Like my father, my mother’s parents, Samuel and Sara Schwartz, immigrated to the United States to escape religious persecution. They arrived in 1905, fleeing Jewish pogroms in Ukraine, which was then part of the Russian Empire. They came from Rzhyshchiv, a town on the Dnieper River southeast of Kiev, where Sam was the captain of a riverboat that carried grain down to the Black Sea. (Ukraine was then, and remains today, one of the world’s largest grain exporters.)
In 1996, during a three-week trip to Russia and Ukraine, I made an excursion to Rzhyshchiv. Nearly a century had passed since my grandparents lived there, so I had little hope of finding any remnants of their past, but I was curious to see where they had come from. Although the town is only about 40 miles from Kiev, the bus ride over narrow, bumpy roads seemed to take forever. I arrived in early afternoon to find a town that looked like a scene out of Fiddler on the Roof. Rutted dirt roads were lined with ramshackle wood houses languishing behind rickety picket fences. The place seemed deserted except for a few children skipping through puddles and chickens strutting and clucking in the yards.
The few people I came across looked at me as if I had dropped out of the sky. I tried to communicate, but given that I didn’t speak a word of Ukrainian or Russian and none of the people I approached spoke more than a few words of English, my efforts were almost comical in their futility. I did manage to learn that most of the town’s records had been destroyed — either in a flood or a fire, I don’t remember which — dashing my hopes of finding any official documents about my family.
The most memorable event during my visit to Ukraine occurred not in Rzhyshchiv but in Kiev, where I was arrested for taking photographs outside a military installation. I was hustled into a patrol car, driven to a police station, and ordered to turn over my film. I dutifully rewound the film and opened my camera, but when the officers were looking the other way I slipped the exposed roll into my pocket and handed them an unused one. Fortunately they let me go before the switch was discovered. I must have been watching too many James Bond movies.
Sam and Sara settled in Stamford, on the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound, 40 miles northeast of New York City. A few years later they moved to Hartford, the state capital, where they lived briefly before putting down roots in New Haven.
They had four children, born about four years apart. The eldest, Abraham, or Abe, was born in Rzhyshchiv in 1903 and was an infant when my grandparents emigrated. Next came Hannah, whom everyone called Nan, and then Max, both of whom were born in Stamford. My mother, Gertrude, the baby of the family, was born in 1915 in New Haven Hospital (the same hospital where my brother, Richard, and I and George W. Bush entered the world).
Sam founded a small company called The Connecticut Waist & Dress Co. on George Street in downtown New Haven. His business card read: “Manufacturers of Ladies’ Sportswear.” In the 1920 Census he identified his occupation as manufacturer of “shirt waists,” the term then in vogue for ladies’ button-down blouses.
The business must have done reasonably well because in 1919 he purchased a three-family house on Willow Street, a few blocks from East Rock Park, in a neighborhood of stout wood-frame houses and graceful elms. According to the deed, the purchase price was $6,500.
The family’s fortunes took a dark turn when Abe contracted meningitis, an infection of the membranes covering the spinal cord and brain, a condition that was almost always fatal in those days. The disease left him bedridden much of the time, resulting in painful bedsores, and forced him to use crutches or a wheelchair to get around.
Abe was said to be very bright and loved to read. Imprisoned by his enfeebled body, he turned to books to explore the world beyond the four walls of his room. His disability apparently fueled feelings of frustration and resentment toward his able-bodied siblings. According to Nan’s daughter, Jean, he was especially hard on his eldest sister, insisting that she make frequent trips to the public library to satisfy his voracious appetite for new reading material. On one occasion, when one of the books Nan brought home didn’t meet Abe’s approval, he lost his temper and threw the offending volume at his hapless sister.
Abe was only 19 when he died in 1922. His death had a profound impact on the family. My grandmother forbade the children to play any music in the house for a year. She hung a large portrait of her first-born child above her bed, where it remained until her death nearly 40 years later. Abe’s crutches and other personal effects were tucked away in a locked hallway closet, Sara’s secret memorial to her son.
Sara made sure that Nan, Max, and Gert never forgot their eldest brother. Survivors’ guilt, common among Holocaust survivors like my father, was instilled in my mother’s side of the family as well. Mom was only seven when Abe died, but his illness and premature demise left lasting scars. Although I was born nearly 30 years after my uncle’s death, I don’t recall my mother even mentioning his name until I was eight or nine years old.