Personal history gap filled

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From the Publisher/Arnold G. York

We’ve had some relatives visiting us from Moscow this past week. That’s Moscow, Russia, not Moscow, Idaho. Sasha and I are first cousins; our fathers were brothers, yet we never knew about each other until we were well along in our years, after both our fathers had died.

Sasha is a few years older than me and after Sasha’s father died at age 91, he and his wife were going through his father’s papers and found a letter my father had written to him many years before on some old legal stationary of mine. It was from an address in Mar Vista where we hadn’t lived since 1973. Sasha wrote to us at that old address and we were very lucky. Some unknown Post Office worker took pity and decided not to send it to the dead letter office and instead looked me up in the phone book and forwarded the letter. Ultimately, with the Internet and e-mail, we made contact, along with the help of a Russian friend who translated e-mails back and forth.

Last week, Sasha and his wife, Delia, arrived in Malibu to some storybook glorious weather, and we were able to compare pieces of our family history, of which we each had a part and knew nothing of the other part. Fortunately, Sasha speaks some English, because my Russian is nonexistent. We compared family pictures, and it’s very strange to look at people you never knew, and at pictures of my father as a young man, and to see my own face in their faces.

It filled in a large gap in my personal history. When many Jewish immigrant families from Russia and Poland said goodbye to their families it wasn’t for a while, it was forever. They came here to the U.S. and started over and left their history behind. Some of their children were born in the States and some were born in the old country, but it didn’t matter which, you could never get them to talk about the old country and the family left behind. I had tried many times with my mother, who was native born, and my father, who was born in Poland and raised in Paris, and both foreign-born grandmothers, but they all feigned amnesia, and I never pushed it. The truth is that back then I really didn’t care that much, and I wasn’t unusual. I was part of a post-immigration generation without a history. It was only many years later that I began to wonder, and that’s why the visit of Sasha and Delia was such a delight.

As we talked, we began to realize how much of our lives were tied in with the history of Europe and what had happened there, and in some ways realize how lucky we had been. Some of our family lived in Paris and when the Nazis invaded France, they rounded up the Jews; our fathers’ sister and her family were sent to Auschwitz. We looked at their pictures, their children’s pictures and at their baby pictures. They looked just like our baby pictures with round smiley faces and curly blond hair.

Sasha was raised in Moscow, graduated from Moscow University just about the time of the Korean War and off he went, a newly commissioned second Lieutenant in artillery, as a Chinese volunteer. Apparently you had a choice. You could be a Chinese volunteer or a Korean volunteer, complete with the appropriate uniform. Fortunately, just as he arrived in Korea, the truce was signed, and he was returned home. Strangely, I had a parallel experience a few years later. Just as I got out of the Navy the secret war in Southeast Asia was heating up. As I passed through Travis Air Force Base on the way back to New York, there were many young officers headed out to Southeast Asia, as advisors, they said.

The Cold War also played a part. It had slammed down the curtain and created a very uneasy situation if you had relatives behind the Iron Curtain. I can remember my father getting an occasional letter from Russia, which typically arrived with the FBI. He would write back to his brother and that letter arrived back in Moscow along with the KGB, so they both kept their letter writing to a minimum. The Russian system was particularly harsh and went through periods of purges and anti-Semitic swings. Even though Sasha’s father, my uncle, worked for the government for many years, he was never totally safe, which meant his family wasn’t safe, and he often didn’t tell Sasha things to protect him. In the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s there were purges, and it wasn’t until Stalin’s death in the early ’50s that things began to change. Sasha, who by that time had a doctorate in biochemistry, was able to resume a career in Moscow, after a previous posting in Siberia.

I was particularly lucky. My father came to this country in 1920 at the age of 17 and worked to bring most of his family over. He tried to talk his older brother into coming here, but he opted instead for Moscow and they never saw each other again. I grew up at a time of the expansion of America as a major world power and all the prosperity and opportunity that brought. I was also lucky enough to be too young for Korea and too old for Vietnam, which made me a lucky slice of a generation.

As we talked, we discovered there were many other similarities, except for one thing. As I said, Sasha has a doctorate in biochemistry, as does his wife, Delia, as does her daughter. I, on the other hand, always considered a gentlemanly ‘C’ in chemistry to be a major academic accomplishment and to this day I still can’t look at a Periodic Table without getting slightly nauseous. I guess some genes just don’t travel well.

As for letters, thanks USPS.