Busloads to the border.

Tonight I listened to this recording of children crying helplessly for their parents at a detention center on the southern border of the United States and remembered the feeling in my gut the very first time I heard the sound of an animal being slaughtered. I was nine or ten and sitting in my mom’s minivan as we rolled slowly over the speed bumps on our way into the mall parking lot. A crowd of anti-fur activists was blocking the entrance to the department store — Bullock’s, maybe — playing a tape on loop of a living animal being destroyed.

Involuntarily, my eyes salted with hot tears, which I attempted to wipe away with the backs of my hands so my mom wouldn’t notice I was crying. My face was hot and red, and a crank deep in my belly was prying open a fissure I’d never felt before: a nausea like a gush of lava was rising up in me as my eyes continued to fill mutinously with tears. The shame of being human. The horror of what we do.

I wanted no part of it.

I’m familiar with that reaction now: the revulsion that geysers through me, the vision that blurs with nervous tears when I face down that anxiety. But I don’t think I’ve felt that way from an audio recording since the very first time — until tonight. The aural blitz of another living thing’s suffering, disconnected from the present moment — from the speed bumps at the mall, from the New York Times tabs open on the desktop. The wail of an invisible child, disembodied and held in no one’s arms, of a little voice gasping for her father over and over.

The child became every child I taught in a classroom or a sandbox, became my goddaughter and my cousins, became the child I was and the child I hope someday to have. The child was no outlaw. The child was in exile. She was a refugee from her country and we forced her into exile from her mother’s body.

Were you a child?

When home was the body of someone you loved: the crescent of your mother’s chin, the down of her breasts, the lap bar of her arm. When your universe was your father’s singing voice, his hand taking your smaller one in his.

The uniformed agents said they were going to take the children for a bath and then they took them from their parents and didn’t bring them back.

Once, a group of uniformed agents told hundreds of filthy, half-dead travelers they were to be given nice, hot showers after days inside a windowless cattle car. Maybe they felt hope for the first time in days when they were locked inside a communal shower and gassed to death with hydrogen cyanide at Auschwitz.

How far are we from this?

Today, Masha Gessen published an essay about the new task force formed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to find naturalized citizens who ‘should not have been naturalized in the first place.’ Gessen points to the troubling assumption implicit in the creation of this force: “that America is under attack by malevolent immigrants who cause dangerous harm by finding ways to live here.”

Are these children — whose only home is the warmth of their parents’ bodies, who have faced god-knows what odysseys to reach this country — the face of depraved fugitives?

Are their parents?

We are imprisoning newcomers seeking nothing but a better life. We are kidnapping their children.

We are deporting people who have built those better lives here. We are sending them back to nowhere.

We are erasing the stories of people who have documents allowing them to be here. The new USCIS task force of attorneys is seeking out citizenship applications with falsehoods on them. Gessen calls the distinction between a lie and an innocent mistake “fuzzier than one might assume.”

Here is my great-grandmother Clara’s Petition for Naturalization:

Clara Naturalization

Here are things that are untrue:

  • Clara lived on Crest Lake Drive. (It was Crestlake Drive.)
  • Clara was born in 1892. (Clara was born in 1894.)
  • Clara was born in Elisagrade, Russia. (Clara was born in Elizavetgrad which, at the time of her naturalization, was actually called Kirovohrad.)
  • Clara’s daughter was Lillian. (She was born Lea.)
  • Annie’s birth date was February 28, 1919. (It was February 2, 1919.)

Was Clara a liar? How could there be so many innocent mistakes? Shouldn’t her naturalization be revoked?

Should we dig her up and send her back to Russia? To the place where she watched neighbors murdered in front of her during a pogrom? To the countryside that was decimated during the second world war, where her relatives disappeared into the ether of history?

Here is the Manifest of Alien Passengers Applying for Admission on June 5, 1920 in Detroit, Michigan:

Canada Border

Lines 1-6 are my little family: Clara, age 28; her children George, Sam, Joe, Lea, Annie, from 1 to 7 years old. There is no nearest friend or relative. My great-grandfather is somewhere between Hamilton, Ontario and Dayton, Ohio. Clara is alone with five children, unable to speak English fluently. On that day, she kept each of her children firmly beside her.

When I think of what they would have said if they had been separated.

If my grandmother had been taken from her mother at three years old. If Annie, who was breast-feeding, had been taken from her mother. If the children had been divided from one another in addition to being taken from their mother.

My grandmother was an immigrant. She came here at three and was naturalized at 24. I never heard her call herself anything but an American.

She devoted her life to helping refugees come to this country — because of the life she was able to have here. Away from the pogroms in the shtetls faced by her parents and grandparents, with two feet planted firmly in American soil, she looked right out to the horizon line and wrote her story.

We are not giving these children a chance. We aren’t giving them a reason to love this country. We are instilling them with fear and terrorizing them by ripping them away from their parents — the parents who courageously brought them here to start a new life. To dare to dream a better future for their children, the way all of our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents did.

