It’s not rocket science to point out that there are many kinds of families.
Some are small and tight. Some blaze out in different directions, and lose touch with each other; sometimes people only realize they’re related when 23&Me tells them they are.
And some are huge. Some have family trees that look like forests, with shoots all over the place, with more and more leaves unfurling all the time.
There’s always someone at the top of those trees. There’s always a matriarch or patriarch (or both), someone whose presence somehow is the glue — the sap, maybe? — that connects people through both time and space, up and down the generations and across continents and oceans.
This is a story about family. It’s also about making art about family, and about how that art can make the family even closer. It’s about choices, through both time and space.
Sue Feldman Feigenbaum was the matriarch of the Feigenbaum-Glass-Dankman families. (To try to use all their last names is to realize the futility of such an effort with a family so fertile. This is just the first two generations.)
Sue was born in Poland in 1911. After enduring a miserably poor — probably typically poor — early childhood, and suffering through the death of her mother, and the departure of her father for the hard-to-imagine America, Sue’s father came back for her. She escaped Poland well before the Holocaust, although most of her extended family did not share her luck. She moved to Toronto and then to New York, got married, and had a long, happy life at the head of a huge and unusually close-knit family. Many of her family live in northern New Jersey, particularly in Hudson and Essex counties.
Sue died in 2009, in an assisted living facility in Monroe. A few months before her death, when she was still visibly, audibly sharp, one of her daughters shot hours of video as she talked about her life.
In 2018, 18 of her family members, ranging in age from 7 to 85, went to Poland — a place that Sue remembered with distaste, a country to which she had no interest in returning, because so many of her memories were bad — to see where she had come from.
One of her great-granddaughters, Samantha Glass of Jersey City, 25, went on the trip. It was not only her first time in Poland but in any part of Europe. But as the daughter of a photographer, and as someone who had gone to a magnet high school specializing in film studies, Ms. Glass notices things. She sees things — colors, shapes, angles, light, beauty, and irony.
Once she got to Poland, she decided to make a documentary about the trip.
On a recent Friday night, the Feldman/Fegenbaum/Glass/Dankman families gathered. Some, masked and socially distant, were in David and Lisa Harris Glass’s backyard in Springfield; David is one of Sue’s grandchildren. Many more were on Zoom, from around the United States and Canada.
As the film aired, so did memories.
Like all family histories, it was packed with specifics, but when you squint enough to blur those specifics, you see the stories of many American Jews.
The documentary, which Samantha called Polandbaum — a play on the name Fegenbaum — began with some footage from Sue’s interview. She was not interested in going back to Poland, she said. They got rid of their Jews, so why should she want to do that? But her family was not burdened with her memories; instead they were driven by the need to explore her stories.
Polandbaum traces the family’s journey back to Ilza and Radom, where Sue lived. It shows the family at a castle in Ilza. It’s a picturesque if forbidding 16th-century ruin; Sue had told stories about her brother, Nate, throwing rocks there. The youngest traveler, 7-year-old Nathan, threw rocks as his great-great grandmother’s brother had done, about a century before.
The family also went to the cemetery where the Jews the Nazis had slaughtered were buried, although their graves no longer were marked. Their grave markers had been used as paving stones. Many of Sue’s relatives had been murdered there and were buried there. The setting was bleak and the emotions were raw and visible on film.
Later, the family had what their tour guide said was the first Shabbat dinner in that town since the Holocaust. They met with local dignitaries, including the mayor, who welcomed them.
“Our tour guide was amazing,” Samantha said. “He was our translator and historian. He made sure to give us a variety of opinions. One night we went to a dignitary’s big house in Ilza, and we had a conversation about the law that had just passed in Poland that summer saying that you can’t say that the people of Poland had anything to do with the Holocaust. Two men were having a debate about it in Polish. One said, ‘Your grandparents played with my grandparents. My grandparents cried when they shipped Jews to Treblinka. They didn’t want this to happen.’ And the other man said, ‘We have to face up to our history.’”
They don’t have to whitewash their grandparents, he implied, as Samantha remembered, because “you are not your grandparents. They don’t represent who you are today. We really need to speak up about this, and we need to welcome trips like this.”
Samantha’s desire to go to Poland was more personal. “I had a very close relationship with my great grandmother,” she said. “We were together every holiday. We were together every other weekend. And even if we weren’t together, my grandmother, Francine — Grandma Sue’s daughter — “and Francine’s daughter, Audrey, and Audrey’s daughter, Lindsay, would go to Nordstrom in Menlo Park every Saturday.
“I’m the younger cousin, and I didn’t live there, so I didn’t go, but we’d often have the brunch with everyone the next day. I remember growing up hearing about these Nordstrom trips.”
