On the first day of “The History of the Jews in Eastern Europe,” my college professor explained the tension between our family stories—our oral history—and the recorded facts. His example: almost all families from the Pale of Settlement (the Jewish region of Imperial Russia) claim an ancestor who fled Europe to escape conscription in the Czar’s army. History, however, tells us that Jews were rarely, if ever, drafted.
I know very little about my own Eastern European forebears—a big reason why I was taking this class—but one of our only family legends describes my great-grandfather leaving Ukraine to avoid service in the Russian army. I immediately told my grandmother, his daughter, that his story is a common myth. I expected she would share my academic interest: Why would he pass off this story as truth? Why did so many men like him do the same?
Just as my professor warned, my grandmother only became angry. Her father didn’t lie. The historians must be wrong.
I was sorry to have upset her. I agreed it was possible my great-grandfather was one of the few threatened with conscription, or at least believed he was under threat. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but believe my professor, and I was disappointed. I felt like I had lost one of my few family stories from Europe.
But I had to stop thinking like a twenty-first-century American college student, and start thinking like the Jewish ancestors for whom I was searching. I began this journey when that same professor assigned the works of eminent historian Yosef Yerushalmi.
Yerushalmi argued that traditional Jewish history has little to do with facts and dates (or what the Czar’s army said to my great-grandfather). Instead, it’s an exercise in memory and performance that captures our experience. It’s inextricably linked to the calendar; think of how Jews relive their entire history each year, one holiday and weekly Torah portion at a time. From the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, European Jews interpreted current events using the framework of traditional stories. Regional Jewish perils and clashes with authority were understood as Purims, with chroniclers even renaming their enemies Haman; the Napoleonic Wars were interpreted using the Old-Testament terms Gog and Magog.
Storytelling-as-history is a powerful idea—one that I returned to while writing my novel, The Angel of Losses—but it’s not an easy answer. As a Jewish person living after the Holocaust, I’m not persuaded that legend can entirely compensate for lost history. Sometimes, though, the legends are all that’s left, and Jews are particularly ready to find meaning in them. I don’t know if my great-grandfather was nearly drafted into the Russian army, but his tale was, at the least, a kind of truth; a part of his history, and mine.
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I liked to sit sipping coffee in the tall kitchen window of my apartment in Vilnius. The window overlooked the broad Town Hall Square teeming day and night with international tourists. Gold-domed churches and pastel houses with terra cotta roofs bordered the square above which loomed the red brick castle on its hill. Beyond the castle were the dense pine forests that surrounded the city like a green velvet setting for a diadem. The window coincidentally faced the corner where the Nazis had staged their so-called Great Provocation. This was the faked sniping incident they used to justify the “retaliation” that led ultimately to the extermination of the Vilna Jews. Turn left outside of my apartment and you entered the Square, with its wind-tossed fountain, linen and amber boutiques, and outdoor cafes. Turn right and you found yourself in a dreary, cavernous courtyard carved out of what had once been the small ghetto. In this area women, children, and the elderly were corralled and starved before being marched out to the killing fields of Paneriai, where they were summarily shot and tossed into open pits.
During my first week in Vilnius, whenever I left the apartment, I always turned right. I walked through the twisted streets of the former ghettos, the large and the small, and read the signs in Yiddish commemorating the slaughtered; I went to the little Holocaust Museum in the Green House and fed my revulsion on the names of both the ordinary and celebrated citizens that had perished. I made the pilgrimage out to Paneriai and tried to identify with the men assigned to burn the corpses, who might discover among the dead the body of a wife, a father, a child or two. I tried in my fashion to obey the 11th commandment: Zakhor! Remember! and its more piquant Yiddish corollary, “Zolstu krenken un gedenken,” may you sicken and remember. I believe that the Shoah diminished the whole human enterprise, that as a race we’ve been missing vital parts of ourselves ever since. So shouldn’t it be incumbent upon persons of conscience to return to the scenes of the crime in the hope of retrieving something of what was lost? Of course it’s a quixotic exercise; language and emotion are unequal to the task. Poetry, as Theodor Adorno famously pronounced, is barbaric after Auschwitz. Besides, there’s nothing to be found in such places but the stray stones placed atop the monuments by mourners. And even the Jewish graveyards of Vilnius have been removed. Meanwhile, from my kitchen window, I watched the early morning theater: young men stumbled cartoon-like from all-night benders, scattering pigeons as they soaked their sore heads in the fountain; a pair of lovers, still tipsy from their the previous evening’s carouse, performed the comic pantomime of a mating dance; a street sweeper whistled as he worked to a tune played by a solitary Gypsy accordionist. And later on, when I left the apartment, I turned left—as I did every day after that first week in Vilnius—ducking under the arch to enter the carnival atmosphere of the square.
I’m not entirely a fool. I knew that the city was largely illusion, its crooked streets and fanciful facades reconstructed after the war upon a foundation of ashes and bones. I knew that, if you walked beyond the perimeter of the precious Old Town, you immediately found yourself in a soviet wasteland, where impoverished and often suicidal alcoholics sold their daughters into slavery. I knew that, in the face of the nightmare of history, even the Deuteronomic injunction to choose life is a flimsy excuse. But the square was so full of a number of things and the city such a goddam gem.