My great-uncle Nathan passed away on April 2nd of this year. He was, on paper, 95 years old. About a month ago, we found out he had some form of cancer. About a week and a half ago, he was admitted to the hospital again, but this time for pneumonia. I thought for sure I’d be able to see him one last time when I go home in a few weeks. So did everybody else.
My family has recounted bits and pieces of our history since I was a kid. Like trying to complete a puzzle in a hazy mist, I have never been able to grasp the complete story of how my family left Lithuania for America. I was a child and the story was never chronological. Instead, I was left with a vague idea of what happened; a series of fleeting images:
- Grandma Dot and her four siblings on a boat;
- Burying the family’s valuables in the backyard;
- Escaping in the middle of the night;
- Running through the woods;
- Their father, my great-grandfather, leaving for America to sponsor the family;
- Their mother, my great-grandmother, saying goodbye to her sisters as they either stayed behind and perished, or scattered across the globe to America, to Israel, to South Africa;
- And all of this, somehow, happening before the Nazis came to power…
- And understanding that, somehow, I wouldn’t be here if none of this happened…
So when Uncle Nathan passed away last week, my family gathered to piece together this story for his eulogy. My sister was lucky enough to attend and listen in the background as she heard Grandma Dot recount that what she remembers most from the journey were blood-red oranges; a man from first class took a liking to the Aronson kids and made sure they had a constant supply. Uncle David, the youngest brother, remembers hearing the wolves howling in the dead of night as they escaped. And both told of their father, a Rabbi, and above all else, a sensible man, who had a premonition that caused him to lead his family away from their home. Before he passed away, Uncle Nathan also recounted the story as he remembered it. With a combined effort, we finally have the story in writing. Here is an excerpt from Uncle Nathan’s eulogy:
Nathan told how, in the 1920’s, his father, Pesach, had a premonition of impending doom. He felt compelled to find a way to deliver his family from the harshly anti-Semitic environment of Lithuania, and to seek a safe haven for them in America. Pesach was a rabbi and a shochet, a ritual slaughterer, a man who never ventured far from home or from his wife and five children. Like the Biblical patriarch, Abraham, Pesach heard a calling…Rise up and depart from your land, from the home of your birth, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you…
With this vision guiding him, Pesach undertook to leave his family and travel to a distant land, America, to create a new home for them… a haven… before it was too late. With the help of his wife’s uncle in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, who arranged a clergy visa for him, Pesach set out on a solitary journey to a strange land, driven by a commitment to save his family from the calamity that he foresaw, that would decimate the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.
Gittel and her children, Norma, Nathan, Melvin, Dorothy and David…remained behind in Shilova for three years, surviving a pogrom in their town. It took three years for Pesach to be eligible to acquire American visas for his family. Nathan and his siblings recall the treacherous and frightening journey they took, leaving Shilova under cover of dark on a horse drawn sleigh. Snow was falling and they could hear the wolves howling in the night as they traveled through the woods.
They sailed on the Hamburg-America Line to Ellis Island, five young children with their mother, through terrible weather, rough seas, and constant seasickness, arriving eventually on the shores of the United States…
A friend recently asked me if I would rather be able to see two minutes into the future or be able to know everything there is to know about the past. I chose the past. There is so much missing in my understanding of where I come from. Those that went to Nathan’s funeral told me that it was “a true history lesson.” As a Jew, when people ask me where my family is from, I usually start by listing several Eastern European countries where my family has lived: Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania…, try to add in Papa Abie’s theory that part of our family was originally from Spain but was kicked out during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1500s (bastards!), but usually end up sighing and saying jokingly, “we’re in Diaspora.”
And it’s true. We’re in Diaspora. Only within the last couple of years did I learn that part of our family fled to Israel and part to South Africa. This happened when Dad did some research online and we met a long-lost Israeli cousin and found out that our South African relatives are now Californians. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if our family wasn’t divided; if these distant cousins were family, instead of strangers; what implications anti-Semitism has had on my family; and finally, what other stories are still hidden, waiting to be uncovered.
Uncle Nathan, thank you for teaching us about our roots and always looking after my sisters and me. May you rest in peace.