I cannot abide the anguish in the children’s voices on that recording. I cannot bear the things we humans do to one another. Can we stop it? Can we get busloads to the border? What do we do to feel proud to be Americans once again?

 

Here is a living document from Slate on how you can help fight family separation at the border. 

 

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Lillian.

Today, you’d be 101 years old.

watercolor by Jennifer Maurice

Last year I drove to your gravesite for the first time since the day we buried you five years earlier and taped a silly silver HERE’S TO 100 YEARS birthday card to the marble bearing your name. I didn’t know what it would feel like to sit there face to face with your name and Grandpa’s, how it would all come tumbling up. In my day to day, you are with me everywhere — from my scarves to my rings to the black and white photos on my wall, and I think there’s safety in remembering you young, in greyscale, looking like me, because it obscures who you were to me when I knew you, when you were the greatest love in my life. Your red hair, your soft skin, the blue veins on your hands, the way you smelled of kasha and soap, your Tallulah Bankhead voice and the way you said my name.

It is so hard to sit here at 33 and wish you could know me now, a little less scared of everything than I was at 27, that I could share my grown-up life with you, my work, my travel, my heartaches and poems.

Every day I am grateful that I came from you. Today I sink into the celebration and grief of you.

The ghosts in us.

Sometimes the past reaches up and taps me on the shoulder, asks me not to forget. Tonight I was at my desk working late when I suddenly thought of my great-grandma Rose, the mystery of her story, who her people were. I began searching for variations of her surname Sherman on Yad Vashem and KehilaLinks and remembered that I was told by an elderly relative, Gordon Gelfond, that she came from Kalinovka, so I went looking for the story of Kalinovka, a page I’ve seen before — the brief and agonizing horror of the ghettoization of the Jews of Kalinovka who were rounded up and murdered on May 30, 1942.

May 30. I looked at my calendar and shivered. 76 years ago this very day. The ghosts are still reaching out, asking us not to forget what became of them.

Whether or not you are my blood, I remember you.

Mothers’ day.

I remember the hundreds of mornings my own mother brushed the tangles out of my hair as I look at this photo of my grandmother patiently plaiting my mom’s curls. I think of the mothers before her and the ritual of taming girls’ hair and of those moments together in the morning, of watching my mother’s face behind me in the mirror — the patience or exasperation or concentration knitted across her brow — and of all these quiet, quotidian practices we take for granted as the duties of mothers.

Today on Mother’s Day I am filled with gratitude for my own mother, and for my beloved Grandma Lillian who I miss every day, and for my Grandma California June who I never met, and for all the mothers who suffered and loved and brushed their children’s hair on countless mornings because that is what mothers do.

The personal is political.

August 16, 1944

Wednesday

My darling,

How does one write a letter of this kind. How does one say my sister received a wire from the War Dept. that her husband was killed in action. To write these words down — to have finally put these words of misery on paper are almost more than I can bear. The war is over for us, Hy, when we know that when the war is over, our family circle will not be complete. To know that Harold is not coming home to Annie and Susan. Oh, my darling, how hard I prayed to God to be good to us. I pushed any other thought in the background. Don’t tell me he was in the Marines on combat duty — others have returned. Why not my sister’s husband? Oh, God. Hy, to look at Susie at 17 months and think she should never know her father’s wonderful smile and the love he has for her.

I tell Annie to keep going for Susan’s sake. We give her pills, I tell her how mistakes have been made before and can be made again — But how much longer can I bear that look in her eyes. I know her soul is dead. She only thinks it can’t be true and that is why she opens her eyes at the beginning of another day.

Monday night Annie called me to say “Lillian, my husband — is dead. They told me so. But it isn’t true, is it? No, Harold can’t be dead. Not Harold. He promised to come back to me.”

Ruthie came over and stayed with Robin so Marty, Dad and I could come over here. I’ve been here since then. Mother is taking care of Robin. I can’t go back to my house when I have so much — and Annie has nothing — nothing.

All day long they sit on the couch and talk to themselves — to Harold.

Dad is gone this time. Whatever mind he had is holding on by a thread — that Harold will come back — that somewhere a mistake was made.

If ever I asked you for anything, hear me now — Work, Hy. Finish your school and then go over there. Finish your work — not for bars and a salute, but to carry on where Harold left off. They made him a first lieutenant — do you hear that — “We deeply regret to inform you that your husband 1st Lt. Harold N. LeVine was killed…”

You know how proud we were of our lieutenants in the Marine and Air Corps — they didn’t have much chance. You give them that chance. Give them that chance, Hy. You have always done what you have set out to do. Let nothing interfere with your work. Annie is proud of you, Hy. Even now Hy, when her life has fallen to pieces she tells everyone her sister’s husband is going to Officer’s School. She tells them about Artie when they come to talk about her husband. Don’t fail her, Hy.

Don’t worry about us. Put every thought out of your mind except school. That is what I need from you, Hy. That will help me bear this misery — if ever I am to have happiness, it must be because my husband brought it to me — by hitting back in the only way he can now. God will help you, Hy. I know he will. He must.

