There, on the corner, beside a bin of potatoes and a basket of onions, a merchant sells flour by the kilo. It’s a beautiful spring afternoon in 1910 Vilna, a city whose nation changes like the weather: Lithuania, Russia, the Soviet Union, but—in this moment, on this afternoon—Poland. So it is a Polish merchant who stands on the corner with two barrels: one for everyone, and another for the Jews. No fool, he has sifted gypsum into this second barrel to tip his scale. One-to-one, one-to-two, who knows how much of the flour my great-grandmother carried home was instead grains of cutting earth?
She gets home; her two toddlers are hungry; she bakes them bread. Pushing and molding the heavy dough, does she ignore the feeling pricking the back of her head that insists the flour feels different, feels not-quite-right? Does it rise like normal? Brown the same? I imagine her sons clamoring for a piece before the loaf could cool, imagine a warm slice placed in each of their tiny reaching hands. How much did they eat before they began to cramp? Before their stomachs swelled? And my great-grandmother, did she know the name of the man who sold her the flour? Did he know hers? How long before she realized it was his flour, her bread that killed them?
She crossed an ocean to get away from these answers.
Behind her, she left the only home she’d ever known, a city heralded as the Jerusalem of the North: a cradle for thriving yeshivas, synagogues, theatres. And only ten miles to the west, Ponary Forest, where Jews summered by the river, collected mushrooms and berries in the shade of the pines, and sat to watch the blameless water.
Later, fences and wire, two ghettos. Later, among those beloved pines, beside a pit dug for surplus fuel, the Nazis separate daughters from fathers, husbands from wives, a brother’s small hand from that of his sister. They order: Undress! Order: Climb down! They point their rifles (that cowards’ tool, which from a clean distance makes men into meat). The first Jews are fortunate only in that they do not know what was about to happen. Those who follow must clamber over the faces they love, stand ankle-, then knee-, then hip-deep among the cooling bodies of their dead. When the pits are too full to climb into, the SS order them to stand at the edge, and then shoot them backward, toppling dead onto dead. Except for those who aren’t quite. From below, some cry out for mercy—cry out, not knowing Germans stand above, waiting to take aim at the voices they hear. But others in the pit wait, too. Their hair and skin sticky and stiffening, as the blood of the others that stains them dries. They wait and listen for the no-sound of gone-boots before tunneling up through the naked limbs that make a ladder for the lucky-unlucky who, in their palms, will carry forever the feel of each horrible rung.
At the same time, in another city far from that one, in the window of a Jersey City kitchen, between a coffee can filled with reclaimed chicken schmaltz and a jar of half-sour pickles, my great-grandmother burns two Yahrzeit candles: one for each lost son. In this Jewish section of town, I imagine tower after tower of windows in which candles burn for the dead. And once my great-grandmother’s have melted away, in a weekly ritual, she uses the containers to bake, measuring out flour in memorial candles. No use in wasting a perfectly good piece of glass, she says, baking bread in this new land for her new children.
Whether she is grateful for it or not, whether she would have changed it if she could, the death of her sons saved her from that pit. Their deaths were traded for the lives of my grandmother and her siblings, for my father and his. Traded for my sisters and me and the children who come after us. We all live because those boys didn’t.
And now, on my visits to Florida, I sit beside her daughter, my grandmother. On her lawn, annual flowers show their bright faces, annuals that don’t die because there is no cold here to kill them. On her screened-in porch, she props her slippers on an ottoman, a romance novel forgotten in her lap. My grandmother tells me about the brothers she never met, says, “Every spring my mother would say to me, Bluma-leh—Bluma is my name in Jewish,” she explains— “Bluma-leh, every year the grass turns green, the flowers come up, but my two boys, they never come back.”
My grandmother Bernice, who at 93 has outlived her husband and the siblings who came after those two boys, who’s taught herself to use a computer and smartphone, who’s taught me dirty words in Yiddish, has only just taught me her other name: Bluma—her name in Yiddish, the name her mother called her, which means flower.
In the very last room of the Holocaust Museum in D.C., after passing endless wall-sized photos of bodies—after walking through one of the boxcars that brought Jews to the camps, while two oblivious American schoolboys ahead of me debate what they want for lunch—I walk through the Tower of Faces. In it, a walkway runs between walls stretching three stories tall, every inch tiled with images from another fallen world: the lost Jews of Eishyshok.
Forty miles south of Vilna—currently Lithuanian, but Polish during the wars—Eishyshok was the home of my mother’s side of the family, surrounded by pine forests and fields filled with children playing. It was a village famous for its obscurity, the European back of beyond. If an Eastern European Jew lost her way, she might say she was “farkrokhn in Eishyshok,” “lost in Eishyshok.”
