We are all so much deeper than we usually think we are. Not only do we change physically, and constantly, but who looks out from our eyes at any moment of our life changes.
I look out my window and the scene appears to be one I’ve seen countless times before. It is familiar, almost banal. Or I walk down a street, in the town where I have worked, shopped, visited friends, and have lived for 45 years. I see shapes and colors, hear sounds, feel the hardness of the sidewalk beneath my feet, but rarely notice my personal or our collective past in the windows, trees, and buildings of the present. I don’t see Ancient Rome in the columns of storefronts or the Holocaust in the doorknob of my home. But it’s there.
I recently started reading Elizabeth Rynecki’s book, Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter’s Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy. The book helped me see how the past exists in and frames the present. The book tells a rich story of hunting down the extensive collection of over 800 paintings and sculptures created by her great grandfather during the 1920s and 1930s in Poland, until he was murdered by Nazis in the Majdanek concentration camp. His work was sometimes stolen, certainly scattered by the war and Holocaust. The art brings alive for us a world now almost entirely destroyed, and which only a few of us can see in our minds but all of us breathe.
At one point, Rynecki’s grandfather is telling her a story from the war, and she suddenly realizes “how important, and yet ephemeral” are his stories. She listens, she hears, and then she feels how tenuous the story is. It depends on memory, which can disappear as suddenly as it appears.
And I immediately thought of my Dad, who died recently. My Dad, like Rynecki’s grandfather, was not only a beloved person, but a gateway to another world. Not only to a different time but to a different way of being, a way of being that relatives of mine had lived. Just like Rynecki, I feared forgetting his stories and thus losing the connection to this other world.
My Dad, as he neared his death, shared stories more and more often, as if he wanted us to carry his memories for him. I think he knew the power of stories to assist recall and carry life beyond death. He told us about his own grandfather, a caretaker of a forest in a Russian land so cold in winter a naked finger would freeze in moments. He told us about an aunt and uncle who blew up trains in the early part of the Russian Revolution. He told us about working in the US war department, where one of his jobs was to write instruction manuals to help soldiers use radar equipment—yet he never, ever saw or worked any such equipment himself. He just read other manuals and used his reason and imagination to write more easily understood instructions.
He told us stories about protests during the early 1930s, during the depression, to push for federal programs like Social Security. He told us about how his love for my Mom began, when they were both in high school, and which continued even after her death 71 years later.
Such stories make the world come alive for me, make the depth of my history come more alive. Even when the reality is horrific, hearing of my connection to it wakes me up, gives me a sense of power, that somehow history is not just a collection of facts and dates but a current that runs through me and all of us.
The more depths we perceive, the more sources of strength we discover. Understanding or at least knowing of our past can free us, not by glorifying or trying to resurrect it or by letting it dictate our present, but by expanding how much of what influences us we perceive. Only by perceiving and knowing what influences our way of understanding the world can we begin to act with any freedom in it. Only with such understanding can we see how each moment of our life is born out of the womb of the past but lives, as a unique creation, as the present.
Rynecki’s story, as I read it, touches my own, yet is so different. It is familiar yet unique. It is her story, yet it is, in some mysterious way, my own. Not only because I, too, am Jewish, but because I, too, am human.
*For those who celebrate Passover or Easter, I wish you a great holiday.