Jerry Fresia asks whether I knew personally any of my relatives who died in the Death Camps. Since they died when I was nine, the answer is of course, No, but there is a good deal more to the story than that. This has nothing at all to do with current political or other events, but I am feeling unnaturally fragile these days, as a consequence of the disasters we face, and telling family stories, even such as these, is a relief from the constant arguing and anguishing that will be our fate for years to come.
I have told elsewhere the story of my father’s father coming to Castle Garden [the predecessor of Ellis Island] as a babe in arms in 1880, and of the way in which the family name of Zarembovitch was changed by an immigration official to Wolff. Growing up, that was the only story I ever heard about the Old Country, that and the fact that my great-grandfather had come with his family from Paris. The ancestral name led me to believe, mistakenly as it turned out, that our roots were in Russia, and at one point I made a fruitless effort to find a town named “Zarem,” assuming that “Zarembovitch” means “from the town of Zarem” [it doesn’t.]
During the Second World War and afterwards, there was never the slightest discussion in my family even of the possibility that there were relatives who had died in the Death Camps – not one word, which, when you think about it, is very odd for a New York Jewish family, even one that was utterly non-religious. After my mother passed away in 1975, my father made a trip to Paris, and while there he found two Zarembowitch’s in the phone book, though he was too timid to contact them. Years later, after Susie and I had bought a Paris apartment, I actually did write a letter to André Zarembowich, the only remaining person of that name in the phone book. We met him and his wife, Jacqueline, the two of them retired science professors our age, and established the connection. It seems that André’s grandfather and my great-grandfather were brothers [despite the fact that we are the same age.] We are now good friends, and get together when Susie and I are in Paris.
André brought with him to our first meeting an extraordinary document, a full-scale genealogy of the Zarembowich family that had been painstakingly assembled by Micheline Gutmann-Marcus, one of his relatives [and mine too, of course.] After we had rather gingerly established that we were all “on the left,” André explained that they did not see Mme. Gutmann-Marcus very often because she was a Sarkosy supporter [he had been rather worried that this new-found American relative would be a Republican!].
As I looked through the document, which runs 129 pages, I was searching for evidence of my grandfather, and sure enough, there was his Parisian birth certificate! It turns out that my roots are not in Russia but in Poland, specifically in a small town in the northwest corner of Poland called Suwalki. The Zarembovitch family had emigrated more or less en masse to Paris in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, driven by economic hard times and hunger. Why Paris? I have never found out. The immigrants settled in the Jewish quarter, which is in the 4th arrondissement, centering on the area between rue des Franc-Bourgeois and rue des Rosiers.
Once having located evidence of my grandfather’s lineage [this is the grandfather who devoted his entire life to the Socialist Party of New York], I flipped idly through the pages. Mme. Gutmann-Marcus had included not only the usual genealogical charts, looking like inverted trees with the branching lines of descent. She had also tracked down, for each branch of the family, the year and place of birth and the year and place of death for each member of the very large extended family. As I ran my eye down the columns, I came upon people whose place of death was listed as Auschwitz.
I was thunderstruck. In my entire life, which by then had lasted well over seventy years, it had simply never occurred to me that some of the six million European Jews killed in the camps might have been my relatives! How could they not? you may ask. How indeed. And yet the thought had never crossed my mind. The list of victims that I posted on this blog are the men, women, and children listed in Mme. Gutmann-Marcus’ document. They all died in Auschwitz.
Is this all of my relatives who died in the Holocaust? To a certainty, I can say they are not. These, recall, are only my European relatives on my father’s father’s side. My father’s mother came to the United States as a little girl from Vilna. My mother’s father’s family came from Rumania, as did my mother’s mother’s family, I believe. If I had a similar document for each of my four ancestral roots, I am certain it would contain scores more name of death camp victims.
My only link with this large European extended family is André and Jacqueline, and their son and daughter. They are, of course, just names to me. I have no personal connection with them, or indeed with Suwalki [which, by the way, is only 80 miles southeast of the old Konigsberg, now Kaliningrad.] And yet, now that I know about those victims of the death camps, I feel an irrational bond with them, and a sense that the Holocaust robbed me personally, not just the world, of something valuable.
Well, that is my reply to Jerry Fresia. Thank you for indulging me.