Love,

Lillian

Annie writes to Harold every day. Give her hope, Hy. She has had enough of death. The only way she can live is to keep that hope. Nobody must take it away from her.

I love you very much.

Lillian

Sisters: Annie & Lillian
Sisters: Annie & Lillian

This was the letter my grandma sent to my grandfather 73 years ago today when her sister’s husband was killed in the Second World War.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this letter today. About Harold, an American Jew who died on the beaches of Guam, 7,364 miles away from his home in Chicago. About my other great-uncle Art (“Artie”), an American Jew who was shot down in a plane by Nazis and kept as a prisoner of war at the infamous Stalag Luft III in modern-day Poland. Art and Harold went missing within weeks of one another, and three tight-knit families in Chicago were shattered with grief.

Continue reading “The personal is political.”

And justice for all.

Independence Day 1941, Chicago:
Celebrating a felt freedom, before their lives were forever changed by the war.

july 4 41
Seated: Grandpa Hy Foreman, 26 and Grandma Lillian Brodsky Foreman, 24; Standing: Great-Aunt Annie Brodsky Levine, 22

My Russian-Jewish immigrant family came to this country to escape persecution in their homeland where they were routinely massacred by Cossacks for being Jews. They came to bear and raise children in a safe harbor so their lives could bloom beyond their wildest dreams. They took jobs in factories that killed them. They left behind their parents, friends, landscapes — their entire worlds. They were so much braver than I have ever been.

This country is built on the backs of immigrants, by the forced hands of slaves, on the deaths of native people. If we forget that we do not have a RIGHT to land, if we raise country above one another’s humanity, if we privilege the health and security of one group over others, we tarnish the struggle, the suffering, the joy, the lives of all who were here on this land before us. Do not be a complacent American. Do not forget from whence you came. Do not forget what was here before you.

A Reznikova mystery.

Grandma Lillian’s mother Clara was a Reznikov, or Reznikova, the female version of the name. We know she came from Elisavetgrad, which was renamed Kirovograd in 1939. Clara was born about 1894, and had a much older brother named David Reznikov who was born around 1872. She also had a sister whose name we do not know, and possibly a brother named Rubin, who may have traveled to South America and was killed in a May Day parade — or so the story goes. We do not know if this is true.

Clara’s sister had four children. We think this sister (whose name could have been Minnie) died of tuberculosis in Russia. Her husband brought the four children to New York to live, where he apparently remarried and had another child. If I could find out her first name or better yet her married name, that would open up a whole new limb to the family tree, as I might be able to trace her four children: Morrie, Gertrude, Helen and Joey. Gertrude married and she and her husband went back to Russia in the 1930s for political reasons; my grandma assumes they were killed. I have a series of photographs from 1928 when Clara and at least three of her children, including my grandma Lillian, went to visit these nieces and nephews before visiting her other nephew in Rochester. This nephew was Jack Ross, the son of David Reznikov, who changed his name to Ross when he arrived in Canada. More on them soon.

There is some hint that perhaps Clara’s sister’s married name was Drubachevsky but I have never been able to trace this and do not even know where this came from. It’s my hope that one day, I will be able to find out their last name and trace the descendants of Morrie, Gertrude, Helen and Joey.

What I do have is an incredible photograph of Clara’s sister and mother along with the children. I see the family resemblance strongly in both Clara and Clara’s mother, whose bone structure is similar to mine.

Reznikova Sister + Mom
Clara Reznikova’s mother, sister and sister’s children, probably Elisavetgrad, during the nineteen-teens

 

Here are the photographs from 1928 of Clara visiting her sister’s children in New York. Do you recognize these faces?

Reznikov descendants, 1928, New York
Clara Reznikova Brodsky with her sister’s children, New York, 1928. From left: George Brodsky, Morris (last name unknown), Clara, Helen (last name unknown), Gertrude (last name unknown). Seated: Anna Brodsky, Joseph (last name unknown), Lillian (Leah) Brodsky.

 

Note: In writing this post, I have discovered that just last year, Kirovograd became Kropyvnytskyi. According to Wikipedia, Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko signed a bill “banning Communist symbols on May 15, 2015, which required places associated with communism to be renamed within a six-month period. On 25 October 2015 (during local elections) 76.6% of the Kirovohrad voters voted for renaming the city to Yelisavetgrad. A draft law currently before the Ukrainian parliament would prohibit any names associated with Russian history since the 14th century, which would make the name Yelisavetgrad inadmissible as well. A committee of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) chose the name Inhulsk on 23 December 2015. This name is a reference to the nearby Inhul river. On 31 March 2016 the State Construction, Regional Policy and Local Self-Government committee of the Verkhovna Rada recommends to parliament to rename Kirovohrad to Kropyvnytskyi. This name is a reference to writer, actor and playwright Mark Kropyvnytskyi, who was born near the city. On 14 July 2016, the name of the city was finally changed to Kropyvnytskyi.”