had a very different experience in Turkey. But this time, now, there was no threat inherent in not being friends with everyone. I never felt unsafe. No one ever threatened me with a gun. No one shouted at me that I must conform to any single notion of right/wrong. Not one person posed any kind of a threat to me or my family.

So sad. My misinformed, misguided, brain-washed fellow Americans believe that the people outside our country threaten us with terrorism. When I said I was traveling to a country that is 97% Muslim, I was overwhelmingly warned, even by my more enlightened acquaintances, to “Be careful.” It should have been I issuing the warnings. The real threat to all of us comes from our fellow Americans.

Mass shootings continue to increase. Congress continues to allow the money-wielding gun lobby to control them. The so-called president continues to sow seeds of fear and resentment that foster bigotry and violence. Politicians and our so-called liberal leadership continue to insist on radical stances instead of seeking ways to re-group and ameliorate. The mainstream press continues to whitewash the awful truth about the evil in our midst.

And we continue to allow ourselves to be bamboozled.

You are right, my Syrian acquaintance. What’s happening in America is painful.

 

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A Thorn By Any Other Name . . . .

The nightmare never changed. It recurred as a terror that began just after I began Kindergarten, at age four. In each bad dream, the ominous wailing of European sirens would wake me from a sound sleep in my grandmother’s Bayside, Queens attic. As the sound of metal soles and heels marching on the suburban pavement reverberated around me, I would scream for my sisters and brothers and cousins to follow me. In German, a voice shouted from the street below. “You cannot escape a second time. We have found you. You will come with us to the camp.” I would wrest myself sweating and crying from the torture of sleep just as the uniformed robots were about to grab my youngest brother and throw him into the tank that followed their march.

Every detail of the dream was the figment of my imagination or of some phantom reminiscence. We had no television, and the only films my parents took me to see were Disney films. I search my memory for some clue as to how the sound of the jackboots and police cars found their way to my subconscious, and I find none. I do know why I was afraid of the camps.

I was born two years after WWII ended. Members of my mother’s large extended family, dispersed across the world, were just beginning to find one another. We received intermittent letters from sources I could not identify that provided cryptic updates. The word “camps” was omnipresent. So much so that when my parents sent me to Girl Scout Camp at age seven, I was sure they were sending me away forever.

The soto voce conversations about the correspondences were always dire. Like the members of my mother’s nuclear family, most of the mispacha had barely escaped. A few to the US, others to Brazil, Israel, Australia, Argentina, the UK. The displaced were the lucky ones. There were telegrams and official notifications bearing the saddest news – two uncles and an aunt gassed in a death camp with a garbled name. What a relief to learn that another aunt and uncle never suffered the same fate but were shot defending their clinic in the Stanislaw ghetto uprising. My mother would huddle with her sisters and parents in secluded corners of our communal home to read each missive aloud. I was not invited to hear, but I was an expert eavesdropper, and while I could not have told you what or who or why, I felt the effect of the camps that my mother and her sisters had narrowly avoided. Even the bits and pieces I surmised were enough to convince me I would never want to go to that place where the evil whose name was Nazi lived.

The pain, the fear, the agony of the camps bored a hole in my consciousness. As did the guilt my mother and her sisters, who never forgave themselves for running away, brought to America. I grew up wondering, as they did every day, if I might have made a difference if I had only been there.

Of course, the notion is absurd. Still, though they said – and genuinely believed – that no such horror could happen in America, they passed to me a sacred responsibility. Never again. Make sure. Never again. Be on your guard. Tolerate no persecutions.

That was the banner I carried in my heart when my cousin and I joined the marchers on the Brooklyn Bridge, when I sang my freedom songs in coffee shops, when I advocated for the end of the War in Viet Nam. Reading history made me cry. How could we enemies of oppression have perpetrated annihilation of the Natives, perpetuated slavery? The more I learned about how this country came to be, the more my inner voice chanted “Never again.”

No one in my circle of intimates ever suggested that there might be anything like comparative suffering. The internment camps that held native Americans all over the Southwest were no less horrific than those that held Japanese Americans during WWII. Inhumanity is inhumanity, Suffering is not a competition sport.

