Monday, August 12, 2019

Family Resemblances: the Miracle of a Jewish Family's Survival

Left: a cousin I never knew I had; Right: me
It started with my eyes. When I was ten, I was watching a program about Jews in the Holocaust, and thought, "These people all have such nice eyes. They look like my father's eyes. I look like my father. I have Jewish eyes!" Suddenly, I knew I looked Jewish. 

Seconds later, it hit me like a shock wave: "Even though I know nothing about my Jewish side, even though I know nothing about Jews, the nazis wouldn't have cared. They would have come for me too."

Ever after, I knew two things: I look like my father, and I look Jewish. (I would later learn that, specifically, I look Ashkenazi Jewish, which I will explain below.) But what took me much much longer to learn is that I look exactly like everyone on my father's father's side: in other words, I look just like my great-grandfather's family. It took me so long to figure this out because, for most of my life, I thought there were only about 11 of us left, total. 

But last year, armed only with an anglicised first name, and a last name I thought had been made up at Ellis Island, I started doing my Jewish genealogy. What I found was a sprawling family torn apart and scattered around the globe by the pogroms, antisemitism, mass migration, the Holocaust, and the Soviet regime. I found a family consisting entirely of refugees, Holocaust victims and survivors, and their descendants. Ours - mine - is a story inextricably entwined with global history. Our existence and survival in - and after - horrific strife is nigh on miraculous.

When I found photos, which can be rare, I found my eyes, my body, my hair, my head tilt, even my femininity and love of style... Over and over again, I found myself. To me, this doesn't feel like the science of genetics. It feels like magic.

Me and my maternal cousins. The girl on the left (in the yellow shorts) and I are the same age, about nine. (I'm the tiny one in the red shorts.) Washington DC
I was raised by my maternal, Quaker family, many of whom settled in New York (which was still New Amsterdam) as early as 1650. I look nothing like them. 
Me, at about 10, with my maternal (non-Jewish) grandmother and her brother. Upstate New York
They were all tall, big boned, and rangy, with narrow faces, high, thin noses, and deep set, often blue eyes. Many of them had blond hair when they were young. Most of them had straight hair, and even the curly haired ones didn't have hair quite as curly as mine.

My grandmother was 5'10" and envious of the fact that I was "so petite," as she'd say, in her strong, upstate, New York accent. Compared to my cousins, I really was tiny, but I looked different in other ways too. My very pale skin led to gentle teasing: "We can always find you when we play Sardines at night because you glow in the dark." The colour of my auburn hair - copper red in some light, dark brown in other light - was cause for constant praise: "Your hair is just like a shiny penny!" When I wasn't being criticized for my curls - "How can anyone see your pretty face with all that mess in the way?" - they were a source of wonderment: "Look at that! I just push a wave into her hair when it's wet and it stays!" My feminine mannerisms and sense of style were, when not criticized for being too vain, were, very sadly and unfairly, held up as models for my girl cousins to emulate. 

In short, my appearance was exotic - in my own family. 

It wasn't horrible, but it was weird. 

Left: my father in his teens, in Forest Hills, Queens; Right: me in my teens, in Montreal, Canada
I knew that I looked like my father, but I didn't really grasp that, if I'd been allowed more contact with my paternal family, I would have known it was like to look like my own family. I would have known that sense of normalcy and belonging.

Me, about six, and a group of unknown kids on a British Columbia ferry. I'm the little one with the dark braids on the right. I was very new to Canada, and I think you can see my culture shock in my face. 
Not only did I look nothing like anyone in the family with whom I grew up, but I also looked nothing like anybody with whom I grew up. I was of a very specific, ethnic type, Ashkenazi Jewish, and there were very few Jews in British Columbia when I moved her in 1976.

I don't know if my difference in appearance contributed specifically to the severe, physically violent bullying I endured in a small, redneck town in the mountains, though I'm sure that my size, my Jewish size, did. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm white. I had and have the privilege of being white. I did not experience racism as a child. Since I was forbidden to tell anyone I was Jewish, I did not experience antisemitism either (except in my own family). In a town where even the Italian boy was bullied and shunned for being "different," I was able to "pass" for some, more "acceptable" type of white (but only just barely). 

So I'm not talking here about growing up on the butt end of prejudice. I'm just talking about growing up looking and feeling different, and not yet knowing where that difference came from.

1909, Pasusvys, Lithuania
Before we go on to talk about family resemblances, let's talk about the ethnic resemblances, and the ethnic group to which I belong: Ashkenazi Jews. First of all, Jews come in all sizes, shapes, and colours, all over the world. So I am not saying there is such a thing as "looking like a Jew." I am saying that there is such a thing as looking like an Ashkenazi Jew. 