Of the thousands of pictures, this one: A room shot through with light. The walls are whitewashed boards, the windows hung with curtains of hand-tatted lace. It looks so welcoming I want to walk its black-and-white floors and breathe it back into color. On either side of the long table sit my grand-aunts as girls. Though it is light gray in the photo, I give little Zitaka’s hair back its red. She tilts her head and smiles sweetly at the camera. Brunette Atara rests her weary teenage cheek in her hand. My great-grandmother wears a sleeveless green dress, while her sister Liebke wears a more modest dress of faded blue. Beside the window, each of the women are half in shadow, half drenched in light. A trellis of rose patterns blooms on the table cloth. There is a bowl of apples, a dish of plums, a vase of yellow carnations. And in the middle is Bill, my maternal grandfather, as a jug-eared boy. He sits crookedly to see past the vase to the camera, staring so hard ahead it’s as though he could also see past that day and into all that would follow. I want to sit beside him and put my arm around his narrow shoulders, to hold him as he so often held me as a child.
My maternal great-grandmother and her children immigrated to America. Her sister Liebke chose to stay.
In 1940, six years after my great-grandmother left, Nazis closed Eishyshok’s synagogues, forcing prayer into the dimness of basements and barns. In 1941, a reprieve: Jews were permitted to gather on Rosh Hashanah to welcome in the new year. Desperate to pray in community, they went to one of the village’s three temples.
How soon into the services did they hear the clatter of trucks, the shouting in German? Was it as early as Ma-ariv Aravim: “You roll away the darkness from the light?” Or did they make it to G’ulah: “let us study war no more?”
Five thousand Jews in their holiday best, men in heavy wool suits and yarmulkes, women in velvet dresses with clean lace collars. The women and children were herded to the Christian cemetery; Liebke was somehow not among them. The men and boys were taken to the Jewish cemetery and ordered to strip; my great-great grandfather, Arieh-Leib Kudlanski, was there.
Reb Kudlanski was the village milkman. A good man. When he walked to temple on Saturday mornings wrapped in his prayer shawl, it’s said that Christian and Muslim farmers removed their hats in his honor. His children had immigrated to America and urged him to join them. He visited once before the war, but after one too many trips to the movie theatre, he returned to Eishyshok, saying he could never feel at home in a country “where people love more the people who walk on the walls than real people who walk on the fields and streets.”
How much we admire people we’ve never met. Pointless, when they’re celebrities, but how I stare and stare at the photo I have of him: Reb Kudlanski had kind eyes, an open face. And I can’t stop imagining him there in that cemetery. His shame as he leaned on an ancestor’s headstone to take off his shoes and pants. His bare feet in the cold stiff grass. The night air against the small of his naked back. To humiliate him, the Nazis cut off his beard. Then they shot him.
The Christian villagers made differing choices. Some stood and watched, some turned away, a very few offered refuge to Jews, and far more left to loot the newly empty houses of their neighbors.
In 1944, four years after that massacre—years, I imagine, she spent wishing she’d left with her sister while she still could—Liebke, her husband, and their young son were murdered by the Polish Home Army. Despite a 900-year history of Jewish habitation, today not a single Jew lives in Eishyshok.
Forty years after the massacre, it’s the spring of 1980 and the sun is soon to rise over Central Florida. In a dark driveway, my grandfather Bill sits in his Suburban with the engine off, his hands resting in the downslope of the steering wheel. Shaggy graying hair covers his prominent ears. The windows are cranked open to let in the day’s first birdsong. Can he still remember Liebke’s face? Her full cheeks and dark eyebrows? The cloud of his grandfather’s beard? Does he ever dream of the village he left as a boy?
In the house ahead, one light snaps on, then another. He steps from the car and walks to the door, but before he can knock, my father, tousled and squinting, opens the door and hands me to him, my small body still warm from sleep. In the bathroom, my mother is filling the sink.
And because seventy years ago, on my father’s side, my great-grandmother, grief-stricken, left Vilna, fleeing all she knew; because fifty years ago, on my mother’s side, my great-grandmother kissed her sister goodbye and boarded a ship away from Eishyshok; because my grandfather is a man attuned to wonder, and knows his presence here is miraculous; because I am the first grandchild in a bloodline that by all rights should have ended in a Polish cemetery or in a Polish forest; this is how nearly every day of my first year begins. With my head cradled in the crook of his elbow, with my body resting along the length of his forearm, with the greatest care and attention, my grandfather lowers me into warm water and gives me my morning bath.
