My cousin, Roger, called me the other night, or maybe I called him, I can’t remember. I like talking to him and wish he lived on the East Coast of the United States, but alas, he doesn’t, he lives in Michigan. He’s a cousin I never knew I had until a few years ago, probably a second cousin, my daughter’s generation; he’s between our ages by a decade or so. I met him when I was still living in New York City and he came to visit what he had always known was his family, except they didn’t know about me, and he didn’t know about me. He’s from a branch of our scattered family that arrived in the New World after a pogrom and before the Holocaust.
I had been researching my father’s Egon Schiele collection and working on an article for The Jewish Forward about it and called a first cousin I knew I had in Canada, though I had trouble tracking her down. Our fathers were brothers, and when we were kids we met in the summers and I was a brat, always getting little Sherry into trouble. I hated being with my father and step-mother, that was the problem, Sherry wasn’t the problem. Poor kid. When I finally found Sherry in Perry Sound north of Toronto where she has a cottage, she told me about the cousins I never knew I had in New York City, daughters of my father’s and her father’s sister.
As a child of divorce, and a child of the Holocaust, my family connections were all mixed up in my head and I didn’t know who was what or who was where in the grand diaspora that the Pharaohs, Ferdinand and Isabella and, finally, Hitler created for us and my father, bless him, amplified by his misanthropy, philandering, and general weirdness.
So there I was after so many years in my first cousin Karin ’s apartment not two blocks from where I’d been living for several years and she had been living for many more years, and there was Roger visiting. Suddenly, a family was gathered, a family I never knew I had. We ordered Chinese food. That settled my nerves, something quotidian. And Roger and I clicked. We started talking as though we had always known each other. And I didn’t want him to go back to Michigan.
As it turns out, he’s both a doctor—many doctors in the family I never knew I had—and a sleuth, aka a genealogist, and after that first meeting he sent me a family tree. How was I going to tell him that I couldn’t look at it, it made me sad. Sorry, Roger, can’t look at it, too many of our people were killed in the camps. Eventually, I did tell him just that, and he was understanding, of course. And it was then that I understood how different it is to be “Second Generation,” to be a child of the Holocaust whose parents and/or grandparents and/or great grandparents have been persecuted, expelled or killed. When the Second Generation is gone, who will care about this distinction? Who will write about it?
In another conversation with Roger, he told me he had done a DNA test. “You will never believe this,” he said: “We are North African.” For some reason, this interested me more than anything he’d ever told me about our family before. “That explains why I look like Akhenaten,” I said. “Not Nefertiti, but Akhenaten.”
All those hours I spent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art mesmerised by Egyptian iconography, thinking: Those ancient people look like me.
But what does this mean exactly, that we are North African? Are we Sephardic Jews, the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 because they refused to become Catholics? What was the path of our family’s migration? Does it begin in Biblical times? Roman times?
I have a new dermatologist from Jordan. Last visit, she said, “Did you know you have Middle Eastern skin?”
“No one has ever told me that,” I said. “Thank you.”
This is better than “Finding Your Roots,” a program I love. This is better than discovering Tutankhamen’s tomb, or the Dead Sea Scrolls in the desert.
But I still have trouble with genealogy. My reaction can be unpredictable, surprising even me. All those years of therapy gone to seed. Just the other day, a librarian friend gave me a novel she thought I’d like based on a real story of escape over the alps, but when I told her my paternal grandparents had escaped over the alps and been picked up and she said, “And what happened to them?” And I said, “They were killed in Auschwitz,” and she GASPED, I started gasping also. I used to be calmer, but as I’ve aged, the gasping has intensified. The reality of this family history conflates with present tense wars and genocides—Syria, for example—and it’s a reality that does not ever go away for me; I am always writing about wars and genocides. In my resume there’s a line that says, “Active in humanitarian initiatives.” In fact, I compiled and edited a book of stories by humanitarian workers knowing, full well, that if I were not a writer, I could have been one of them, rescuing people from war zones and natural disasters. Instead, I write about them, which is much safer. More or less.
Dear Roger, thank you for expanding our family history beyond the Nazi reign of terror and grounding me in antiquity. You’ve given me perspective: Like the Africans who were forcibly taken from their tribal lands to become slaves in the Americas –who may also be our cousins as we all, every one of us, evolved on the African continent—our people have survived and thrived for millennia.
The image – Akhenaten, also known as Amenhotep IV, reigned from 1352-1336 BC. This bust is “owned” by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was one of many statues and artifacts the author visited on her visits to the museum. The Egyptian government is seeking recovery of many stolen antiquities.