They say ‘Never Forget’
Last week was Holocaust Memorial Day. It’s been seventy-six years since the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Every year, one message resonates perhaps above any other. We must ‘never forget‘. That’s still a powerful sentiment, but the reality is that our memories do fade. There’s an informative series on Netflix, The Mind, Explained which demonstrates how faulty our memories are. There’s a discipline to remembering, and like any other exercise for the brain, practice makes perfect.
I’m pleased I managed to participate in a UK Jewish LGBT+ community group Friday night service with over ninety people, who like me, paused on this milestone occasion to remember and reflect.
We heard from the erudite (and surprisingly handsome) television personality, Judge Rinder, whose documentaries for the BBC, including series Who do you think you are? have seen him trace his family history in Eastern Europe.
As a genealogy geek myself, I asked him when someone researching their family tree can reasonably state ‘enough is enough’. When did he conclude that he’d done everything he could, to reasonably research his roots?
Of course, it’s much like asking the proverbial question, “how long is a piece of string?” He found one of the moments that literally caused him to stop was when together with his Mum he visited Treblinka, which he commented is all the eerier now it is a public park with picnickers. You can set out to honour your family history, remember the dead, and still recognise a time has come to let the past lie.
Yesterday evening, I Skyped one of the people in the world who has helped me to keep my cheeriest best in this pandemic, my newly located (long-lost) relative, Helen. She’s one of my Dad’s first cousins and after growing up in Southend on Sea, she now lives in Toronto.
I have previously touched on my fascination in family trees. I’ve also written a fair bit about why excavating our family stories, why writing full-stop, can be a cathartic and rewarding process. Anyway, after my kidney operation in 2019 – when I decided to yes, you guessed it, reflect and reset – I engaged in a months’ long process to compile my family tree. And through the modern technological marvels of Facebook and other digital platforms, I reunited with Helen.
So, back to Skype. Not for the first time, we exchanged letters, downloaded birth and death certificates from ancestry websites and attempted to make sense of our shared family history in public archives. It’s not easy. Very few of our grandparents talked about their origins. We knew they came – okay, we think they came – from the Kraków region in south east Poland. But there’s so many blind alleys; you think you’ve stumbled upon a tell-tell record that might unlock all you’ve ever wanted to know about your family, and then, suddenly, you realise the dates don’t make sense.
Or perhaps you ‘luck out’: the gravestone you suddenly learn might be your father’s paternal grandpa’s headstone in Plashet cemetery in East Ham, London could well be one of over three hundred that was desecrated in anti-Jewish attacks on the graveyard in 2003. Perhaps. We share updates on how we’re doing, Helen in minus 12 degrees temperatures in Ontario and me, close to Málaga, where I’ve relocated.
We get sidetracked, and then we come back to muse some more about whether Annie Kauffman, one of my paternal great-grandmothers, and noted in the archives for being born in 1871 and dying in Southend in 1949, anglicised her name on arriving as an immigrant in the UK. It’s quite possible. I even imagine, blurry-eyed, I happened upon a record of hers’ in a Polish database. The clock struck midnight and there I was, rubbing sleep from my eyes’, noting Annie may have been born Gabryela Safir (we know Safier was her maiden name) in the town of Tarnów. Her father, like many other Ashkenazi Jewish men of the period, may well have been called Israel, or to capture the correct spelling in his case, Izrael.
Who knows whether any of this is right? And that’s part of the joy of genealogy. It’s a high-stakes game…
Ancestral cartography – bear with me…
The joy is to be found in the storytelling, in the act of imagining who these faceless people were.
I like to characterise this as the speculative dance of comparing one name next to another, one set of dates compared to somebody else’s suggested timeline. To see in one’s mind eye who one’s ancestors might have been and to enjoy the fact there are gaps in our knowledge.
Storytelling ultimately takes over, at least in my experience. I lack the services and support of an archivist – or to quote Judge Rinder is his loving (and self-mocking) presentation on his own family – I lack my very own ‘ancestral cartographer‘.
