Part II: Family Background
For the record, all the names except mine (and that might not even be my actual name, you don’t know that it is or isn’t) have been changed. Mostly, because my memory isn’t the best, but even when I do vividly remember a name, it will be changed.
My mother was an Italian Jew, born and raised in northeastern Italy. It would be almost 2 decades before I knew that she was a Jew. My father’s side of the family, also Jewish, hailed from Eastern Europe, from Poland and Bohemia. My father was the first American born child in his family, who emigrated to the US in the early 30’s. The town of Plasnica Wielka basically consisted of one side of my paternal family.
Google it. Those were my blood relatives. I know this, because there was a picture of them on my grandmother’s piano. I was not told about that picture for many years, but when grandma decided I was old enough, she recited the story, as if by rote, eyes closed, tears running down her face, her choppy English laced with Polish when she couldn’t find the right English words. She told me that grandpa had become an atheist when he heard the news, because as he said, no god would sit silently and allow its creations to do this thing of horror, therefore, there was no case for god to exist.
Grandma said that she hastily converted to the christian faith, in fear that the Holocaust would come to America too, if we lost the war. She said she didn’t find a lot of comfort in it, but it was something for her to cling to, in the foreign country she called home now.
Still, no one told me I was Jewish. Grandpa and my dad were atheists, and my paternal grandma had converted to Catholicism (or so I thought) in the early 40’s. By this time, I knew that your mother had to be Jewish for you to claim to be Jewish, and I knew my mom to be a Catholic.
Except, she wasn’t.
In the 1930’s, her hometown was about to be overrun by the Axis forces. Her own country joined with the nazis, much to most everyone’s horror. She was a young child at the time. Trying to save them, her hometown mayor herded all of its Jewish residents into the big square, and a priest ‘formally’ converted them all to the predominant Catholic faith.
Only, it was just about 2 years too late, according to the nazis and their Nuremberg laws.
She never really talked much about this time of her life, and other than some faded photographs of a sea of ragged, unsmiling children in various large rooms in various countries around Europe, there is no real record of where she was spirited away to, trying to escape certain death.
In the 50’s, she emigrated to the United States, and a few years later, married my father, the atheist. Had 4 kids, 1 of which she gave up for adoption at birth, 1 of which she rejected shortly after birth and sent to be raised by her mother, who had since left Italy and her abusive husband for America. Leaving just me and my little brother. Both of whom she tried to raise as good Catholics. Only one would submit to the indoctrination. The other is writing this story.
Going through old records for this story, I corrected some things I wasn’t always really sure of. I always thought my dad’s mother had converted to Catholicism, but I have a record of her being baptized into the Lutheran Faith in the 1940’s. I also discovered that my maternal grandmother never actually divorced her husband in Italy, but also never actually married my ‘Uncle’ Sam, whom she lived with until her death. I found out that Sam was a Jew, and that his headstone at Arlington has the Star of David graven on it, while hers, right next to him, does not. It bears no religious symbol.
Everyone carries some secrets to the grave.
It could be that, after all she had been through, just as my paternal grandfather, she had decided there was no god. Yet, when I was nearing 20, she and I had a long conversation, in English and Italian, where she told me the gist of things.
I was Jewish. And, in an odd way, things seemed to now make more sense to me.