I grew up in a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania, a county seat in a rural area that was settled by former soldiers who received land bounties as compensation for their service after the Revolutionary War. The descendants of these one-time colonists were joined by others who made the trek west of the Allegheny mountains looking to farm or for work on the canals and railroads, and then in the first half of the twentieth century by those drawn by jobs in the new zipper, glass, and textile factories. By the time I was born, even this more recent crop of families had been in the area for generations. The majority of my friends had clans of cousins nearby, grandparents whose homes they ran into and out of as if they were their own, the obligation to spend part of Sunday with relatives. Some adults in town boasted of never having been to Cleveland or Pittsburgh, the two nearest cities. “Never had a reason to,” my mom’s coworker explained to her proudly. “So why would I go?” I know this story because my mom told it to me, repeatedly, in disapproving awe.
My family fit a different mold. We were there because my dad came for a job as a professor at the small liberal arts college whose bucolic campus sat on the top of a hill above the downtown that by the 1970s had seen better days. We compensated for our lack of local relations by bonding with another faculty family. We had our backyard cookouts with them and celebrated some holidays together, and when we were little my brother and I spent long hours at their house under the parents’ care, my mom having no one else to relieve her of us for an afternoon. The kids from each family called the adults from the other “aunt” and “uncle,” and the son and I, who were the same age and close, eventually concluded that this meant we were cousins. We announced this at our respective schools during the frequent conversations about who was related to whom in town, because not being attached by blood to anyone local could feel lonely and odd, but having a chosen family felt special.
Many of my actual cousins, my actual aunts and uncles and grandparents on my dad’s side, lived in Pittsburgh—at 90 miles away, it felt farther off than it was—and so my family did have a reason to go there. Most of the time we stayed at my grandparents’, where tension and gloom hung over their small, plain house, which was perched on a narrow slope of lawn in Mt. Lebanon, the suburb they had managed to move to on my first-generation grandfather’s blue-collar salary and my grandmother’s contributions as a seamstress who took in boarders. Neither of my grandparents went out of their way to entertain or delight us, or even to ask us questions that weren’t the kind found on a test, and it wasn’t fun there. It was better at my cousins’ house, a big place in Squirrel Hill with a chemistry lab in the basement, a piano in the dining room, and a maid who came in by the back door. My cousins were nothing like my friends at home. Sports and pop culture were foreign to them, and they spoke with an intonation that seemed almost an accent, one denoting not a physical place but a life of the mind. I was interested in this, and in them. I liked listening to the talk around their table and the feeling of my brain stretching to reach.
I liked my great aunt and uncle’s house even better. Smaller still than my grandparents’, it was full of stylish life. A Robert Indiana print advertising LOVE hung above the mantel and the midcentury furniture was stacked with books and artisan knickknacks. My great aunt, in particular, was magnificent, round and warm as the sun. She presented my brother and me with small, thoughtful gifts, showed a genuine interest in us, remembered which kind of blintzes we liked best. We had a few Seders at their place, and during the giggling, high-spirited searches for the afikomen a light bulb went off in my head: this was what it felt like to participate in a family cultural tradition. Even if it was sort of a borrowed one, it felt good.
As soon as I was able, I read up on Judaism and learned that because it was my father who was Jewish and not my mother, I could not claim membership in this tribe, that they didn’t want me. Nonetheless, I was intrigued, associating being a Jew with the best aspects of Pittsburgh: urbanism, intelligence, the sense of textured story. But what was the story? My father didn’t do much to fill in the specifics. Accounts of his family past were few and vague, centered on humorous set pieces about his early foibles. When I asked him questions about religion, he related his current humanist view—that Jesus was a very good person who had excellent ideas about how we should treat each other, that every religion had something to offer, that all people are equally worthy. Although I had been coming to similar conclusions on my own, by encompassing everyone my dad’s view—and my emerging one—left me feeling not specifically connected to anything.
What my father felt connected to, or at least drawn to, was the Native American Southwest. From the time I was a toddler, he was engaged with researching Navajo language and culture, and our family spent significant time in New Mexico and Arizona as he worked on a translation of the Navajo creation story. These were important trips to me. They opened up my life, added new sights and smells and vistas to my repertoire, perhaps seeded the love of travel that resides in me to this day. But although my dad’s career was part of the identity of my entire family—we lived in a small town after all, and there was only one “Indian expert” there — it was always clear that Navajo culture had nothing intimately to do with me. Unlike my half-in but all-out relationship to being Jewish; there was no connection to my blood.