When Samantha talks about her great grandmother, she usually calls her Grandma. That’s not accidental. “I was so lucky, because my mom’s mom also was still alive, and I remember my parents always telling me that I had three grandmothers. And I didn’t take it for granted. I knew I was privileged to have them.
“And I was very protective of my great grandmother,” Samantha continued. “I wouldn’t let her step out of the car without holding her hand. I wanted to show her things. I wanted to teach her how to do things, and she’d let me — even when she knew better than I did how to do them.”
So part of Samantha’s reason for the trip was the love that she felt for her great grandmother, and her desire to understand more about her long-ago life in Poland. But there was more. “When I was a freshman in high school, my grandpa passed away. That was Harry Glass, Francine’s husband. My grandma asked me, at his funeral, if I remembered my grandfather. I thought it was a strange question. Of course I remembered my grandfather! I asked what kind of question that was, and she said there would be a time when I wouldn’t remember.”
That made Samantha start thinking about memory. She realized that “it is very important to keep memory alive.
“I realized that when I am gone, no one will be around who remembers him. She was worried that the next generation wouldn’t remember who he was, or what he stood for.” She realized that her grandmother was right. “I could make a list of everything I remembered about him, but the list would be finite.”
“So I thought about it, and I journaled about it, and when the opportunity came to go to Ilza, I thought about that. And I decided that I had to go.”
Once she decided to go to Poland, Samantha realized that she wanted to tell the story. She had to figure out what medium to use. “I didn’t want to write the history to have it go into a book that would be sitting on a desk but never opened. My uncle bought me a kit to use to keep old records safe. I can just see that kit, with everything inside it, going into my closet, and maybe I’d take it out every decade and show it to my kids, and then after I’m gone they’d take it, and then that would be that.
“But if it was in a more accessible form, I could imagine the next generation sitting down and having a conversation about it. It would be accessible to everyone.”
She decided to work with video not only because her father had given her a talent for the visual, but also because she’d majored in film in her high school, High Tech High School in Secaucus. “I’m still in touch with my film teacher there,” Samantha said.
One of her impressions of Poland was that “it’s pretty depressing,” she said. “It’s not a very wealthy country, the economy is very bad, and at least where we were, about an hour outside Warsaw, the landscape is not very beautiful. When you drive through small towns and the country here, in this country, it is really beautiful. You see horses and cows and other animals. There, we just saw a handful of cows. A handful of horses. Not a lot of livestock.
“And this is a broad generalization, but the people we saw did not look happy. It didn’t seem like a happy vacation destination.”
Samantha, 25, teaches fourth grade in Union City. “I always tell my students that a narrative shouldn’t be something that you type for your teacher and press submit, for a grade,” she said. “A narrative doesn’t have to be an essay that no one will see. It should be something that makes you proud.” For example, she continued, “a video game writer has to craft beautiful narratives that will convince players to play the game. I tell my students that whatever they’re doing — a poem or a visual representation or a video — you really want your audience to be immersed in its world. You have to hook and keep your readers or viewers.”
She applied that theory to her desire that “I feel very lucky to have had a connection to my grandma Sue, but I want the next generation to feel something. Not just read something, and say, ‘oh, cool, that was your great grandma.’ We have to have some sort of thread that sews together all of our generations.”
Samantha learned about filmmaking from her father, Mark Glass. “On every family vacation, he’d pull off on the side of the road to take a picture. It was so boring to me. Why are you taking a picture of this rock? Or this tree?
“He taught me to be patient, to see the beauty in ordinary things, and to notice moments. If we were driving by a small stream, I would be like ‘Why are you taking pictures of that?’ and he was like ‘Do you notice that red canoe in the middle of the stream? Your eye goes right to it.’ It was a beautiful shot. At the time I probably rolled my eyes and said ‘This is stupid,’ but I have come to appreciate it.”
While she was in Poland, Samantha filmed everything. She thought that she’d make a documentary about a grand subject, maybe Jews in Poland in the 21st Century. “I have hours and hours of footage of what’s happening in Ilza today.” But when she got home, she watched the film, she remembered her aunt’s five hours of interviews with her grandmother, and she started to rethink everything. It seemed like a hugely daunting job. So instead she just sent raw footage that she’d shot to her family; she’d indexed it so she could point them to the interesting family bits.
“But then covid happened,” Samantha said. Although it is hard to find silver linings in this disaster, “I had more time on my hands. And I started thinking about the Unetaneh Tokef” — the High Holidays’ liturgical question about who will live and how the doomed will die. “Who will be here next year and who won’t be?
“So I started with the beautiful moments in my grandma’s life from the interview, and the funny moments that were defining. I took them out of the interview and put them in chronological order.” Then, when she looked back at the footage she’d shot, “I realized that this was more a story about her than about our trip.”
