This is a picture of my paternal grandfather with his brother and parents in Krakow, Poland sometime around 1930. I came across it while looking through a treasure trove of old family photos at my grandmother’s house.
I know where my body shape comes from.
I mean, I already knew–there are plenty of fat/chubby/in-betweenie people on both sides of my family. But it’s amazing to see visual evidence of how far back it goes, contrary to the popular belief that “obesity” is a newfangled invention of modern society, that everyone was thin in some idealized heyday before TV and fast food.
It’s just amazing to see my own body looking back at me from nearly a century ago.
To see how the threads of history, of family, weave through us and tie us together.
This was my first, uncomplicated reaction when I saw the photo.
What’s harder to tangle with, and to write about–even though I know it in my bones–the fact that my grandfather’s parents didn’t make it out of Europe alive. My grandfather and his Irish-twin brother (born a year apart on the same day) escaped and found each other in America years later.
It’s hard to reckon with just how many threads have been cut.
This morning I woke up to the news that an anti-Semitic gunman killed three people at a Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas.
No matter how we accept our families’ ghosts, no matter how we tame them through ritualized remembrances, no matter how we grapple with their legacies and the traumas that run through our veins, no matter how safe we feel in our new lives decades and oceans removed from that terror: they come back.
They come back (at least in this case) watered-down, a shadow of their former genocidal selves: but painful nonetheless.
Sometimes I think about how both my partner and I owe our existence to horrific acts of violence. If not for the Holocaust, neither of my grandfathers would have come to America; if not for slavery, Steve’s ancestors wouldn’t have ended up here either. In a better world, we would never have existed, let alone met.
We build our lives–our beautiful, imperfect lives–on foundations of unspeakable loss.
Today we Jews gather for the Passover seder: one of our many holidays that boil down to, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” (Or more accurately in this case, “They enslaved us, we escaped, let’s eat cardboard.”) We look back to past horrors, and we look forward: next year in Jerusalem.
We look back at sepia-tinted photographs, at entire histories lost and buried, at threads brutally cut from our family-tree tapestries. We look back at the ones who survived–the ones who passed the baton of life on to us–and the ones who didn’t.
We look back, and we look forward.