Sunday, August 25, 2019

Out of Vilna

Thanks to my middle daughter, Lauren, we have discovered the soil of our family tree. Going back four generations our roots belong in Lithuania….at least on one side. Lauren is our chronicler, our seer. While others ask what she, with her wide eyes, asks when and where. She is our noticer. The one who spots the incongruous hat or shoe in the canvas be it a scene in a movie or a photo album. She has always been able to identify the year and location of an image by what the apparel doth oft proclaim.

A sense of antecedents drives her questioning. I share that curiosity but on a more macro plane. Lauren sniffs out details, the animating particulars in order to create a soulful presence. She reminds me of all the questions I never asked.
In her seventeenth year Lauren left regular high school to finish in an independent studies program on her own. After two months she took and passed an equivalency exam which gave her a diploma. That spirit of self-discovery has never left. She answers to her own interrogating voice searching for beginnings. Maybe that wondering and wandering began her Out of Vilna moment.

My grandfather, Morris, made his way out of Vilna in his seventeenth year also. His journey brought him to the lower eastside of Manhattan in 1887. It was a difficult decision and it was also an easy decision. Tough to leave family and friends behind along with the teeming cultural and literary scene of Vilna which was the Paris of that region. The Jewish population of the city reached 40%. Yet it was also a city under siege by Poles, Belarussians and Prussians. Pogroms ate away at the outskirts. Conscription was the fate of young men. I imagine young Morris hiding in a cellar from a band of drunken mustachioed Cossacks. Perhaps he was concealed under a large stack of potatoes and he found his transit on the shoot of a potato. 

He was part of a mass migration from Eastern Europe to Hamburg to New York harbor. Was he by himself? We don’t know yet. But I’m sure he traveled in steerage coming up on deck to pass that newly installed Statue of Liberty, then on to Ellis Island and from there to a tenement on a street of pushcarts. In 1891 he met Yetta and the tree was watered.

In my seventeenth year I was lost. I might as well have been in Vilna on the wrong road out. I had no idea it was a family tradition. Girls were still a foreign subject. Politics and sports were my strong points. I thought I knew the good guys from the bad guys... in government and on the playing field. I wasn’t altogether wrong but not altogether right either. A year later I chose my profession and three years after that I was married. Not very prudent with either choice……….but then again I wouldn’t have Lauren to learn from if I had embarked on that road not taken.

Did my father, Sam, have his Out of Vilna intersection? I’ll have to make all this up because I forgot to ask. He either didn’t finish or never started high school. Too poor. He sold newspapers on Flatbush Ave. and played the mandolin in a pick-up band, a piece of DNA not passed along to me. He earned loose change cashing in deposit bottles or as a runner dashing from the telephone in the candy store to call down the neighbor. He left his Vilna behind when he met my mother who tutored him for the two-year pharmacy college straight through to his license.

Morris, can you hear me? We’re all in your debt. Had you stayed in Vilna none of us would be.

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