Shitholes and DNA

Listen to this article

Can we ever quantify how many narratives and images or how much pain President Trump provoked when he asked why our nation should welcome the refuse of “shithole countries?”

I imagined my four grandparents stepping off their ships at Ellis Island around the turn of the century. They were Jews from Russia, fleeing the poverty and oppression of the pogroms and making their way, eventually, to an unlikely Yiddish outpost, the green mountains of Vermont.

My paternal grandfather Abe’s parents settled in the tundra of the state’s Northeast Kingdom, strangers among the French Canadians. He was drafted as a signalman in WWI. I believe he served in the bloody Ardennes Forest. Wherever he was stationed, I can’t forget the jagged blue scars on his back and the shrapnel still making its way to the surface in his 40s.

My maternal grandfather, Max, was conscripted into the Czar’s Army. I’ve always wondered what matter of discipline and intelligence enabled him to establish three women’s clothing shops in the short span between his arrival at the Statue of Liberty and his death from a massive stroke in the beautiful city of Burlington at age 42.

But it was my grandmother, Rose, who married Max in a 1917 arranged marriage, who cast the widest influence over our family. She arrived here in 1900 and began working in the sweatshops of New York City’s Lower East Side at age eight, moving to Burlington upon her marriage at age 18. When told after Max’s death the mortgage on their flagship shop would be scratched, she refused to leave the bank, telling the suit behind the desk she had children to put through college. He relented.

Bubby Rose found a partner to help run the Fashion Shoppe, a venerable brick, a several-story structure on the now well-known Church Street promenade. She took my mother on buying trips to New York City. While there, she visited her half-brother in Brooklyn, bearing gifts and invitations to escape the city and travel by train to visit their mishpocheh (extended family) on the shores of Lake Champlain. And she sent my mother and two sons to the University of Vermont.

My parents later moved to West Hartford, Conn. But, each summer, we traveled to Burlington. It was a long, sweaty drive on winding cow paths then before Route 91 connected Hartford with my father’s hometown of St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Traveling through dozens of small towns, I longed for the quenching taste of A&W Root Beer in frosted mugs delivered to my father’s window by cute waitresses wearing black aprons. In Burlington, we greeted my grandparents and their brood carrying bags of bagels from a West Hartford deli we traded for five-gallon tin cans of maple syrup.

In Burlington, I was immersed in stories often repeated on successive trips. My grandfather (Zaideh) proudly related how, during Prohibition, he refused a lucrative offer from the Mob to guide rumrunners through the backwoods from Canada on paths he trod to buy pelts from trappers he then traded with New York furriers. Zadeh warned me away from the dangers of gambling. He related a story about a man he knew who pissed away his family’s milk money one Christmas. Several years later, I found out his story might have been an autobiographical Hanukah tale; Zaideh was the man who didn’t know when to hold ‘em, fold ‘em, walk away or run. In Burlington, my father would tell us once again about his own grandfather, his Zaideh, Max, a rag picker, born in Russia in 1872. His eyes filled with tears as he related how he cared for the bearded man’s horse and buggy and held him as he died eating a candy apple.

Despite all these stories and my wonderment over the lives of my grandparents, I was always envious of some of my classmates in West Hartford who could take their family stories back so many years before to Ireland and Scotland, some to the Mayflower.

For some reason, I always assumed my lineage prior to my grandparents’ arrival at Ellis Island was largely unknowable.

I read about the Holocaust and marveled at the strength of the Jews who survived the camps, including some men and women in West Hartford who were branded for life with numbers on their wrists. But, even though my Aunt Eva, who married my maternal uncle, had fled the Nazis, I saw the Holocaust as the tragedy of other people’s families. I read about the Russian Revolution and the twisting fortunes of Jews in the Soviet Union. I thought, they, too, were the tales of other people’s families. I knew about the diaspora of Jews to Argentina, Brazil and South Africa, but fathomed no connection to my family.

