Only one good thing came out of my bout with bacterial meningitis at age thirty-one: an interest in genealogy. Coming that close to death, as the nurse assured me I had, made me yearn to connect to something higher and greater. With hands encumbered by an IV hook-up and hospital tape, I wanted to reach out and touch the past.
A fellow at work tutored me for a few weeks on the first steps on this journey. I learned there was a North Jersey Jewish Genealogical Society at the YMHA in Wayne. My husband thought I was nuts to want to research my roots, but my father supported me. When I asked, he told me his mother’s maiden name was Zuckerkandel, which translates to rock candy. It’s an old candy, evidently used to treat different illnesses back in the day. Dissolve sugar in boiling water. Stick the liquid in a jar. Dip a weighted string into the solution and let it dry for a week. The strands then crystallize into the hard candy, strands that resemble the roots I wanted to uncover. Although my grandmother, Eva Zuckerkandel Krasner, had died six years before I was born, I had the feeling she had been like rock candy herself—strong and solid. An ironic name, though, for someone who died from diabetes.
“I’ll drive you,” my father said when I mentioned attending the monthly meeting. “I don’t want you to drive in the dark.” He finished his steak and potato and I finished the dinner my mother had made for me. It was such a relief to be here, home, because 36 Clinton Avenue in Kearny, New Jersey, would always be my home, even if I lived now forty-five minutes away. In Kearny, for just a few hours I could escape from the eggshell ego of a lazy, abusive man and the cries of a needy sixteen-month-old.
Trained as I was—as all my father’s daughters were—to carry out my father’s commands, I flitted about the kitchen.
“Get me the salad dressing.”
“Make me a soda.”
That order required three ice cubes, a paper cup, and a can of diet soda from the playroom. Although he was retired now, my father been working since the age of six. Getting him a soda was the least we could do.
We got into his Cadillac, the vehicle my mother insisted he buy because she liked the leather seats, and he drove. It was a Thursday night in June. My father knew exactly where the Wayne Y was, although he couldn’t read a map to save his life (and he’d failed navigation in the U.S. Army Air Corps cadet school). He’d been driving all over New Jersey, driving his parents and then my mother, probably for more than fifty years.
We entered the building, found the room, and took seats on the folding wooden chairs. The guest speaker demonstrated how she used graph paper to draw her family trees. This was not any old graph paper; this was wall-chart sized paper. I was intrigued with the concept. I’d been doodling my roots at work, mapping out what I knew and jotting down what I still wanted to know. Every piece of documentation raised more questions.
My father, I observed, paid little attention to the guest speaker. Instead, he spotted a young woman who caught his fancy. Her name was Susan, an eligible bachelorette teacher from Irvington. She had an easy smile and a quick wit. My father chatted her up, his hazel eyes twinkling. He was laughing. No. More than that. He was flirting.
He was always on the lookout, much to his daughters’ dismay. This was, I guess, his male ego version of buying a sports car.
“I’m going to tell Mommy,” I said.
“I’m just enjoying myself.”
I also met two Judys and a woman named Evan, who was the president of the society. I was most attracted to a bound copy of Gary Mokotoff’s Family Finder computer printout. I could look up a surname, find other people researching it, and even look up ancestral towns and identify other people researching it. I fantasized about taking the printout home for my very own.
It was the first time since Hebrew School I’d been with a group of all Jews. And they were all interested in researching their families. They spoke of ancestral villages in Russia, Poland and Ukraine as well as birth and marriage dates, searching for certificates. We all longed, I supposed, to connect to something higher, something bigger than ourselves. The North Jersey Jewish Genealogical Society was one chapter of a much larger organization, with the Manhattan-based Jewish Genealogical Society as the central group. I sat now among intellectual equals who shared a common goal. The idea that Jewish genealogy was organized in some fashion also meant that I wasn’t crazy to want to find my roots, despite what my Soviet immigrant husband said.
My father and I religiously attended the Thursday night meetings. One night, as he drove us back to Kearny, I said, “Guess what? I found out we’re related to Tierhaus and Teich.”
He said, “Yeah, I knew that. I had to make out envelopes for my mother with those names, her letters to Kozlov.”
I could ask him all the questions I wanted, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t reply. When I gave him information, then he’d comment. “Those were probably to your aunts,” I said. “Rivka Tierhaus. Ruchel Teich. Chana Teich.” Kozlov, an Austro-Hungarian shtetl in my grandmother’s time and Ukrainian after World War I, had about 200 Jewish families, necessitating many intermarriages between the same families. All gone now, killed. How did my grandmother respond to the news, the loss of her own siblings and their families? She’d been the eldest and the only one to leave Kozlov before the war, before Hitler’s rise to power, before the Anschluss.
The car veered into another lane. My father really shouldn’t be driving at night, and yet he’d been worried about me.
I came back into the house to use the bathroom. I decided not to tell my mother about Susan. Let this be my father’s little secret. It was harmless and Susan married soon after. Besides, my savvy, practical mother knew the score and now, none of us knew how much time he had left.
Thankfully, it was daylight when my father drove me to the Secaucus Park and Ride bus station. Here we boarded New Jersey Transit to New York City’s Port Authority, a short ride, twenty minutes at most, depending on traffic.
“You didn’t have to come,” I said.
“I wanted to.” He brought with him that reddish-orange leather briefcase, the one he always brought with him to New York and to stamp shows, the one that made him look official despite his plaid button-down shirt, jeans, and navy “Quality Choice” cap someone had given him as a promotional item. A worn leather glasses case peeked out of his chest pocket along with the bus schedule and handwritten scratchings on note paper branded with the name of some pharmaceutical’s flagship medication.