A very recent, antisemitic cartoon that has been circulating online for about three years. It was made in the 2010s, but it bears a terrifying resemblance to nazi propaganda. 
By saying this, though, I am treading on very controversial territory. Ashkenazi Jews are not a race, but racists frequently target us as a race. Not only do they attribute all sorts of repellent physical characteristics to us, but they also attribute all sorts of repellent personality traits to us as well. They say that we are, racially, sneaky, controlling, devious, cowardly. They call us an infestation. Hitler targeted Jews as a race, one he intended to destroy through genocide. Virtually all of them were Ashkenazi Jews, including several of my own relatives.

Understandably, then, many Jews are very uncomfortable saying anything that might sound like we think of ourselves as a race. Again, that is not what I am saying. Instead, genetically, Ashkenazi Jews are an identifiable, ethnic group. This is something a DNA test can recognize, and it's advances in DNA testing that have finally led to some answers about just what our genetic story is.

Roughly 800 years ago, a relatively small group of Jews of Middle Eastern descent had children with Europeans. Virtually all of their descendants practiced endogamy, marriage within their own group, leading to a specific genetic identity, which is about 50% Middle Eastern, and about 50% European. These are the Ashkenazi Jews. And, although we can look any which way, we do tend to have certain physical resemblances to one another.

Left: my cousin, Abram, probably in Kaunas, Lithuania. Abram was murdered in the Holocaust. Right: an horrifically antisemitic, 1776, British depiction of Shakespeare's Jewish Shylock, by John Hamilton Mortimer
So, what does an Ashkenazi Jew, generally speaking, look like? Well, we do not look like the antisemitic stereotype. We do not have protruding eyes, slug-like lips, bony frames, and hunched shoulders. And we do not have hooked noses!

Yet these poisonous stereotypes persist, perhaps even in your own mind. How do I know? I know because of how often non-Jews confidently inform me that I do not look like a Jew. Why are they so sure of this? Because I do not look like their antisemitic stereotype of what a Jew looks like. My hair is too red, my skin too pale, my eyes too clear ... and my nose too small. 

More than once, I have been told that I don't have a Jewish nose. I've even been told, verbatim, "You're lucky you didn't get a Jewish nose."

If you ever fell inclined to tell a Jew she doesn't look like a Jew, or, worse, tell her so as a compliment, stop! You are being antisemitic.

Okay, so what similarities in appearance do Ashkenazi Jews tend to actually have? We often have dark eyes, brows. We're seldom born blond. Our dark hair, which is often wavy or curly, tends to range from red (usually more coppery than gingery) to almost black. Our faces might be a bit broader than some other Europeans. We're not often very tall, though we may be quite powerfully built for our size. Many of us are mistaken for Italian, though, with my colouring, I'm more often mistaken for Irish.

And our noses? They're just ... noses.

I have one cousin (I have so many!) who is sure that these ethnic traits account for all the "family resemblances" I've found in my more distantly related family. I get it, and he might be right ...

Left: me, at 14, in Vancouver, Canada; Right: a long-lost cousin's yearbook photo, early 1920s, Denver, Colorado
... but when you find family resemblances like this? Come on! I cannot see this as just an ethnic similarity! 

My father as a teen, about 1950, in Forest Hills, Queens
I got my nose from my father.

It's a fine, unremarkable nose.

My very stylish, paternal grandparents, probably in the Catskills in upstate New York
... that goes back at least as far as my grandfather, my father's father. His brother had the same nose, as did both his sons, as does my first cousin, as do I. Clearly then, since we're all Ashkenazi Jews, it's a Jewish nose, no matter what non-Jews keep telling me. 

Me, about six, 1976, in Vancouver, Canada
My colouring is another thing that leads non-Jews to assure me (to goysplain?) that I don't look Jewish. My skin is very pale, and my hair is auburn: penny red in some light, and dark brown in other light.

My father, probably in San Francisco, California
I got my red hair from my father, but neither of knew where it came from. I believed the stereotype that Ashkenazi hair is always much darker. I was wrong. I've since learned that, after the Irish and the Scottish, Ashekanzi Jews are the third most likely ethnic group to have red hair! Who knew?

Because older photographs are in black and white, I can't know what colour my ancestors' hair was, but I've found several living, auburn/red-heads in my family tree. I haven't yet been able to get permission to share any of their photos, so you'll have to trust me on this one for now. (I may have to do a Part II for this story, as I find more and more long-lost family.)