Then I retired. Going cold turkey without steady work, I threw myself into writing a memoir for my children, a project that could keep me up at night and put me to work in the morning—just like on my former job—albeit without the train commute or my managing editor calling me in her office to ask about why a piece I was writing was taking so damned long.

Many of my retiree friends had already registered for or 23and me. But it was my 40-something son who inspired me to follow him in dispatching my spittle to A few weeks later, the company notified me they had “extremely high confidence” he was my son.

But how the hell did I end up with more than 1,000 cousins? My grandparents on both sides were Jews, not Catholics.

My first e-mail message from an Ancestry cousin came from Bob, a New Yorker about nine years older than me. His grandfather was my Bubby Rose’s brother. Bob was looking for information on his grandfather and our family’s roots and relations in Russia.

Then, several months later, Bob and I and some other cousins we dragged into our journey were rocked by a message I received from a “probable” third or fourth cousin, Yehudi, who was born in South Africa. He left his phone number. I called him.

Yehudi, now a real estate developer out West, told me his family was from the town of Bauska in Latvia, residing in the vicinity since the 1750s. In 1941, two parents in his lineage and five of their eight children were among 800 Jewish men, women and children who were marched by Nazis to the nearby forest of Likverten, told to dig their own graves and shot to death. Only three of the family’s children escaped and made their way to South Africa.

Yehudi and I threw out surnames, unsuccessful at finding matches. But, then I told him my Bubby’s maiden name, Stuhl. And Yehudi, who had visited Bauska on several occasions, related the horrific story of the town’s synagogue, built in 1845 and noted for a two-story arc, constructed by local craftsmen to preserve its Torahs (prayer scrolls). In 1941, when the Germans invaded the town, they burned the synagogue with its rabbi and his family inside. The Rabbi’s name was Stuhl!

It will take some time for our expanding cohort of cousins to find out if the Rabbi Stuhl and his family were kin. Maybe we will never know.

But how ironic it would be if Yehudi finds himself related to Rabbi Stuhl. A few years back, he generously partnered with a Jewish son of Bauska who survived Buchenwald concentration camp after it’s liberation by the U.S. Army in 1945. Together, they erected a memorial to the town’s martyrs and even purchased the land where the synagogue once stood to commemorate a once-thriving Jewish community. Yehudi is also trying to preserve the ground of the Jewish cemetery where the headstones were removed years ago for use as street pavers and cows now graze above the dead.

A Russian genealogist my cousin Bob located through JewishGen, another database, is pulling up various spellings of Stuhl (Stol, Stoll, Stul etc.) from Lithuania and the twisted, confusing national boundaries of the Pale of Settlement. Some, he says, fought in the Red Army and disappeared before WWII.

My grandparents didn’t talk to us about the old country. The pain was too great. But they didn’t flee “shitholes.” The Jews of Bauska, for example, were expelled in 1915. But they returned after WWI. They established schools and practiced medicine and worked as craftsmen and small shop owners. Latvia was their home.

Today’s immigrants here at home, men, women, and children from Haiti, Nigeria, El Salvador, Honduras and so many other nations may similarly tie their tongues about their nations of origin. But they come here with dreams and aspirations founded and nurtured in homelands distinguished by physical beauty and heroic struggles against economic and social injustice. They are not alone in their conflicted pride of place.

Today, many descendants of slaves, whose ancestors fled to the factories of the North, are returning to the South rediscovering their families’ histories of resilience and courage.

American Indians whose parents and grandparents left their reservations long ago have returned bringing skills and resources to help build prosperity and fend off corporate exploitation.

The unspoken pain of my grandparents, of immigrants, refugees and others whose ancestors faced genocide and captivity isn’t rooted in the ugliness of the cities, towns, and villages from which they came. Their anguish is born in the beauty of those places.

Someday, thanks to a cousin named Yehudi, I may visit Bauska and the nearby woods of Likverten where Jews, maybe my own ancestors, dug their own graves. I’ll solemnly look for beauty and calm and peace. And I will ponder the last thoughts of men, women, and children who were exterminated by men wearing swastikas who considered them “shithole” people, living in “shithole” places.