A Strange Past Returns Strangely

The last time I heard anyone utter the name, Przemysl, I must have been ten or eleven years old. In his thickly Yiddishized English, my maternal grandfather must have been telling me something about his early life. And I must have been listening more intently than I realized.

I don’t recall exactly what he was recounting. Maybe it was something about his parents requiring him to drop out of school after third grade so he could spend his days on the streets with a pushcart, selling stuff and more stuff to contribute to his family’s meager household income. Maybe it was something about his decision in 1911 to leave that unpromising life of poverty and anti-Semitism and somehow, at age 19 or 20, make his way to Hamburg and, thence, board a ship (as a stowaway, as I found out decades later — maybe, like many other young Jewish men around him, creatively escaping conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army?) that was bound for New York.

What I did recall was that strange-sounding name. Przemysl. Only decades later would I find out how to spell it.

I had to hire a professional genealogist friend to find out where my grandfather was born. (Thank you, Joy Kestenbaum!) It turns out, it wasn’t in Przemysl but a town some 50 miles to the east, with another odd-sounding name I’d also heard during my childhood. I remembered it as Zeluzutz; my brilliant genealogist friend identified it as Zaliztsi.

There had also been talk of another town that I remembered sounding something like Tarnopol. My memory wasn’t too far off on that one. Joy identified it as Ternopil.

And another city that I remembered as sounding like Lavuv — in, I now know, its Russian pronunciation. That turned out to be Lviv — as the Ukrainians call it.

Throughout my childhood, all these hard-to-pronounce toponyms belonged to another era. I wasn’t sure how they fit together, or to which countries they belonged — sometimes my grandfather said Poland, sometimes Austria (by which, I later figured out, he meant the Austro-Hungarian empire)— or which one my grandfather had called home. But I knew he had some relationship to all these distance spaces.

A week or two into my senior year in high school, I mentioned to my grandfather that I’d just started taking a beginning course in the Russian language. Immediately, my grandfather switched to speaking in Russian. Where did that come from? I wondered. All he said, in a faraway voice, was that he’d picked up some Russian along the way.

“But I thought you were from Poland,” I vaguely protested.

“The border was always changing,” he mumbled. “Sometimes Poland. Sometimes Russia. Sometimes Austria.” Then he must have changed the subject. Or gone silent. All I remember is no explanation.

It would be some years before I read enough history to understand the painful complexities of that perplexing statement.

Along the way, I discovered more languages that my grandfather could at least get by in. There was Yiddish, of course — his first language. And Hebrew, from all his time in the synagogue. (As an adult, there was one across the street from his apartment building in the Bronx.) Was Polish his third language, and Russian, his fourth? Or was it the other way around? He knew some German, too, I discovered later. Either way, he would have picked up English as his sixth language, from his long-ago, emergency needs as a new immigrant. Unless he spoke some Ukrainian, as well. (Did he? Now, I imagine it quite likely.) In that case, English would have been #7.

All those early tongues must have forged plenty of neuronal pathways that demanded more traffic. During the 50 years that he worked as a waiter in various Jewish delis in New York’s Lower East Side, my grandfather spent his lunch breaks scouring the trash cans along the Bowery, looking for books. The French and Spanish grammar texts he found lodged between discarded newspapers and half-eaten sandwiches served as sources for his independent study of yet two more languages. Later, my husband-to-be borrowed that beat-up Spanish primer as he crammed for the foreign language exam he would soon take, to complete his graduate program in creative writing.

My grandfather was that strange mix of working-class cosmopolitan with untapped skills. An elementary school dropout who could have excelled in a university. A polyglot who could have become a linguist. A tinkerer who could have become an engineer. A mandolin player who could have become a musician. A refugee who could have become embittered. He became none of those things.

Instead, my ever-calm grandfather (I never once heard him raise his voice or even scowl) enjoyed his one cigar a day. Beyond that indulgence, he led a frugal but fulfilled life. He and my grandmother raised my mother and my aunt in a one-bedroom, rent-controlled, third-floor-walk-up apartment that they rented for 50 years. Their frugality helped fund my expensive college education.

It was to these thoughts that I turned when I heard Przemysl featuring in a news broadcast this week. Of the 700,000-and-counting Ukrainians fleeing a land suddenly turned treacherous, most, the journalist claimed, were crossing the border into Poland. Indeed, most were massing at Lviv, the western-most city on the Ukraine-Polish border, waiting to cross — from towns such as Ternopil — into Przemysl, the Polish city on the other side of that border.

Przemysl? Really?

Przemysl, Poland. 27th Feb. 2022. After crossing the border from Shehyni in Ukraine to Medyka in Poland, refugees seek clothing and blankets provided by Polish volunteers from police officers.
Many Ukrainians leave the country after military actions by Russia on Ukrainian territory.
Credit: Michael Kappeler/dpa/Alamy Live News

Was it from there that my grandfather continued trekking for another 221 hours (with stops along the way) the 1,085 additional kilometers to Hamburg, maybe hitching a ride or two from a farmer in an oxcart before he reached Berlin? And, lacking both a GPS and money, how did he find his way from there to Hamburg?

These trajectories of early 20th century challenges seemed to belong to an alien era until last week, when Vladimir Putin decided brutally to revive them.

New histories of suffering are now being forged, creating new generations of refugees, Jewish and otherwise. A world away from my comfortable American life, those emergency refugees feel like unexpectedly kindred spirits as I imagine my grandfather in the spaces that fleeing Ukrainians are now negotiating with increasing desperation.

Yes, if we are lucky, we make our lives anew. That, after all, has been the promise of America for thousands of immigrants to these shores. But even as we claim to forge selves from our own goals and grit, the ghosts of our ancestors hover around us, remind us of their histories, and both haunt and heal us, one traumatic story at a time.

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