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.

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Border Wars on the Mind

I perceive Gaza these days through a Texas-tempered lens.  Watching the hateful  citizenry of the wealthiest country in the world scream obscenities at indigent waifs displaced by violence and poverty, instructing them to go back to where they come from, I am reminded of stories my mother told about her arrival in Kingston just before WWII.  My mother was no waif, and poverty was not the impetus for her flight to the Land of Opportunity, but her stories inevitably lead me all the way to Gaza.

Mom’s family arrived without their patriarch in April, 1939, toward the end of what proved to be her junior year in high school.   She surprised herself by passing the English regents exam in May and so began the process of applying to college.  Her senior year felt friendless to her; classmates jeered her, mocked her accent.  Girls in the lunch room turned chairs over so she could not sit with them, and in gym class, they threw dirty socks and wet towels at her.  Teachers derided her, telling her they were unable to understand her when she spoke, deliberately refusing to call on her in class. The entire community – especially the entrenched first-and-second generation descendants of immigrants– treated her and her siblings as interlopers, avoiding them all at synagogue and football games alike, attempting to rebuff her brother’s attempts to join the Boy Scouts, even suggesting on numerous occasions that the lot of them return to their “own country.”

Fresh off the boat, Charlotte Robinson, my mother,  was 16 in 1939.

Fresh off the boat, Charlotte Robinson, my mother, turned 16 in 1939.

Of course, they owned no country any more than those homeless children seeking asylum at our Southwest borders do today.  Born in Austria during a time when Jews were highly respected, my mother reached her teens at precisely the time when Jews were successfully relegated to the status of lice.  Her passport, any European’s primary form of identification, was stamped Israelische, marking her as an outsider, a member of the tribe of Israel.  She was not Austrian.

Which was initially why she joined the Jabotinsky youth, planned to leave the vitriolic land of her birth to claim her rightful home in Eretz Isroel.

My grandfather put a stop to that.  “You think I’ll let you leave the Nazis only to throw yourself into the hands of the Arabs who want you dead?  Besides,” he told her, “the Jews cannot own the ‘promised land because the Europeans will never let it go.  You will come with us to America.’”

She was only 15; she acquiesced.  Ironically, she emigrated without her father.  In a move that may have helped to seal the fate of the Middle East, the United States closed its borders to Jews like my grandfather, who were born in countries that seemed somehow un-Caucasian, such as Poland, and were frantically seeking refuge under Lady Liberty’s lamp.  While my mother endured the slurs of her classmates, her father lived in Havana, working to become a Cuban citizen who might then be allowed to enter the United States.

America has never really welcomed the huddled masses.  At the end of WWII, American money –much of it from second and third generation Americans protecting their American territory from newcomers to these shores – veritably gushed in support of the partition of Israel, over the protestations of the local Palestinians.  It was more expedient to force the displacement of the Palestinians, to fuel the hatred of neighboring Arab countries, who wanted nothing to do with either Palestinians or Jews, than to profer better solutions to a problem to which they had been catalysts in the first place.

Over the arc of time, the European imperialists and Americans had imposed arbitrary boundaries across the Middle East, comporting themselves like puppet masters overseeing a bloody marionette show for their own entertainment.  In much the same way the British and the French turned Iroquois against Algonquin in the so-called French and Indian War by arming the natives and rewarding their aggression, the Western world played the locals off against one another, all over the Middle East.  Today the forces seem to have raised the stakes,  and they produce animatronic battles between Palestinian and Israelis (and between Suni And Shiite Muslims elsewhere), doling out money to each side so that the show runners can sit back and watch both sides exchange bombardments.   In the present Gaza conflagration, the U.S. has steadfastly encouraged the warring factions to go at one another, financing a bloodier extension of the age-old Jacob vs Esau, Isaac vs Ishmael rivalries.  They have sent millions of dollars to Hamas for the building of missile tunnels; and they have sent more millions of dollars to Israel for the building of The Dome.  The combatants in Gaza are egged on, like contestants in an obscene reality television show, while the odds are alternately stacked for one side or the other.

Unfortunately, each side is fueled by the deeply religious conviction that that side has a God-given right to the land, was placed there by divine ordinance.  Religion is an immovable feast.

But even were the religious obstinacy absent, neither side has anywhere else to go. The two peoples are caught in a battle for survival, and until one side finally trusts the other enough to make concessions, they’ll be unable to settle things.  So long as Hamas promises to eradicate the Land of Israel by any means possible, Israel cannot trust them to honor boundaries; so long as Israel won’t concede the West Bank, which Israel considers essential to guarding against eradication, Hamas won’t accept compromise.

Which leaves them both unable to stop fighting.  If there were another place to create a homeland; if, for example, the US offered a chunk of Arizona or Utah – where vast open areas of desert beg to be developed – as an alternate place to establish Israel or Palestine, would one group exit and start over?  We’ll never know.  Because both groups are as unwelcome in their diaspora as the children being sent back to South and Central America are in theirs.  So neither side is able to let go of their claim to the land of Abraham, their common ancestor.  They’re orphans, hated universally, shunned by all.

Somewhere I imagine closed circuit television cameras recording the action, playing back the videos in some perverse gambling casino, where bets are flying, emirs and pashas and captains of industry and Wall Street moguls and all kinds of professional gamblers are getting rich placing bets on how many Palestinian children will die in how much time and how many weeks Israeli children can hold out in their giant dome before it’s their turn to be destroyed.

It’s a vicious storm, from which nobody is safe.