Genocide is genocide.

It follows then that a concentration camp is a concentration camp. Just because there are no gas chambers does not give a vile detention area, where children are tortured, a right to be called anything less brutal. Though the inmates of these camps are not in imminent jeopardy of extermination, ten children have died of their maltreatment.

How many deaths does it take to constitute a death camp?

Children forced to sleep on floors, left unclean, given no soap or water, encouraged to drink from toilets. Worst, children growing every day with no affection, no comfort, ripped from their parents’ love. . . .

 

 

Theresienstadt was a concentration camp. It was a showplace – a beard intended to prove to the Red Cross that the Nazis were humane. Here, like in the border camps, children died. Maltreatment, malnutrition, squalor are killers as lethal as gas and guns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My people suffered great losses, yes. But we have no right to be precious about our pain. To be honest, I abhor the fact that we refer to our destruction as The Holocaust. There have been so many holocausts, murder and mayhem inflicted on human beings by fellow humans. Our losses are of no more significance than the losses incurred by our contemporary refugee counterparts.

We don’t own the torment. But we do own the imperative to fight to end our government’s insistence on perpetrating more of it. We will carry the sad karma wrought by the deplorable savagery being enacted under our flag. We must somehow take action, real action, to send this siege of evil.

The great challenge here is to stop the bickering among the converted. We must put our level heads together to figure out what that action is. We must have a unified plan, and we must cry out in a single voice.

Never Again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back on the Road With Grandma – Part II – View from the Courtyard. . . It Seems So Simple Really

From my window, I have a world view I wish I could share with my fellow Americans.

I am currently in an apartment complex in Istanbul. On the European side. Four separate entrances to four connected but independent buildings comprise the 12-story structure that wraps itself around a large courtyard, a recreational close.

In the center of the courtyard is a very large gazebo.

With ample seating for at least 20 adults and floor space for at least as many children. Much of the day, it is occupied by mothers and a few fathers, who chat amongst themselves while their many children run exuberantly about. They are often there until well after 10 PM.

No one in any of the flats that face the courtyard fears missing the opportunity to be part of the communal scene. Each apartment faces the square, and curtains on the sliding doors leading to a small balcony are invariably open. By placing a couch set at the sliding door, inhabitants extend the indoor living space out into the world of the square. Sound carries easily. From the comfort of home, they intermittently call to one another, supervise unruly children, and engage with the flow of life below.

I imagine our neighbors wonder what is wrong with us that we are so anti-social as to keep our windows covered, our doors closed.

Solitude, then, is not the ideal here. Personal space is meant to be shared. It extends beyond our courtyard into the activity that bustles about us. On the street, in stores, at the local market one is likely to feel crowded even when there are no more than a few people nearby. Walking close to one another seems a requirement on the walkways. Driving far too close is common practice on the roads.

Life here is on a clock set for summer hours. Revels extend late into the night, and nearly nothing stirs before 9 AM, even on workdays. This is lucky for me. My need for alone time, for the wide berth of privacy, is satisfied by my early-morning sessions in the exercise room or by eschewing the sun-drenched outdoor pool in favor of the dimly lit indoor equivalent.

I adjust to what might feel like perpetual invasiveness, even when people are staring at me with great curiosity. The ultra-communal atmosphere fascinates me. It instructs me about the world to which I will soon return.

In my neighborhood in Harlem, apartments are built to ensure the most privacy one can hope for in a crowded city. They are built with an American sense of individuality. Bolted doors, barred windows help to reinforce the notion that boundaries matter.

It is a notion that is just as foreign to many of my neighbors in Harlem as it is to those here in Istanbul. Like my neighbors in this courtyard world, my fellow Manhattanville residents are from places where the house is the place to sleep. In the warm climes – in places like this part of Turkey, the Caribbean Islands, large sections of Africa, Asia, South America, and the Asian subcontinent — the cultures encourage and even require communalism. Folks often and comfortably congregate in courtyards, on the beaches, in the marketplace. In Harlem, they replace the familiar sharing places with city sidewalks, local parks, even the local grocery stores.

