“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…” (Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”)
With that opening line I could be writing about many things, but I need to tell you a true story about my family.
There is a film about the Jews of Sokol, a town in Poland, called “Against All Odds.” It’s the town that my paternal grandmother comes from. She was one of 13 siblings. She survived — I have no idea how many others from that family did. I spoke to the producer of the film, Fran Malkin, and told her that my bubbie’s maiden name was Bild.
“I’ve heard all kinds of stories about Hirsh Bilt,” Judy said. “Hirsh Bild brought food to the Jews that the Nazis held captive; Hirsh did this or that. Who is Hirsh Bild?”
He could’ve been my great-grandfather, my great-uncle or…. But I had no idea and the only person in the family who would have any idea was my cousin Moishe Kelman. So I called him.
A woman answered, and I asked her if I could speak with cousin Moishe. She was his half-sister and she told me they had just gotten up from shiva for him.
I was devastated. I realized that since my dad and both of his brothers were gone, I’d never know who Hirsh Bild was.
When my mom died, I started to sift through the tons of papers (among other things, of course) that I took home: her stuff and my dad’s. There were travel permits allowing my grandparents to leave Poland and go to Vienna. Bubbie’s papers included the name Bracha Mandel, daughter of Hirsh Bild.
I thought that there was no way I would ever have found out my great-grandfather’s name. I can’t tell you what went through my body at that moment, but it ran the spectrum of emotions.
Mom and dad’s passports with the Reich’s stamps were there, along with many more travel papers and thousands of pictures.
2013-2014 were devastating years for our family. We lost some dear friends and a young cousin, both of our moms (my wife Shelly’s and mine), and both of our surviving aunts. With those deaths, we lost the remaining older generation of four families. Our daughter-in-law Stacie’s Grandpa Max died as well; he was the last survivor of her dad’s clan. So we no longer had anyone to ask about our families’ histories, because in a six- to seven-month period our three grandsons lost three of their five great-grandparents, we lost all of the older generations of both of our families, and Shelly and I became orphans.
Without a doubt, the fact that our grandchildren knew (and spent lots of time with) five great-grandparents, which in and of itself is almost unheard of, was a gift that still sends tears down my cheeks. The boys still talk about them to this day.
The hey class Hebrew school students at our synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, put on a heritage fair every year, where they do presentations about their ancestors. These presentations run the gamut from simple stories to elaborate electronic video clips and put our kids in touch with their past.
A few years ago, one of our hey students spoke about his family. They were from the same city as my maternal grandparents, and when he named them, I couldn’t believe my ears. We were related.
There’s going to come a day when your kids will have questions, and even though you won’t be able to answer all of them, hopefully you’ll be able to answer enough of them.
I implore each of you to reach out to your older relatives: your grandparents, great aunts and uncles, great-great ones if they’re alive too.
Sit them down, ask questions, and either know shorthand, or bring a recorder (most of your cell phones can record hours of conversations). Learn where you’re from, what your ancestors did, and how they survived, whatever it was they had to survive.
I promise that you don’t want the words of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his book “Cat’s Cradle” ringing in your ears: “Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are ‘It might have been.”
Cantor/Rabbi Lenny Mandel lives in West Orange. He has been the chazan at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson for the past quarter century.