30 September 2009

Place of space: Our ancestors' homes

How do our surroundings, our living spaces impact our families, our thoughts, our history?

Isn't this what our pursuit of genealogy helps to reconstruct? To make sure that our family history remains alive and known and preserved?

In a poem by Leib Borisovich Talalai, a young Yiddish poet whose family was from our shtetl of Vorotinschtina, who later lived in Baranovich and in Minsk, and who was ultimately murdered in the Minsk Ghetto in 1941, he writes about his family house in our shtetl, "If the walls of this house could talk. ..."

What do you know about the spaces in which your ancestors lived? At left are steep steps in the old Jewish quarter of Girona, Spain.

On Yom Kippur, I usually read for a good portion of the day. This year, it was "Sepharad," by Antonio Munoz Molina, one of Spain's most famous writers, who draws on the Sephardic diaspora and touches on the Holocaust and even the purges of Stalin while telling this story I couldn't put down.

The book, praised as "a masterpiece" by "The Lost" author Daniel Mendelsohn, offers some insights into what I'm terming "the place of space" in our lives and in our family history. Mendelsohn wrote in the New York Review of Books:

"Shame and guilt, homelands and exile, ceaseless wanderings and bitter alienations both internal and external, metaphorical and real, are persistent motifs...."
Writes Munoz Molina:

"What is the minimal portion of country, what does of roots or hearth, that a human being requires?" Jean Amery asked himself, remembering his flight from Austria in 1938, perhaps the night of March 15, on the express train that left Vienna at 11:15 for Prague, his troubled, clandestine journey across European borders toward the provisional refuge of Antwerp, where he knew the endless insecurity of exiled Jews, the native's hostility toward foreigners, humiliation from the police and officials who examine papers and certify or deny permits and make you come back the next day and the next and who look at the refugee as someone suspected of a crime. The worst is to be stripped of the nationality you thought was yours inalienably. You need at least a home in which you can feel safe, Amery says, a room that you can't be dragged from in the middle of the night, that you don't have to run from as fast as you can when you hear police whistles and footsteps on the stairs.
Later on he asks the reader:

What do you do if you know that from one day to the next you can be driven from your home, that all it takes is a signature and a lacquer seal at the bottom of a decree for the work of your entire life to be demolished, for you to lose everything, house and goods, for you to find yourself out on the street exposed to shame, forced to part with everything you considered yours and to board a ship that will take you to a country where you will also be pointed at and rejected, or not even that far, to a disaster at sea, the frightening sea you have never seen?
He describes an old Jewish house with a low door, on a narrow street in a neighborhood of 15th century houses. On the two ends of the large stone lintel are two Stars of David, inscribed in a circle. The author adds:

The two Stars of David testify to the existence of a large community, like the fossilized impression of an exquisite leaf that fell in the immensity of a forest erased by a cataclysm thousands of years ago. They couldn't believe that they would actually be driven out, that within a few months they would have to abandon the land they had been born in and where their ancestors had lived. The house has a door with rusted studs and an iron knocker, and small Gothic moldings in the angles of the lintel. Maybe the people who have gone carried with the key that fit this large keyhole, maybe they handed it down from father to son through generations of exile, just as the language and sonorous Spanish names were perpetuated, and the poems and children's songs that the Jews of Salonica and Rhodes would carry with them on the long hellish journey to Auschwitz. It was a house like this that the family of Baruch Spinoza or Primo Levi would leave behind forever.
Quite by coincidence, a Google alert this morning led me to the Genealogy Blog's post which also commented on "the place of space" in our family histories.

This leads me to a thought: what part do places hold in our family histories? It would seem places (like houses) take on a character of their own, a spirit, if you will. They facilitate gathering and celebrating and memories. When they are taken away, it seems there is a disruption in our gatherings until we can find another substitute. In our transient society where we uproot every two years, are we constantly severing these vital ties with the past and memory.
Is there a difference between taking away a house, or taking away the family that lived there? What happens to the generations and centuries of memories? How long do they remain to be passed on to younger generations?

When do those memories disappear?

When does the disconnect occur between history and youth?

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