It’s in the storytelling one comes across likeminded friends, old and new. Eighteen months ago I enjoyed a cosy afternoon in the library of the Jewish Genealogy Society, where the broad sweep of family stories took me from the Urals to Romania and the Baltic states. When you relax – when you realise that you might not obtain every last detail on one’s own family – and start to become a bit less obsessive about dating your family tree back to the eighteenth century, you inevitably create enough space to hear about other people’s families.
You build up a collective sense of a culture – a history – much grander than any one family can explain or account for.
That’s not to say ‘excavating our stories’ to borrow a phrase from memoirist Cathy Rentzenbrink is always pain-free.
Trauma can travel from one generation to the next. One of my sisters kindly shared a resource last week which deftly deals with the ancestral trauma many second, third, or even fourth generation descendants of persecuted peoples and refugees can experience, in this case, Ashkenazi Jews pushed out of Imperial Russia during the pogroms, or who had to flee fascism in continental Europe. I know at least some of the maternal side of my family arrived in the East End of London after the early 20th century Kishinev pogroms.
Transcending our histories
Do I carry trauma? Not exactly. Not directly.
Do I have an interest in the origins of stereotypical Jewish neuroses? Yes, I do and I hope to return to this topic another time. I think the research bears out that Jewish people, rightly or wrongly, experience a form of collective trauma which some might view as so self-pitying that it simply confirms stereotypes of Jews. I disagree. I think there’s something profound to uncover here. Something valid.
I certainly attest to knowing Jews and feeling like a Jew that’s often felt a need to prove myself, felt an acute sense of sensitivity to other people’s perceptions of me, even felt a severe form of vigilance that I can never let my guard down; that loss always lurks around the corner.
Watching Steve McQueen’s superb, possibly groundbreaking five-part film series, Small Axe, I believe collective community stories can transcend – and traumatise – generations for decades, and that this can be most acutely evident in immigrant communities: in McQueen’s filmmaking, the focus is on African Caribbean men. Jo Kent Katz explains how trauma isn’t unique to any one group but it can be common in diasporas.
One of the empowering aspects of McQueen’s corrective to years of media misinformation about the British Caribbean community, for example media treatment of the New Cross fire and the Brixton riots which then followed in 1981, is his desire to reconcile Britons to the complex, nuanced story he and his peers actually experienced when they grew up. He’s not engaged in act of transcendence, but telling the story as he uniquely feels it needs to get told.
Whatever your story, write it
Whatever connections arise when we tell, or hear our story, I do believe it’s worth documenting this story. And your emotional response to it.
As well as providing career coaching and wellness coaching, I am now setting myself up to provide a ‘life story’ service.
This is my invitation to you, to your relatives, to colleagues, friends or peers.
You don’t have to be old to tell your story.
You don’t have to be unwell to consider it urgent enough to capture your life story in words.
Anyone can seek more meaning, joy and look for new purpose in their lives by sharing their story to date, be it as a keepsake for their loved ones, in a private diary, in non-fiction writing, or simply in my coaching sessions, as a means of understanding where they’re coming from and where they would still like to head.
From years working in the UK charity sector, researching people’s stories, I bring fifteen years of experience, interviewing older and disabled people. Letting their stories emerge and unfold.
As a writer myself, I can introduce the benefits of life writing to ease psychological and other difficulties, and to harness new skills.
And as a qualified life coach, I can bring a year of experience working with clients to identify the direction they want to travel in, to summon the resources they have, and help overcome the obstacles, or ‘demons’, on their ‘hero’s journey’.
I can bring storytelling skills and the techniques of storytelling to help you reflect and reset, break old patterns and ultimately live a life with no regrets.
If you’re interested in my life stories or coaching services, please don’t hesitate to get in touch at email@example.com – we can discuss rates, but really, as I’m starting, I’m keen to keep these flexible and competitive. The key thing is that I want to help!