Across time, a little girl’s life came into focus. When his wife died, Sue’s father gave his son to his wife’s parents, he gave his daughter to his own parents, and he went to the New World. He settled in Toronto, remarried, and eventually he and his new wife came back to Poland to reclaim his children. Sue had to say goodbye to the grandparents who had been her parents, sure she’d never see them again. (This was not an uncommon separation for children then, but even if she had known that others were feeling the same heartbreak she did, that wouldn’t have made the pain any easier for her.)
In fact, she didn’t see her grandfather again, but after he died, her father sent for his widowed mother, so Sue was able to live with her grandmother once again. Her father and stepmother had three children together. Sue was happy — up to a point.
“My grandma would talk about how she just wanted her stepmother to love her,” Samantha said. Later, after her father died, “Sue would visit her stepmother in Canada. She always wanted to do right by her. She always wanted to make her happy.” But somehow it never was enough.
Still, Sue married, and she and her husband had a happy life together; much of the family lives in New Jersey. When she died, she had 13 great grandchildren.
On the Friday night when she premiered her film, about 10 close family members sat in Samantha’s Uncle David’s backyard; about 30 others watched on Zoom.
“It was amazing,” Samantha said. “I hate to say thank goodness for the coronavirus — it is really horrible — but in what other environment would we be able to have Uncle Davey coming from Toronto”— he’s Sue’s half brother, and he’s in his 90s — “and also to have my best friend, who listened for hours about every direction that the film took, on the same call. And also my cousin Mathew, who has always been very quiet, but who told me he didn’t realize how much he missed Grandma and the stories of our family until we did this.
“Zoom is a great way for everyone to be heard equally. Everyone saw the film and had the chance to say something if they wanted to, without anyone talking over them.”
The date the family saw the film also was significant. “It was Grandma Sue’s birthday,” Samantha said. “And it also was the Shabbat before her yarzheit. And we used her candles for Shabbat.”
Those candlesticks belong to David and Lisa Glass; it was profoundly moving to use them there, Lisa said.
The whole evening was “incredible,” she continued. Because of the demands of social distancing, dinner necessarily was just pizza and salad, and of course just for the people in the backyard. The ones on Zoom were on their own when it came to food. But the Zoomers — from Pennsylvania and California and Seattle and Toronto — felt as connected as if they were there, because in the odd way that marks these times they were there.
Lisa appreciated Samantha’s thoroughness. “She made movie tickets, and brought them, along with movie snacks, popcorn and candy.”
But some of the film’s more somber notes were powerful.
After the film was over, Lisa said, “my mother-in-law, Francine — who is not a super emotional person — looked at me with her eyes full of tears, and she said, ‘They took those headstones and paved the roads with them.’” Francine Glass was on the trip; in the film, she and her sister, Phyllis Dankberg, were visibly shaken when they saw those headstones on a local road, along with the denuded cemetery. On that trip, the family learned that many of their relatives had been murdered during the Holocaust. They hadn’t known that before, and the discovery hurt.
Lisa, who married into the Glass family, knew Sue before she met David, Sue’s grandson, who later became her husband. Lisa has spent her entire career in the Jewish nonprofit world. Now, she’s the chief operating officer of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and she’s a prime example of how everyone in the Jewish world is connected. Back then, she was the executive director of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen. “Grandma Sue used to come to the Tuesday lunch group at Neve,” Lisa said. “I got to see her every week. I remember that when we got engaged, she said, ‘I am so excited to be gaining a granddaughter!’”
Sue was quiet, Lisa said. By then she was hard of hearing, “and it was hard to just have a chat with her.” But she held her family together.
One of the striking things about that family is how Jewishly connected it is, Lisa said. “Everybody is involved.” Both Francine and Phyllis have been extremely involved in their shuls. “Fran’s family is amazing,” Lisa continued. “My father-in-law was president of his synagogue, Beth El in Edison, and my mother-in-law was president of its sisterhood.” They had three children, Audrey — now Audrey Napchen — David, and Mark. “All of them were in USY, and Audrey and Mark were USY chapter presidents,” Lisa said. “David and Audrey were synagogue presidents, and Audrey is a synagogue executive director. Audrey’s daughter, Lindsey, now Lindsey Norman, works at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, and her son, Mathew, met with wife on USY on Wheels. They’re married, with two kids, now.”
Lisa and David’s own children, Caroline and Jonah, also were active in USY.
And then there’s Samantha. “She grew up in Hoboken, and she was a trendsetter, because she stayed there,” Lisa said; Samantha’s moved around eastern Hudson County, but she’s never strayed too far from Hoboken. She and her family were active members of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. There was no Kadima group there when Samantha was the right age for it — Kadima is the Conservative movement’s group for fifth through eighth graders, so “she started Kadima there,” Lisa said. And when she aged out of Kadima, ready for USY, but her shul did have a chapter, Samantha started that too.
“This family truly is blessed,” Lisa said.