Inherited my familial loneliness syndrome from my mother. Ruth Goldberg was the beloved only child of Jewish immigrants who raised her in an aging Victorian on a steep street in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. I knew my mother's mother, Dora, only from stories--she rarely left the house except to go to the family furniture store--and from photographs, particularly the ones in which she holds the infant me, her first grandchild, on her lap. A few months after those photos were taken, Dora clasped them to her ample chest, fell asleep and never awoke. Not long after, my amiable grandfather Max died, too, leaving my mother parentless. When she was "blue," as my mother called the melancholy that came over her on yahrzeits and Yom Kippur, I could hear her lament, even when no words escaped her lips. Except for Max's brother and his wife and their children and a couple of elderly half-aunts--all scattered around the United States and nowhere near our ranch house on the Jersey Shore--she was alone. The rest of her family had been swallowed by the cataclysms of Eastern Europe, their existence shrouded by distance and the passage of time.
I inherited a different variety of familial angst from my father. Seymour Epstein wasn't an only child, his parents lived to ripe old ages, and he never pined for lost family. Nevertheless, his father, my Grandpa Charlie, had left behind a sister in his hometown of Buchach in Galicia, the southeastern part of Poland that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was discussed so little that my father never even learned her name. When he was 16, a postcard arrived at his family's apartment in Brooklyn, depicting his aunt with her husband and two grown daughters. With their serious expressions, they seemed cognizant of the fate awaiting them: being mowed down by Nazi gunfire on the banks of the Bug River, their blood intermingling with that of their fellow Jews on one of the days that locals say the river turned red. I prefer to think that they were just following the photographer's instructions--it wasn't the custom for people to smile in photos in those days. My father always spoke of this postcard in an uncharacteristic hushed tone. Years later, I showed it to a woman who had survived this massacre as a child in hiding, and she translated the words on the back for me: "Remember. To my dear Aunt and Uncle from Sara and Abraham. Buchach. November 8, 1937." Sara was one of the daughters of the nameless aunt, and Abraham was her husband. These words were interpreted as asking for help, or at least implying the need for it. Whether it was requested or not, help from Brooklyn never arrived, leaving an uneasy sense of guilt steeped in helplessness to be passed on.
All family members in Europe on both sides were assumed dead at the hands of Nazis and their collaborators. Not that anyone ever talked about this--silence ruled. My grandparents were young when they fled poverty, conscription and anti-Semitism for the New World around the turn of the 20th century. They carried with them few heirlooms or photographs, and what family history they knew they largely kept to themselves. As a result, the chasm between life in Eastern Europe and my childhood some 50 miles south of Manhattan was unspoken and vast. With collective memory strained past the breaking point and no facts to work with, my overactive imagination constructed a fantasy world populated by wise-folk ancestors who dwelled in whitewashed cottages and wandered the sun-dappled paths of pastoral villages where people knew one another and were untroubled by changes wrought by modern existence.
I was a lonely kid, and these imaginary shtetls--though I did not know this word at the time--were places where people weren't lonely. I never thought about the difficulties of those lives--the muddy streets, the impoverished living conditions, the dead-end economies, the social claustrophobia, the class and religious strictures, and all the customs I would have felt stifled by. I had no grasp of what it was like to fear one's neighbors. It wasn't until I was 18 and living in Israel that my father's cousin, Israeli cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen, took me aside and confided the dark secret--the pogrom in which my maternal grandmother Rose's parents had been murdered. He speculated that the secrecy surrounding this tragedy was the cause of much family dysfunction.
I took this to heart, and a few months after this conversation I struck out on my own for Eastern Europe. I didn't dare dream that I could travel through the Soviet Union, and so I went north from Istanbul through Bulgaria into Romania and Hungary in an effort to touch the past. I began my journey on the Orient Express, and then, feeling too isolated, got off and hitchhiked. In retrospect, I must have been a startling sight: a young American woman with long blonde hair wearing a jean skirt, carrying an orange backpack, standing at the side of sparsely traveled narrow roads. My rides were in Skodas and Trabants or pickup trucks loaded with straw. Outside the cities, I was propelled back in time: When I encountered babushka- and apron-clad women gossiping over stiles, I could barely contain my joy.
At a shop in Bucharest, I purchased a map of 19th-century Galicia, the last known Old World address of both of my grandfathers. This was pre-Internet, and all I had to go on was that my maternal grandfather, Max, had been born in Bialykamien--a shted near Lvov--and that my paternal grandfather, Charlie, was from the town of Buchach. My heart beat faster as I found Lvov on the map and located the town 37 miles east on the Bug River. When I traced the Bug...