I have been known to grouse about the way the habits of the collective affect me, interfere with my limits. Though I crave diversity and delight in the culinary benefits these strangers have brought to my city, I also complain about the things that niggle.

Watching the courtyard below me in this very foreign place is a kind of revelation, a reminder of how fortunate I am to experience this perspective changer.

I pledge to remind myself often — at night, when I wish the noise on the street would just stop, on my block, when I am having trouble walking quickly because of the lawn chairs and hibachis blocking my way, in Whole Foods when another shopper’s cart refuses to move more than an inch from me, on my way to work when the tourists walking four abreast slow my progress from point A to B, in my own apartment building, when it is abuzz with folks iding together – that my way of living is not universally the best. Awareness and perhaps a set of earplugs should enable me to adjust my point of view.

We white Americans have made a history of co-opting, usurping, and/or obliterating all traces of Others’ cultures. Our national beginnings are fraught with murder, enslavement, criminalization of anything un-white. We have stolen food, customs, traditions, language, and culture and have forcibly replaced what belongs to others, requiring that they embrace what is ours. We have taken this imperialistic attitude to the world, earning us the moniker of Ugly Americans. And in the time of Trump, we are doubling down on our insistence that the Other be like us or get out.

I don’t like what we’ve become, we white Americans. We are a fearful, suspicious, hateful lot with little understanding of these others settling on our shores. They are not here to take anything away from us. Yet we treat them as though it is a bad thing that their difference threatens our blandness. Every American should spend a week looking out of my Istanbul window and see that there is no harm in retaining individuality if that is what we want. We might be irritated by a handful of inconveniences, but in the end, our lives are enriched by allowing ourselves to observe and grin.

Perhaps a week at my window would engender a sorely-needed American attitude adjustment. Liberals need to see that while the people of the heartland have lacked exposure, they can watch, smile and accept with the rest of us. And so-called Conservatives need to shut up and listen, taste, touch the joy that happens in this courtyard. We can all adjust.

It’s so simple. Really. You may love your hamburgers, sandwiches, and wraps, but once you’ve tasted kofta or börek, you’ll know something more delicious. Preserving tradition is fine and dandy, but it’s always a sure bet that adding something new can give your life a whole new dimension.

Back on the Road With Grandma

This summer, it’s Istanbul, Turkey. I’ve never been here before.

Once upon a time I dreamed of seeing Istanbul-not-Constantinople and taking in Ephensus, the Topkapi Museum, et al. My imagination conjured encounters with all manner of exotic people, places, ideas. Even in my old age, I fantasized about meeting interesting people, perhaps a man? Preparing for my trip, I made a hypothetical list: The Blue Mosque, the Haga Sophia, a ride atop a double-decker tour of the city and the ancient ruins of Iconium, a cruise down the Bosphorus alongside the remains of the wall that protected Turchia. I figured that since I’d be in the city for three months, I’d have ample opportunity to learn some of the local language, soak up the essence of the culture.

Now entering my third week, I have adjusted my expectations. Mine is not the sojourn of a freewheeling youngster or a liberated retiree. I am here in the official capacity of Toddler’s Grandmother. Consequently, though I have happily partaken of the pide bread and acquired a craving for muhammara salad and vegan boreks, I remain more familiar with home-heated frozen French fries and chicken nuggets. While I’ve managed to board the ferry and visit the Isle of Heybellada, My experiences are filtered through a skewed lens with minimal focus. I see the world through the eyes of a two-and-a-half-year-old, who is fixated on construction vehicles with three doors that open and shut or on dogs sleeping in the shade or birds resting on low-hanging branches. Nothing else in Turkey matters nearly as much. A museum would be excruciating, and the Blue Mosque might shudder at the thought of my grand child running through.

I have yet to see the city by night. Bedtime is early in the world of a toddler.