Unlike my father, many of the other auburn/redheads in my family have very pale skin, like I do. I'd always believed that Ashkenazi Jews, though white, have darker complexions than my own. I therefore made up a story about myself that I thought was true: though no-one in my maternal line is as pale as I am, my father's red hair, combined with my maternal, WASP genes, led to my pale complexion. I thought this was science. It was not. As with virtually everything else about my appearance, my pale skin comes from my paternal line. 

But, really, it's all about the eyes! In photo after photo, as far back as I can go in my family ...

... I find the same eyes: broadly set, dark, turned down at the outer corners ...

... with cute "bags" underneath them ...

About 1934, probably New Jersey, USA
... even when we're still children.

I'm related to the woman on the left, but not her mother on the right.
Personally, I think they're beautiful, kind, friendly eyes.

These were the eyes I was so happy to discover I had when I was ten ...

... and they show up over and over and over again in my family ...

... even when we're quite distantly related ...

... even when we're not so obviously related in other ways, as with this cousin ...

... and this one.

Me on the right
Heck, many of us even have the same, slightly uneven eyebrows: one straight, one slightly cocked, giving us an ironic look, even when it's not intentional.

Probably Kibart, Lithuania
Our eyes mellow beautifully.

At ten, I already knew that these eyes would get more ... not exactly beautiful, but expressive and soulful, as I got older and I was excited to see what they would look like ...

... in middle age. Better. I honestly think they look better with age. 

A newfound cousin just sent me this photo a few months ago. I was so excited! It's the only photo I have ever seen of my great-grandfather, Isadore. I can't see his eyes well in it, but I can see one common family trait: He's short! He was 5'2", as were most of the men in my family at this time. (I know this from reading their military and draft records.) Family whose parents and grandparents migrated to America, and had better diets, better living conditions, and better medical care, did get taller, but they didn't get tall. 

Me and my father, about 1993.
My father, who was born and raised in financial comfort in Queens, New York, was 5'6", or so he said. I'm 5'4". He may or may not be a full two inches taller than me. 

Actually, looking at this photo of me and my father, you can see that there is one thing that shows the genetic influence of my WASP family: my size. My non-Jewish family thought of me as tiny, and I am indeed smaller than the average, "goy" population, but I am a little taller, and a little bit bigger boned than many of the women on the Jewish side of the family. 

Left: me; Right: my first cousin. 1999, Long Island, New York

If my maternal family were also Ashkenazi Jewish like my cousin, I think I'd be shorter, and a bit smaller too. For example, this is me and my first cousin. Both of her parents are Ashkenazi Jews. She and I look like we're the same height, but note that she's wearing platform shoes and standing on a stair. In fact, I kind of tower over her. I remember her once looking up and me and saying, "You're not short!" In my maternal family, I was, but it's all about perspective, isn't it?

I'm not sure how many people in my family also have or had a sway back, but most of my immediate family does. Even when we're in fantastic shape, it gives us a puffy-looking belly.

Me, at about four, in Massachusetts 
This sway back can give people problems with their backs but, as far as I know, I'm the only one who's suffered from it: my abusers injured my back when I was a child, and my sway back made that injury worse.

My grandfather on the right. His brother on the left.
Though my family tends to be shortish, we also tend to be pretty muscular, even when we don't exercise. (The last time I saw my father, he was well into his 70s, and all my friends commented on how muscular he was.)

No, neither of these men are the same as the men in the photo above them.
When we do exercise, watch out! I don't know about my cousin here, but when I was a gym bunny, I had to be careful not to get too muscular!

Me, at about 26
Even when we're in great shape, the women in my family have tended toward an hour glass shape...

If I'm doing my genealogy right, these three are each other's first cousins. They're all in Lithuania, though the woman in the middle was visiting from America.
... which will generously expand when given the chance, whether that chance be age ...
Circa 1900, Lithuania
... frequent child bearing ...

... disability, or all three. Disability hit me hard when I was 37 and I immediately began to gain weight. I've felt a lot of shame around that, but seeing all these old, family photos, of curvy ancestors in middle and old age, well, genetics are genetics, after all! I hope some of my current relatives see this and accept their bodies for what they are too.

I haven't gone around poking my relatives in the gut, but, if the other women in my family are like me, their bellies may be round, but they are firm. I'm assuming that goes with being muscular by nature.

For someone who's nearly 50, and has barely been able to walk, let alone work-out for over a decade, my genes have kept me amazingly solid. There is very little squish anywhere on my body, and my use of mobility aids has led my muscularity to show up in pretty amazing pipes, if I do say so myself. 

Moving on, let's have a little chat about the family hair! Personally, I love my hair, but that's not to say that my hair and I don't do battle with each other on a pretty regular basis.