Back in my hometown, throughout elementary school Judaism was so exotic as to be invisible outside the pages of a library book. For years, even frozen bagels weren’t available in the grocery stores, and once we ran out of the fresh ones we brought back from the trips to Pittsburgh, that was it. But eventually Lender’s made it to the new Kroger’s by the Spring Street Bridge, and by high school, I was aware that there were a few local families (faculty mostly, if not exclusively) who participated in a Jewish community. In the cafeteria, Sarah Freidman was teased a bit by Dom Lucelli*. He’d do things like wave his ham sandwich in her face. “You can’t eat this,” he’d say. He’d ask her mocking questions about Jewish life. In retrospect, I suspect Dom’s needling was born less from a wish to wield power than to demonstrate his cultural knowledge, as well to deflect questions about and/or invite companionship into the world of difference that he inhabited. He was an extremely bright, bursting, flamboyant boy who gestured with his wrists when he talked and whose father was an Italian grocer, a pillar of the Italian-American community whose young male members tended toward white singlets and Italian horns on gold chains, and for whom machismo was seen as an uncomplicated virtue. But whatever the motives of Dom’s anti-Semitic ribbing, there was a victim. When he talked to her, Sarah would redden, look down.
I can’t remember my reaction to this. Did I pretend to ignore it while soaking everything in, feeling that feeling of being undercover, not totally known, that was common to me even as I enjoyed dating football players and being part of a big group of friends? Or did I rebuke Dom, at least roll my eyes at him? That last seems likely. He and I were bonded by being the only people we knew of who pored over the New York Times and had a special attachment to the fashion supplement, but he got on my nerves like an annoying little brother. I thought he said too much too loudly, leaving no mystery and giving away the game.
To what extent are we born the way we are, and to what extent do our backgrounds affect us? The question started forming for me early, if inchoately. I’m not talking about sexuality here, but about things like taste, personality, and self-perception. Have I identified for myself factors of my childhood that formed my sense of being different and its attendant sense of pride tinged with shame? Or have I cherry-picked certain facts to bolster a sense of loneliness and remove that was more innate? Who would I be today, would any of us be, if raised somewhere else, surrounded by different people, presented with different problems? I’ve wondered, too, whether these very questions mark me of my time and place and distract me from some larger point.
In general, the sense of being different, something of an outsider, suited me. As the high school finish line came into view, I was eager to put it behind me and gain entry into a world of freaks, however loosely defined. While I waited to graduate, my sites turned to road-tripping to Pittsburgh or State College, where I would study the holdings at the indie record stores and anyone who looked alternative in any way. When I went to a college I choose for its status as a weirdo haven and then to start my adult life in Chicago, I felt mostly buoyed by my freedom from family and cultural tradition and the grip of a town where the descriptor “unique” was not a compliment. I remained connected to my parents, but soon after I left home they divorced and moved out of Pennsylvania and I related to them, it seemed to me then, on a purely individual level. I celebrated vegetarian Thanksgivings and bawdy birthdays with friends whose tastes matched mine, a new pack of cousins-by-association, and “home” became where I was, not where I had been. When my boyfriend and I decided to marry, we wrote the vows ourselves and invited only our best friends and immediate family to the wedding in Santa Fe. We walked each other down the aisle.
Then one afternoon several months after the ceremony, just after daylight savings had turned the clocks back, I was awoken from a late afternoon nap by a call from my father. He wanted to know if I had access to the internet at home—it was 1999, and not everyone did. He was excited about something: Swiss banks had thousands of dormant accounts set up by Jews during the Holocaust. The banks had laid low about these accounts, using the money in them all these years, but he’d learned that a class action settlement was forcing them to disperse funds. There was a database of account holders online, with names being added continually. “I just talked to your aunt, and we think there’s a possibility that my grandparents might have set up an account there before they were sent to the concentration camp,” he said. “Maybe you can look it up and see.”
“What do you mean, into a concentration camp?” I asked.
My father’s excitement drained. “Your grandmother’s parents died in a concentration camp.”
“I didn’t know,” I said.
It was like the season’s new blackness shattered the windows of the room I was sitting in and sucked right into my heart. I couldn’t see. The hairs on my body raised. Then a match flared. I had one memory. My great aunt lighting six memorial candles at Seder—“one candle for each one million gone,” she told us kids, her voice sonorous, and then she said some words in Hebrew, named the relatives her family had lost. “Caroline,” she said gently to my grandmother, “Didn’t you lose _____ and ________, too.” The names were a mumble to me. My grandmother nodded one time, her eagle beak of a nose dipping, her eyes dark behind her glinting glasses, her lips pressed into oblivion, her chin tucked toward her shelf of a bosom. That’s it. The match went out.
“It’s so terrible,” I said or thought or felt as I sat there with my cold hand gripping the phone.
“I thought I had told you,” my father said. “But I must not have.” He recounted his memory of sitting at a table as the grandparents’ last letter was read aloud. They’d known where they were going and written that they would probably not be heard from again.