None of this is in any way disappointing. I believe I will love the memory of this Turkish sojourn all the more for having shared it with my little miracle boy. A walk on the Bosphorus is as satisfying as any cruise when you’re throwing rocks to watch the ripples disrupt the calm and laughing at the boats seeming to race with one another, singing about wheels going ‘round and ‘round as a big green bus zooms behind.

Back in New York, I’ll hear in my dreams the five calls to prayer outside our window, but I will remember a sleeping boy rather than the responses of the faithful. Here I’ll content myself with vicarious visits to storied places. The beauty of Haga Sophia and Rumeli Castle resonates adequately from the page, and neither will age any less sublimely for want of my presence.

Much to my amazement, I have no need to further enrich my senses. Things that once seemed intensely important have lost their luster. The glories of the past are singularly unenticing because the future is in my arms.

My future has become irrelevant. Who knows what time I have left? Nothing is promised,. I have had already a long life that has given me much to be grateful for. I gladly turn my attention to what I will leave behind. Memories matter.

No matter what time is left, I will be a presence in this boy’s heart, even if only as half-seen a shadow casting stones on the water of the Bosphorus.

——————

Next up: How America looks from here . . . . Spoiler alert. It’s not pretty.

 

Last Note From the Temporary Curmudgeon

I’m home. Glad to be here. I missed family, friends, New York. Now I miss my daughter, my grandson, the colors of Bangkok. It feels good to be cold, to see blue sky. To breathe air that doesn’t choke me.

the homecoming was relatively easy. My flight was on time, arriving early on a Wednesday morning. Amazingly, despite the predictions of horror in the immigration hall, the line moved quickly. I thanked the officer who checked me in, and he squeezed my hand.

“Thanks.” He said. “That’s good to hear. Let’s just hope it ends soon. . . ” Then he looked wistfully at me and said, “Welcome home.”

Qatar partially redeemed itself on the return flight. On the first leg, from Bangkok to Doha, I was fortunate enough to have sitting behind me a loud, drunken Russian lout. He and three of his cronies were shouting with one another, drinking and singing disruptively. It was 8 in the evening, and I planned to sleep as soon as the cabin lights were turned off. So I donned my best NY ignore’emall demeanor and settled down to pretend he wasn’t there.

After the meal was served and cleared, and darkness enveloped the cold space, I leaned my seat back and wrapped myself in my winter layers preparing to drift off. The Russian behind me leaned forward and said, “No, madame. No no.” His voice was threatening. I could hear the mob vibrating in his growl.

Still in ignore’emall mode, I paid him no heed.

He kicked the back of my chair. I failed to react. He called the flight attendant. Then he called five more flights. He insisted that I be reprimanded for insisting on reclining my seat. Each of them insisted their turns that I had the right to do just that. They offered to move him to a bulkhead (premium) seat with more legroom. He refused, insisting yet again it was their job to make me stop reclining into his space.

They would not budge. Neither would he. It got absurd, and his friends were beginning to be audibly agitated. The scolded him but clearly worried that he might explode.

I offered to move. The Qatar people gratefully put me in the bulkhead. No reclining seat there. I sat awake for the entire duration of the seven-hour flight. The flight attendants stopped by begging my forgiveness, offering me food, drink, et al. I told them again and again that it was not their fault. I was fine.

In Doha, the security check I endured from one flight to the other was humiliating. The body checks one is forced to endure once one has a prosthetic limb or joint are intolerable. We have no choice but to put up with them. There is no avoiding them. Each time they constitute a moment of awful, and then you move on. This was among the worst. But no more than a moment.

When I sat in my seat in the NY-bound aircraft, I saw a chance for total retribution. The flight was empty. I asked permission and then moved across the aisle, where I prepared to spread out. A few minutes before take-off, a lovely young attendant came and asked me would I move to the middle seat so that a woman in a seat a few rows ahead could sit here. I felt tears bubbling as I looked at the young woman and said, “Let me tell you my tale of woe. If, after you hear it, you need my seat, I will relinquish. . . .”

When I wrapped the tale of the Russian thug, the flight attendant was overcome with emotion. “You can stay here,” she said, patting me on the shoulder. “If anyone insists that you move, you tell them I said you are to keep these seats all the way to New York.”