Top left, about 1910. I don't yet know his fate in the Holocaust. Top centre and middle: Both these beautiful young men were murdered in the Holocaust. Bottom left and centre: Descendants of refugees from the pogroms. Bottom right: grandson of a Holocaust survivor.
These photos all together are my favourite part of this post. I can't help but laugh when I see generation after generation of men in my family struggle to tame what is, let's be honest, extremely wilful hair. I picture them slathering their waves and curls with various creams, pomades, mousses, and gels, carefully combing it back as straight as they can, carefully letting go ... and watching it bound back up and declare itself unconquered. 

While we're here, let's get a closer look at the family resemblance between my father in about 1950, on the bottom, and his distant cousin in 1909. This kind of thing gives me shivers.

And we really should take another look at my cousin's hair in the 1970s. Yes, he did give me his permission to use this photo, and yes, his resemblance to Dustin Hoffman has been mentioned once or a 1,000 times in his life ...

... so often, in fact, that he and his wife decided to do this spoof on Ben Braddock and Mrs. Robinson in the Dustin Hoffman movie, The Graduate. (Yes, Dustin Hoffman is an Ashkenazi Jew.)

But back to the hair. In the last few generations, some men in the family have let their hair go wild, as it so badly wants to do.

Left to right: my father, me, my cousin, my aunt (by marriage), and my uncle, in Massachusetts, 1973
Check out my father and me, with our matching Jewfros in 1973. Personally, I'm all for the Jewfro ...

Me, at 17
... but I can see why some people might find it challenging.

Circa 1900, I think, possibly St. Petersburg, Russia
Just like the men, the women in my family have also tried many ways to manage the family hair. The creation of this fashionable updo probably required a professional (which this particular branch of the family could afford), but, even so, you can see her trying to set itself free on the sides and in the fringe.

(A quick note: To this day, very religiously conservative, married, Jewish women are required to wear headscarves or wigs. So far, I have found no evidence of any women in this part of my family doing so.)

Early 1920s, Denver, Colorado
This equally fashionable hairstyle is a impressive and clever, showing off some of her hair's body, but controlling it with a very thick braid wound over each ear. Still, check out the escaped curl on her forehead, in the very same place where my most stubborn curl always escapes too!

I'm related to the two on the left. Mid 1920s, Alabama, USA
As soon as they were socially acceptable, a lot of the women in my family seem to have taken to bobs ...

Early 1960s
... of various sorts.

The mother here married my cousin, so I'm related to the girls. The two little girls on the left were murdered by nazi collaborators in the Holocaust. Roza, on the right, survived. To read their story, click here. About 1937, Kibart, Lithuania
They seem to have been popular with mothers of girls everywhere, including in Lithuania. I imagine they were easier to maintain than long hair ...

Me, about nine or ten
... even when it was in braids. Normally, when it was school photo day, I was instructed not to play at all until after our photos were taken. On this day, I forgot.

I'm 17 here. I think Roza is too.
Of course, some of us just say, "Fashion be damned," and throw them into braids when we're older too. It can be cute, actually.

I'm related to the second, third, fourth, and sixth person in this photo: they're siblings of one another. I think I look most like the woman on the left, in the fetching, powder blue, plaid, polyester blazer. Circa mid-1970s, Alabama, USA.
But others opt for full-on, professional, and chemical domination, as with this stylin' set here, in about 1975. This is the family branch that ended up in Alabama, and I do believe they took kindly to the southern aesthetic. 

Probably Santa Fe, New Mexico
Honestly, I do prefer a more natural look.

Personally, I just find it more becoming. 

Me at about 23
I think the family hair looks great super long, when we're young, and it's still super thick. It does tend to add some weight to the curls and make them more manageable ...

Me, at 25, Long Island, New York
... except when it totally doesn't, like in the summer humidity of New York City.

But I totally get why so many women in my family opted and continue to opt for bobs ...

... especially as we get older. I don't know about others, but I find that my hair is no longer as thick as it once was, and, when I let my hair grow, my curls are no longer as even and uniform. Besides, I think a bob is kind of classy and mature ...

... although, let's be honest, most of the time it still does whatever the hell it wants to do.

Probably early 1920s, Alabama, USA
All this talk of hairstyles brings me to my next point, which is not exactly about family resemblances, so much as how we've chosen to present ourselves over the years. My family was tres stylish, darlings!
Me, about four. I think I'm in southern California
All my life, I've loved style. I can remember my favourite dresses from when I was three and four years old. This was one of them.

