Remembering the Unknown

By: Klaira

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to interview my younger brother Naum (or Numa as we call him) about his knowledge of our family history, and more specifically,  about our great grandmother Chaya. Since he has read my blog, I was expecting him to reiterate everything that I have been writing here, with his own personal spin. However,  what he said both surprised me and shed light of the nature of memory.

Numa struggles to recall what he has read and what he was told by his parents, grandparents, and myself . He recollects the facts due to their excessive repetition but can’t piece them together. Perhaps we are putting too much pressure on the importance of remembering one’s history, at such a young age. Maybe it is just too much weight for an eleven-year-old to carry on his shoulders.

Eventually –keep in mind that the original interview is close to 13 minutes–Numa admits that what  he doesn’t remember is really what he doesn’t know. This makes me wonder: what is the essence of Chaya’s story that will be passed on to the next generation?  Or will she be just a name in our family tree? 

At the end, I asked him what he thought was the moral of Chaya’s decision. Even though his answer was quite tentative, his ultimate message was very strong.  And it offered an alternative idea about Chaya’s story that I  had never thought of before.


Scouring (2)


From what I observe, people victimized by war or traumatic upbringing speak very little of their past. It seems their offspring fill in those drifting spots mostly after their death: Scouring and piecing together signs, we can faintly merge feelings that, in reflection, feed or skew our understanding. We are guided by feelings, not by reason. In asking my father a few questions, it was interesting to see how his descriptions of his mother are not concrete, yet are memories of great impact.

“When she was pregnant with Chris,” he said, “she spoke to me, saying, brothers/siblings tend to be jealous of all the attention newborns get—and not to be jealous of Chris, on the contrary, to help with him and help take care of him.” My father is tremendously sensitive and self-sacrificing. There are times when he feels he must guide what has lost guidance—and he emerges into the foreground, but never pushes to the center. He took Susi’s urging deeply to heart: “I was very active with my younger brothers—maybe to the point of overlooking myself.”


Though my father has told me snatches of his childhood stories, of his sports triumphs—bold moments—and likewise, of his shyness and uncertainty, I have never been able to form a clear picture of who he was. I imagine he was extremely sensitive, as he is now, but his self-awareness must have come later in life. Through his first years of young assurance and then through the change when his brother was born, I suppose he developed a view of life he is comfortable with. Though he says he is a “rough, tough man, naturally,” that time of his brother’s birth was a natural way of moving him into his whole frame. It wasn’t a change, as within were traits of modesty since birth: As he says, “it was then I became ready to stand in the background, off stage.”


This sense of guidance my father bears—of helping his brothers and others around him—is an abundant part of what I knew of Susi. She was strong and encouraging, always a stable balance. For my father as well as for me, she encouraged art and writing. My father says of his early drawings, “Susi saw the knack and nurtured it,” though to most, the moving figures didn’t “seem to particularly point to much talent.”

My father made this drawing [on the right] with no particular person in mind—starting by scribbling—but upon finishing, was struck by its resemblance to Susi. He assumed it was brought about in the subconscious—his closeness to his mother embodied in its nature. Much of his work evolves around his parents and family, as much of him reflects their composition.

YennySusi (my grandmother) kept extensive journals from a young age, writing in German. My father compares her journals to mine except she wrote about her ideas rather than feelings. As they transitioned to English, it is interesting to see how her language progressed: her essays were covered in a teacher’s correctional red ink, though underneath this ink (intended to point out grammatical errors), her own words were lyrical and expressive. A year later, in her wartime narrative of the political situation, her language was almost text-bookish.

These are some later journal entries about my father, kept together with entries by Susi’s mother in a large, thick, gold-edged book…


Whoever displeases Andy is a “bad boy.”–e.g. If I am not standing at attention with a piece of toilet paper the minute he is finished I get balled out: “Come here, badboy!” After getting his booster shot Andy went crying into the waiting room and walked up to each waiting patient saying: “Doctor is a bad bad boy!”’ My dad comments that this is where I inherited my demanding side—before, he had thought it was from my “Tartar” mom.

Andy_childpix_aga_160He often talks of his “Cowboys and Indians” days….

Even at the age of three Andy loved his bottle. Cowboy hat pulled down over his eyes, booted legs crossed, he lies on the sofa and sucks on his bottle and glares at anybody who dares to smile. One night at 3 am, he woke me, hands me the empty bottle with these words: “I’m a big boy now. I throw away my bottle.” And sure enough he never asked for it since.

My father remembers this event in remarkable clarity. In his memory it was five or so in the morning when he marched to his parents room and made the announcement. By the time they fully awakened he had already slammed the door and was headed downstairs to throw away his bottle. He remembers opening the door, the air still and dewy.


Sept 52 . . . For some time now Andy has been calling himself “poor little Andy. But today at dinner he changed his tone: “More avocado!” he orders, “for a rough man!” I say: “Well Andy which are you going to be? Poor little Andy or a rough man?” “Both!” he says. “I am poor little Andy at school and a rough tough man at home!” And right he is too!

My dad, in answering a few of my questions about Susi, referred to himself “as a rough, tough man, naturally.” This entry by Susi is a nice summary for me: I’d grown familiar with stories of my dad hating school and feeling pressed under, and also stories of fights and defiance. I hadn’t known he spelled it out for himself at such a young age, so clearly—and his mother was there for observation and agreement.



by Zoe Pollak

(Bolded words are revised.)

In the world of science, you would need a machine that moves faster than the speed of light to travel through time. But you involuntarily move through this dimension every day.

 You may regard the past as cemented, but it is always changing. Let’s say you have a lot of work to do. You might reminisce longingly about being in grade school, when you were free to take time for granted. But if you revisit that same moment on a different day, your naiveté might appear as a limitation.

 Your memory will always refine particular moments and blur others, and its multiple realities are as infinite as the parallel universes that exist in theoretical physics.

Follow-up for Jeremy

Thank you for your response!!

I’m also wondering about Jewish identity before and after WWII; how it was altered or how criteria for identifying as a Jew was skewed by the Holocaust. For example, the Nazi’s targeted any who were remotely Jewish by blood.

by Zoe Pollak

In order to travel through time, you would have to harness the power of a star. But you involuntarily move through this dimension every day. You may regard the past as cemented, but it is always changing. If you have a lot of work to do, you might reminisce about being in grade school and think back to when you took time for granted. If you revisit the same moment on a different day, you might instead be drawn to the shortcomings of its simplicity. Your memory will always refine particular moments and blur others, and the combinations of alterations are as infinite as the parallel universes that exist in theoretical physics. The past’s fluidity is memory’s only constant.

Hi Jeremy!

Thanks so much for your comment last week, and to continue on that thread,

What is the emotional significance to you of that street in Jerusalem? Do you have any specific memories that hold a special place relating to this location?

I think the places that we remember the most often have one or more stories attached to them, as I am finding in my interviews with my family members. I would love to hear any stories you might have!

-Samantha Abernathey