The last generation fought, but the new one has found each other
By Jeanette Katzir
NEW YORK — In 1960, he was 5 and I was 6. That was the last time I saw my cousin Paul . . . until this past week.
Some people are blessed with large extended families. Holiday tables spill out into other rooms with an almost endless line up of chairs and a bounty of dishes. There are grandparents, uncles, aunts, and lots and lots of cousins. For our family, the table was small. My mother and her brother, my uncle, were the only two members of their entire family to live through the Holocaust. With gold hidden in the heels of their shoes, they boarded a ship and made their way to New York City.
My memories of a 1959 Brooklyn are filled with snowmen I built with my brother David, the swing sets of Milestone Park in Bensonhurst, and subway rides to everywhere. There are also images of a forest-covered Woodridge in upstate New York and the Ferris wheel in Coney Island. I can remember the delicious flavors of potato knishes that I shared with my cousin Paul and how my mother would talk in Yiddish to my uncle Isaac.
My mother had a falling out with her only brother, and my father suggested we go to the west coast, where the sun always shined and snow never fell. We moved away from New York, leaving behind the only extended family we had.
I don’t remember our parting scene at the New York airport, but I do remember the family’s final trip to Coney Island. It was May, and the salty smell of the ocean drifted up through the planks of the boardwalk. My older brother, my cousin, and I feasted on thin crust pizza and potato knishes, promising to write, and write often.
My family moved into a rental home in Boyle Heights, California, and we tried to get used to the never-ending sunshine. As promised, I wrote Paul every week. “When are you coming to visit?” I drew a small heart in the lower corner of the envelope and waited for his response.
Weeks turned into months, which turned into years, and then we just stopped writing. I never did go back to New York, and he never came to Los Angeles. I got married and had children, and he got married and had children.
Whenever I’d ask Mom for their address, she’d always conveniently forget to give to me. She felt it was best to keep the two families separate and even refused to tell my father where they were. Mom had a strict code of loyalty, and her brother had breached that code.
In 2004 she died, and with her died the contact information for our family on the East coast.
This past year, I have been contacted through Facebook by some old friends, with whom I’d lost touch. Out of the blue an email would appear, and a friendship that had been allowed to silently fade away would be rekindled.
If Facebook could lead people to me, then why not use it to find my cousin? The last I had heard, he still lived in upstate New York. His name wouldn’t have changed, so I did a search. There were five persons with his name. But when I added the state, the choices dwindled to three. I posted an open letter to those Facebook accounts, telling them who I was and asking if he was the son of my uncle.
The first days . . . nothing. Then, I got an instant message. “Call me now.”
Contact had been made. Paul and I spoke for about an hour, trying to catch up and reason why we had lost touch. Speaking with him felt good. It felt easy. It felt natural. Listening to him made me smile—his accent reminded me of Al Pacino—and I wondered what I sounded like to him.
I probably spend too much time on the Internet, but the world is now at my fingertips, and every so often . . . something really good happens.
“We’re arriving September 9th, do you think you can pick us up from the airport?” I asked Paul.
“My brother and I will be waiting for you.”
I was anxious as I stepped off the plane. What if Paul and his younger brother Berni, held us responsible for our parent’s actions? What if time had separated us so much that we wouldn’t be able to bridge the gap? What if we couldn’t go home again?
We saw each other through the glass. “There they are!” we all said simultaneously. A moment later, we were together again, and it was all good.
We spoke about our mother (their aunt) and how she died 6 years ago. Then we spoke about their father (our uncle) who died years earlier. I brought a DVD with all the old family photographs I had. How young we all were once. How handsome our uncle was and how beautiful Mom looked back in the day. “You look just like your mother,” Berni told me.
Paul rummaged through his parent’s things and pulled out black and white pictures of our family. There were more snippets our past, more pieces of our family heritage puzzle to see. I could see both my sisters in my mother’s photo, and the cousins remarked how handsome Dad was.
Three days later, we left the serene beauty of Woodridge and journeyed to Manhattan, where the lights were blinding and the crowds unending. And even though it was raining, it did not deter four cousins from this journey back through time and into the future. We had dinner in one of those old delis, and over corn beef, tongue, and egg salad sandwiches, which could feed a small tribe, we talked even more.
We visited our childhood home in Bensonhurst. My brother was even able to locate the exact apartment. We walked up to our old front door, but didn’t knock. Memories quickly came back. I could see all of us walking down the street next to the wrought iron fencing and playing in the park near our old brownstone. I remember playing on the teeter-totter and sliding down the ever-so-tall slide.
Coney Island was another must see. I remember eating knishes with my cousin while my brother went on the steeplechase ride. The ride is no longer there, but the memories of that park and being with Paul and Berni made me smile.
As the trip started to wind down, a sadness about our upcoming parting quieted the air. We had just reconnected, just retold some of our stories and heard others; we weren’t ready for the trip to end, but it was time to go back home.
“Come for Passover,” I said over and over again. “Hurry, Dad really wants to see you.”
This trip, our cousins and NYC were better than what we could have hoped for. Once again, thousands of miles would separate us, but we will keep in touch by phone and post photos on Facebook. And hopefully they will come out west for Passover and share matzo ball soup and gefilte fish with the entire family.
Katzir is author of Broken Birds, The Story of My Momila