Now I finally know where I got my love of fashion from! It's a trait no-one in my immediate family admired or even respected.

My grandparents, dressed to the nines, circa 1960, probably in the Catskills, New York
I'm told that my grandmother was a difficult woman, and I believe it. But I wonder: In describing her as "vain, and materialistic," was my father judging her love of style? Certainly, he often described me in the same terms, and I know that I am neither, whatever my other faults may be.

And guess what? My grandfather owned and ran two very successful men's clothing stores! It's true that many in my family worked as tailors and seamstresses, more out of necessity than out of interest, but there were some who clearly did love it, and I'm learning that my grandfather was one of them.

My grandmother's older brother, who died in the 1918 Influenza Outbreak
I have certainly found some fashion lovers on my grandmother's side of the family. Check out her dapper brother, here ...

I'm related to all three youngsters here. Yes, the ample curves run on both sides of my family. Circa early 1910s, probably Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 
... or her cousin, a brand new refugee, poor as dirt, and illiterate, but doing her very best Gibson Girl look here on the left ...

1924. The man on the right, (the very handsome chap you saw earlier in the post) was murdered in the Holocaust. His sister, on the left, migrated out of the country in time to survive. Kaunas, Lithuania
... but it's my grandfather's side that seems to have been more consistently stylish. Just look at these two! Look at that purse!

You can see in their clothing that this particular branch of my grandfather's family were much more financially comfortable than the other branches, or than most Jews in Lithuania at the time. In the mid 1800s, three brothers got into the photography business, and did so well, some in the family became official photographers to the Tsar! As a result, I do have more photos of this branch than of other branches, and that is reflected in this post, but I have tried to keep things balanced as I can. Certainly, even the poor in my family seemed to have cared about fashion.

About 1900. Kibart, Lithuania
Having grown up in a family where my femininity was considered odd, I love to see how feminine the women in my paternal family were!

Left: me in my early 30s. Right: my cousin in the front, early 1920s, Alabama
I don't feel like a freak anymore (at least not in that way). And, my passion for vintage fashion has made me feel even more connected to my ancestors: By looking at their fabulous outfits, I can tell when each photos was taken ... 

Right: probably early 1960s; Left, me in my authentic, housedress, circa 1960. Note the similarity in the shoes!
... and the chances are ...

Left: early to mid 1970s; Right: me, going Mod
... that I've worn something similar in my own life.

Why not? 

Left: me; Right: late 1930s, Lithuania. This cousin survived the Holocaust
Even as persecuted and displaced persons ...

Left: late 1930s, Argentina. Right: Me. In the early 1920s, America clamped down on Jewish immigration, saying that we were racially inferior. It was around this time that this family branch of refugees, went to Argentina.
... that forced them into strange, new lands ...

Left: me. Right: a cousin in Argentina, probably late 1930s
... style remained a constant.

It didn't stop in old age.

Left: me; Right, my cousin, Roza, in the centre, on her wedding day, summer 1945 or early 1946. All three here were refugees, "displaced persons" in Italy, where thousands of Jews who had survived the Holocaust were hoping for passage to America or Israel.
Nor did it stop in extreme strife and poverty. Lice-ridden, malnourished, and underweight, deep in Russia, on the run from the nazis, Roza revived her very soul... by taking care of her appearance once more.

Left, my cousin, Roza, in her Red Army uniform. Centre, an orphan her father had taken in. Right: Her father's girlfriend. Lithuania, late 1944, or early 1945
Here she is, in the Red Army, the war still on, wearing her hair in the latest, 1940s fashion. (Note that her father's girlfriend, and the young orphan whom they took in, still wear their hair in 1930s styles). I find that amazing.

Centre: My cousin, Dov. Far right: Roza! Circa 1980, Israel
A quick update on Roza, since some of you already know a lot about her. I am happy to say that she did find at least some surviving family in Israel. Here she is, decades after the war, with her cousin, Dov, his wife (also a Holocaust survivor), and an unknown woman. (Fun fact: Roza's father, who also survived, helped bring Dov and his wife together.) And, check it out: Roza is wearing the latest in fashionable eyewear!

Honestly, I cannot tell you how much putting this post together has moved me. For one thing, it gives my vintage/retro style a whole new meaning. Now, it doesn't just connect me to women's history, it connects me to my family's history - which is my history.

That history lives on in my eyes, in my curls, in my curves - in my body

Despite it all, like a miracle, our genes live on, in my body, and in the bodies of all the living relatives I have found.

We're still here! We did it. It's one hell of a victory.

1 comment:

  1. Incredible! Amazing seeing your face in the faces of your ancestors. Thank you for sharing.