And that is just what I did.

Notes From A Temporary Curmudgeon – Day 5

5.Watching American politics from afar  

So depressing. It is bad enough that the hideous behaviors of our current so-called administration are still supported by a healthy portion of the population. It’s bad enough that my taxes – taxes that have been realigned so that my income has fallen considerably — to keep children in cages, to fund ridiculous immigration policies, to enable the clown president and his evil henchmen, band of oligarchs, to rob the middle class from any possible hope of prosperity.

That the opposition cannot find common ground on which to stand to resist them is the most terrifying reality of all. It’s one the overseas world is pointing at. “This is what you call democracy?”

The women’s movement, which should be a unified effort by women in this country to take the power out of the hands of narcissistic males who would strip us of our reproductive and employment rights, is instead driven by the enmity between the Sarsour-dominated Women’s March Alliance and the NYC Women’s March. Through my cloudy telescope, the Alliance looked like a bunch of bullying thugs, equally as toxic as the patriarchy we should combine forces to overthrow. Women’s rights, even those we worked so hard to win, are eroding away all across the country. Slipping out of our granddaughters’ reach.

Instead of creating a united front to stand against the mansplainers who feel the need to dominate women, each organization is more concerned with having things one own way without the other.

Sad.

A Cousin is a Cousin for A’ That. . . .

Cousins!

“Someone had best pinch me,” Lesley said dreamily. “Never mind. I’ll pinch myself. This is all so unreal.”

I nodded. It’s the kind of statement I might otherwise have thought hyperbolic. Silly even. But at that moment I found it utterly appropriate.

Lesley is my second cousin. We had just met for the very first time at the home of our mutual (also second) cousin Nancy, in Columbus, Ohio. Until only recently, none of us was aware of the others’ existence. Nancy and I were lucky. We knew what had been lost. We had expected to find family members waiting to be discovered. Lesley, on the other hand, had no idea. Having grown up without an extended family, she had no inkling there were relatives of any kind anywhere. Pinching was definitely prescribed.

The preparations for our meeting actually began two years ago. Out of the blue, I heard from Nancy, a shadow from a part of my past I only vaguely remembered. We had a shared history, but it was fleeting, and I had to squint through my memory to recall her.

A month apart in age, Nancy and I played together as small children. We share great-grandparents by way of our mothers, the first cousins. Nancy’s grandfather Joseph was second and my grandmother Rudolfine the last of the ten children born to Chane and Hermann Zwilling between 1883 and 1899. In our early youth, our mothers were in close touch, but over time, distances grew between them, and Nancy and I grew up far apart from one another. Now, as age would have it, our heritage demanded that we reconnect and explore our common roots.

Chane and Hermann Zwilling were a storybook couple.

Chane & Hermann Zwilling, circa 1907

They were born, met and married in Ukraine during the penultimate decade of the nineteenth century. Unique among their peers, they lived happily ever after. Following the birth of their first child, they moved to Warsaw and from there to Vienna, all the while managing to escape or survive multiple tragedies, the tropes of Jewish History. Each of their ten children slipped past disease and hunger, infection and violence, through infancy into adulthood. All were gifted musicians, artists, thinkers, and their weekly reunions were effervescent celebrations of being alive.

Luckiest of all was that by the time of the Anschluss Österreichs, Chane and Hermann Zwilling had long since begun whiling away eternity in Vienna’s Zentral Friedhof, its largest cemetery. They never had reason to suspect the marauding madness of Nazism.

Their offspring, however, were endangered. All but Nancy’s grandfather, that is.

Joseph had left Vienna in 1910. His adamant support of Socialism and his refusal to serve as a soldier in the Hapsburg army led to a quarrel with Hermann. “The Hapsburgs do nothing but breed like rabbits,” he exclaimed, and with that, he entered self-imposed exile. In New York City.

By 1928, the rest of the tribe had begun gathering the resources needed to get out. Out of Vienna, out of Austria, out of Europe if possible.