The image of my father’s family gathered round an oil-clothed table flashed me back to the “All-of-a-Kind Family” books I had devoured as a child, about a wholesome Jewish family of girls in turn-of-the-century New York. As had many a bookish girl, I graduated from them to reading and rereading Anne Frank’s diary, and then moved onto repeated readings of Leon Uris’s Mila 18, a harrowing description of life in the Warsaw ghetto that my mom had bought at a garage sale. The horror and pornographic cruelty and boundless injustice of the Holocaust struck a chord in my adolescent brain, and I became fixated on the question of whether my wrong-half Jewishness would get me killed if Nazis were to reappear here. History said it was possible. They’d sniffed out those who barely remembered they were Jewish themselves. This terrified me, but it also offered some comfort. My chance of dying in a hypothetical death camp seemed to exonerate me from complicity in the vicious injustices in the world I had become attuned to; it was proof that I was aligned with the right side.
After I hung up from my father’s call, I numbly picked up some plates in the living room to take back to the kitchen, but I didn’t make it all the way down the hall before I crumpled to the floor, wracked by sobs. It had worked, I thought. The Jews had been not only killed but forgotten. I sobbed raggedly there on the floor until the sound woke my husband and he came to me. I pulled myself together to tell him what I was reacting to, and then I started crying again, feeling foolish now that I was being watched and comforted. Feeling horrible and twisted up and not sure of the extent to which my emotions were real or fake, whether they were borrowed from the dramas of history and literature or were actually my own, or whether they could be both.
I asked my dad for more information, tiptoeing around the deep hurt I felt at not having been told sooner. He shared what he could, which was not much beyond the few details he’d provided the previous week. He’d heard the letter read at the table. He knew my grandmother had immigrated to the States in her late teens, and that she had lived with an aunt while her parents stayed behind in Austria; that my grandfather had come over as a young teenager after his own father has been shot by the Czar’s army, that he’d been drawn to Pittsburgh by members of his village who’d already relocated there and helped raise the money for him to come; that between the pogroms, the Depression, and the Holocaust my grandparents and their community bore deep scars. They came to western Pennsylvania for urgent reasons, but they didn’t like to talk about the past. He reiterated that his childhood home had not been happy, and so he didn’t like to dwell on that part of his past either. He didn’t know in what camp his grandparents had died.
And there I was, with my happy childhood and the gift of so much freedom, shaken by a tragedy I’d not been told about and feeling deprived of the painful details. Would knowing of a personal connection to a collective atrocity have provided me with some ballast or legitimacy I’d occasionally sensed I lacked? Hearing of Holocaust victim’s dormant bank accounts, I was quick to think it had. I’d long realized my father had found his connection to a larger community in helping to perpetuate the stories of a native culture. Mostly I’d admired him for this, but at vulnerable points in my own life I’d felt flashes of resentment: if he felt cultural continuity was so important, why had he not handed down any stories to my brother and me? This question felt more pointed now that I saw him as complicit in the squelching of my great-grandparents’ memory. In the wake of the phone calls, the exuberance with which I’d pursued my finely honed individuality tasted like a sour lemonade.
What to do with what I now knew? I looked up the registry of the Swiss bank accounts but couldn’t find a listing for my great-grandfather, Max Engler.
I wrote my great-grandparents’ names on an index card and put it by my computer, along with my maternal lineage, but when we moved the card got misplaced and I didn’t create another one. As the years pass, the names and the facts swim through my mind like slim fish, the almost transparent ones that take on the color of the sand underneath, sluicing around ankles and all but invisible. I can’t always see them, call them, be sure they are there. But I sense them.
What I see more clearly now is that most Americans’ relationship to heritage and belonging is complicated—much more complicated than can be expressed in a set of rules, in the deed of a handed-down house, in a test of DNA. Perhaps the most tangible thing I’ve inherited from my father is the urge to search in books and beyond given borders for what’s missing, and to analyze what I find. My fixation on my past is my own. In thinking back on my life thus far, I’ve realized that the hometown in which I felt like an odd duck and dreamed of lighting out from is also the place where my roots dig down, even though I have no family at all who live there anymore, nor a single close friend. I never visit, I will never really go back, but I feel a kinship with everyone who came of age there, just 90 miles north of Pittsburgh.
Zoe Zolbrod’s first novel, Currency, received a Nobbie Award and was a Friends of American Writers prize finalist. Now serving as Sunday editor at The Rumpus, her essays have appeared on that web site as well as in Salon, Stir Journal, The Weeklings, and The Nervous Breakdown. She recently completed a memoir about how child sexual abuse reverberates throughout generations of a family.
–Art by Marta Bevacqua
–Art by Alphan Yýlmazmaden
–Art by Seamus Travers