What of those who could have left but didn’t? I tried not to judge my unfortunate ancestors, but with the decades of pogroms that preceded Hitler’s rise, how was it possible they didn’t see what was coming?
Then it was 2016, when unarmed Black people were five times more likely than white people to be shot and killed by the police. In a gay club in my hometown of Orlando, forty-nine people were murdered. A man endorsed by white supremacist groups was voted into our country’s highest office.
Then, 2017, and that same man gave a speech on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and did not mention, even once, the Jewish people. That summer, in Charlottesville, Virginia, a crowd gathered: young white men in khakis and boat shoes, their polo shirts pressed, their hair cropped close. They brandished tiki torches from the local Walmart. They would have been ridiculous if they weren’t so terrifying. Though they knew there would be cameras, their faces were uncovered, blazing with pride. Bullhorns blared them into military lockstep, urged them to march, to surge through the dark field like a burning river. “Blood and soil!” they screamed. “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” I watched the footage on repeat and wept, my chest cold and tight. The president wagged his finger at them, the way you’d scold a wayward child, declining further condemnation because there were “some very fine people on both sides.” In a single year, anti-Semitic acts in the U.S. leapt 57 percent, most of them in schools.
Then it’s spring 2018. A chorus of yellow crocus rises in the flowerbed and, just past my front door, the cherry tree weeps delicate pink blossoms. When my wife and I walk our dogs, we know most of our neighbors by sight, if not by name. We exchange cuttings from each other’s gardens and gather for potlucks.
And 2018: The president speaks of people deported from our country, saying “These aren’t people. These are animals,” and all I can hear is the Nazis’ labeling of the Jews as Untermenschen, “subhuman.” Thousands of children are separated from their parents at the border and held in cages in detention centers. This administration’s horrors are not yet equal to those of the Nazis’, but echoes of the Holocaust are everywhere. Membership in neo-Nazi groups is metastasizing, and talk of fascism is a daily feature of the news. An infestation of swastikas rises on the walls of synagogues, of schools, of homes.
And then it’s summer. We know the people who wait on us when we go out to eat, the people who sell us our groceries. And no one I know cares my wife and I are two women married to each other—or, for that matter, are a Jew married to someone raised half-Southern Baptist, half-Catholic.
Then on a Wednesday in October, after being kept from entering a predominantly Black church, a white supremacist enters a grocery store in my wife’s hometown of Louisville—only ten minutes after her sister and nephew had left it—and shoots down two Black shoppers, one a man there to buy his grandson poster board for a school project. Then, that Saturday: the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history. During morning services, another white man enters the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, shouts, “All Jews must die!” and opens fire, killing eleven congregants—eleven elderly congregants, those so strong in their practice they attended services from beginning to end, now bleeding out on the floor they once stood on to pray.
It is fall. The trees outside our windows blaze a brilliant red. I run into the hills above our home, listening to the audio version of The Handmaid’s Tale. In her afterword, Margaret Atwood says that to write the book she did not invent a world, but limited herself to drawing from things that had actually been done or written about in history. Atwood wrote the book in 1984 and relied on sources as far back as the Bible—the past drawing on the ancient past in a way that now feels like prophecy.
It is winter. Snow holds my footprints as I run. I want to imagine the future we are racing toward as an open road, but what I see instead is a looming mirror, reflecting all the carnage I thought we’d left behind—in other countries, other eras. My direct ancestors lived—I live—because they made a choice to act, to go. And yet here we still are, our cat sprawled on the sunlit windowsill, the birds singing to each other in the naked branches of the birch.
Where we would go anyway, to another promised land, another America, where later, the same could happen? It’s so easy to judge the past, but it’s only hindsight that allows us to distinguish paranoia from prescience, panic from just paying attention. So is it resignation that keeps us here, despair that any action could truly matter? Or might it be hope that we as a people could still make a change for the better, could still learn to love the strangers among us?
The truth is, in the very heart of my comfortable home and my comfortable life, I’m frightened more often than I’d like to admit. I want to believe the atrocities of the past will stay in the past, to believe they can’t happen here, in our country, that we have learned from the history before us. I want to think—and sometimes even manage to believe—that staying here means being able to resist from within, able to work with others toward making this into the haven my ancestors trusted it to be. But I am haunted by thoughts of Liebke, who waited until it was too late to leave. I keep a careful eye to the news. If someone I trusted told me it was time, that I should take my wife and whatever we could carry and go, would I do it? Would you?