My own grandparents actively began their process in 1929 when they moved to Zagreb, then Yugoslavia. Anti-Semitism was still more subtle there, and a Jewish man could earn a decent wage, save and prepare to get his large extended family to safety.

In 1939, a year after the Anschluß, Nancy’s grandfather and grandmother met my grandmother and her family at the docks in New York. It was Joseph who secured the Harlem apartment that was my mother’s first American home. Together, our grandparents continued to work toward helping the rest of the Zwillings to flee as well.

They scattered. Sisters Milka, Ella, and Cilli escaped to Palestine; from there, two traveled to Australia and the other to Canada. Brother Heinrich found a circuitous route to Sao Paolo, Brazil, and Adolph took his family to Genoa, Italy.

There would be no more family reunions.

Oldest brother Max and two more brothers Ferdinand and Franz were stranded in Vienna. Franz, who had embraced Catholicism to marry his Slovenian sweetheart Elsa years before, realized conversion was not enough to save them. By 1939, all three brothers knew their prospects were slim. But at least they knew that the children were safe.

By 1940, thanks to my grandfather’s insistence and some financial assistance, the cousins were safely out of Austria.

Max and his wife Paula had two teenage daughters, and Franz and Elsa had one son. All three were among the 100,000 youngsters who wound up in the UK through the Kindertransport, an organized rescue effort facilitated by the British government. The girls enrolled in a nurses training program in the west of England, and Franz’s son Herman went to a pig farm outside of London.

Franz and his wife had reason to hope they would be safe. However, Max and Paula were artists and intellectuals with few prospects for escape. Ferdinand, a bookbinder and a musician by trade, a small homosexual man with a seriously deformed back, was doomed.

Ferdinand’s passport was confiscated immediately after the Nazis took over. They refused to allow him to travel until February 1941, when they deported him to Mali Trostinec, a death camp outside Minsk. There is no date of death listed on Ferdinand’s transportation records. In all likelihood, as soon as the train reached the Mali Trostinec station, Ferdinand was summarily shot.

In May of the following year, Max and Paula were also sent to Mali Trostinec. Max was gassed on the first of June, and Paula followed him twenty-six days later.

Franz and Elsa seemed to have scored a better outcome. In 1940, they were granted permission to depart, and they arranged to reunite with their son. Despite the obvious dangers of the raging war, they set sail for England.

Once in London, the couple settled into a hotel to await their son’s arrival the next day. Overnight, the heater malfunctioned. When Elsa awoke coughing and choking, she found Franz dead beside her. He had been gassed. Carbon monoxide.

After the war, through the 1950s and into the 60s, the surviving Zwilling siblings reached out and let one another know where they had gone. By 1963, my grandmother had managed to visit Adolph in Genoa and Ella in Canada. Letters traveled back and forth for years between New York and Australia. She never knew what had happened to Franz or the precise fate of Max, Paula, and Ferdinand. She found comfort in knowing most of her nephews and nieces had escaped.

Except for one who died flying for the RAF, the next generation of Zwilling progeny were safe. They, too, all members of the same close-knit family that gathered so frequently to make music together, sought one another out. Max’s daughters immigrated to the US, and the younger of the two was married in my grandmother’s backyard in Bayside, Queens. But not all were able to reconnect.

The cousins in Brazil and Europe remained out of reach. As far as my mother knew, Franz’s wife Elsa and his son Herman had vanished. It was Nancy who discovered that the information was incorrect.

Nancy is an only child, whose mother was an only child. Since Joe and his wife had left all their effects to Nancy’s mother, it was Nancy who ultimately inherited the task of sorting through all her family papers and memorabilia. A child psychologist who has written two impressive books on the acquisition of language and numbers, Nancy is a brilliant researcher with a highly disciplined, organized mind and methodology. The first thing she did when she began the mission was to catalog her parents’ miscellany.

In the dizzying piles of paper and photographs, she found letters to her father from a Harry Willing. Who was this Harry Willing? And how did he know her father?

In 2015, when Nancy contacted me, she had just begun the massive task of clarifying the family history.

“Come to Columbus and help me with this thing,” she invited me. “I’ll share the cost of the travel because I could really use some assistance.”

I was intrigued.

“Really,” Nancy insisted in her most erudite academic voice. “I’ve hired a genealogist, a genealogical detective,” Nancy explained. “He’s searching in the ruins for all of them.”

Among the detective’s impressive discoveries was that this Harry Willing was the name Franz’s son Herman Zwilling took when he was confirmed into the Church of England. The letters to Nancy’s father began to make sense. Among them were photos of Franz and Elsa before Franz’s death and photos of Elsa and Harry thereafter. There were also photos of Harry’s family – he had a daughter Lesley and a son Martin. Both still live in London.

“Let’s see if we can make contact,” Nancy enthused, and she immediately wrote to the addresses her sleuth had given her. She was not able to find Martin, but Lesley was well within reach and thrilled to be contacted.

Last May, Nancy and her husband visited Lesley and hers in the UK. There is no way to capture the emotional impact that reunion had on all of us. For Lesley, it was most profound.

“I thought my father was alone in the world,” she told Nancy at that first meeting. “I never dreamed I had any kind of family but the one I’ve made.”

Lesley and I began corresponding. “I feel like I have to meet you,” she said soon after her day with Nancy. “I need more time with Nancy, and I need to see you.”

She was hesitant at first to venture over to the US. Though she and her husband are inveterate travelers, Lesley had never gone off on her own.

Luckily for all of us, however, Lesley was driven by her curiosity.

We converged on Nancy’s home and spent three days talking incessantly. We were awake each night well past our bedtimes, and for Lesley that meant staying up past a bedtime that was five hours earlier than Nancy’s and mine. We shared pictures, stories, observations. We crowed about our children, grandchildren, Lesley’s one great-grandchild. We compared medical histories, and we examined the emotional vacuums of our parents’ collective memories.

We are all nearly the same age, and we all grew up with parents who didn’t know how to convey the emotional depths to which their losses had taken them. They were unable to talk about where they’d been, what they’d suffered. I first unearthed the basic truths about the family’s ordeals when I was eleven and had read a novel set in and after the Holocaust. Animating the stories became my passion. Even so, there were things no one disclosed. As my mother’s older sister was wont to say, “There are things we just don’t talk about.”

For Nancy, the discovery came a bit later. She began to ferret out information when she was in college and later turned to a more methodical approach to learning about them. She could not ask her parents. She could only intuit how their lives fit into those she read about in the literature.

For Lesley, the past was a void. She told us she always felt there was something huge missing from her life, but she had no idea what it might be.

Franz Zwilling, ca. 1935

What she did know was that Franz’s death left a hole in her soul. Had he lived, she surmised, her life would have been far different from the one she knew. Harry and his wife were not warm, nurturing people, and Lesley was left on her own much of the time. There was among them little physical contact at all, no expressions of affection. As a shield, she held fast to the image of the distinguished, beautiful man depicted in the single photograph she had of her grandparents, and, “Somehow I knew that if he were alive, he would have loved me the way I deserved to be loved.”

 

 

 

 

When the weekend was over, Lesley, Nancy and I had bonded like sisters. Cousins. It felt as though we had begun to heal the great gash that persists in our family narrative. Someday perhaps we’ll have this encounter with the other second cousins scattered about the world, and we’ll close the circle.

In the meantime, our Ohio weekend was transformative.

“You’ve filled my heart,” Leslie sobbed as we tearfully hugged goodbye at the airport. “There was always a piece of myself I knew was not there. But I had no idea where to look for it. You’ve given it back. I feel complete.”

The Zwilling Tribe,1900. When their youngest child (on Chane’s lap) was born in 1899, she was named Rudolfine. “But, declared old Hermann, “we shall call her Fini. She is the last of my issue. With this one I am fini.” Behind the three,(l-r) are Ella, Joseph, Max, Milka. to Hermann’s right is Ferdinand; at Chane’s right is Cillia, and to her left is Franz. Seated in the front are Adolph and Heinrich.