If the day had been a Sunday, he would have driven clear into the city, downtown to the corner of 12th and University and the Strand Bookstore. He even had his own buyer, Eddie, to get him books about the publishing and wine industries, although my father barely took a sip even at Passover.
I wished today were Sunday, because taking a bus proved too hard on my father. He couldn’t catch his breath after climbing its few stairs and he could barely move down the center aisle. He squeezed into the seat between the armrests and stowed his briefcase at his feet. The day had the feel of a class trip, only I didn’t know who was chaperoning whom. I was now thirty-four, the same age he had been when he lost his mother.
I took the day off from work with a list of New York Public Library research goals. We arrived at the library and my father made himself comfortable in the reading room—he loved reading newspapers from other parts of the country and the world. He loved New York and told me once he would have liked to live in SoHo or Chelsea. His fate, though, was to own and run a chain of supermarkets, following his parents’ general store where his father operated the grocery and his mother ran dry goods.
“I’ll come back in two hours, okay?” I said. I wanted enough time to do my work yet wanted to make sure my father wouldn’t get bored. “I’m going to check out Louis Seiler. Are you sure you don’t know how he’s connected to us?”
He shook his head. “I only knew to buy furniture from him. He’d give it to us wholesale, my mother said. We got our first bedroom set from him, Mommy and I.” He set the briefcase on the reading table and opened it to reveal the day’s New York Times. He checked his watch. “Right-o, see you in two hours.” He shooed me away.
I ventured off to request microfilms of Manhattan city directories, for which I had to fill out white slips, sequestered myself at a film reader, and waited for film delivery. Finally, they arrived. As I threaded the celluloid into the machine and forwarded to the directory, my heart pumped extra hard as I headed toward a moment of discovery. Questions swarmed my mind: Who was Seiler? An uncle? A cousin maybe a generation removed? I found Louis Seiler easily enough in the directories, and as my father had told me, he’d been a furniture merchant. But there was no more information than that. I still didn’t know his relationship to my family, except the hearsay about some connection to Eva.
I later learned that Seiler was Eva’s Aunt Jenny’s brother-in-law, not merely a landsman, another immigrant from Kozlov. He had arrived twenty-three years earlier. Keeping contact with landsmen, people from Kozlov, must have been important to my grandmother. Had Eva belonged to the Kozlov landsmannschaft, the American society of people from her town? I knew there was one in New York and I’d driven to Queens to take photos of headstones in the sections purchased by the organization’s burial society. Just as my father said when I moved to Somerset, “Make sure you look up Al and Hildy Gross,” people he knew from the supermarket business, one of Eva’s parents must have told her to look up Louis Seiler. He belonged to her parents’ generation.
I returned to my father in the library at our appointed time. He shuffled and I bounced back to Port Authority. I told my father about my research finds as easily as if he had been researching, too. We stopped at an intersection and his right arm shot out in front of me like the rail beneath the hood of a school bus when it stops. Then he took my hand in his to prevent me from stepping out onto the street.
“Pop,” I said, “I’m old enough to cross the street.”
“You’ll always be a baby to me. My baby.” He teared up, a common occurrence when it came to family. When he sighted his grandkids, he’d practically sob. My hand felt small in his. Neither he nor my mother ever said, “I love you.” But I knew love by the touch of the hand, by the words, “We can cross now,” choked in his throat. I didn’t let go even when we reached the other side.
Hands did the work. Hands parented. Hands policed. Hands comforted.
Holding my father’s hand in mine now joined our generations and those before and after us.
How many times had Eva taken him from their home in the borough of North Arlington to the city and held his hand crossing Delancey or Essex Street? Had his hand felt small in hers? Would he have stayed dutifully alongside her or did he want to dash off to join the neighborhood boys sitting on their haunches atop the stoops, ready to target innocent bystanders with slingshots or tomatoes? Would he have joined boys perched on railings, ready to pounce?
I felt like I was entering another generation, maybe his, maybe Eva’s. If my hand remained in his, maybe I could absorb all he knew about the family, all he knew but barely said. Was it too painful for him to talk about the mother he lost all too young?
I half expected my father to hold my hand as we walked from the parking lot along a narrow path to the entrance of the Hackensack courthouse, the seat of Bergen County.
“Think of it,” I said, “some sixty years ago, your mother stepped along this very sidewalk to get her citizenship.”
I imagined her waddling along the path, perhaps pregnant with one of my uncles in 1927. I could picture her, based on a photo I’d seen: Stockings gathered at her hefty ankles, her swollen feet oozing out of Mary Jane shoes, yet she would walk with a determination of “let’s get this done.”
My father did not respond. He was a man of few words. Maybe he nodded. He insisted on driving me here. We entered the building. Like most courthouses, it was an imposing structure. I suppose any government building instilled a sense of fear in most shtetl Jews, raised to distrust civil authority. My father and I headed to the records office. I had with me Eva’s leather-bound certificate of citizenship. My father had kept it and my grandfather’s locked in the safe at the main location of his Shop-Rite supermarket chain. This location was adjacent to the corner lot of Ridge Road and Sunset Avenue, where Eva and Max had set up their grocery-dry goods store. I didn’t know whether all certificates came this way or whether becoming citizens had been so important, my grandparents had the documents bound.
The certificate, now in my hands, marked the end result of a long process of gaining citizenship. Immigrants needed to file their first papers, the Declaration of Intent and the Petition for Naturalization. Each document held a different date, indicating the time span between milestone markers of American citizenship.
At the upper left of the certificate was a red number, 2763485, which I presumed would help the clerk find Eva’s first papers. Becoming a citizen meant relinquishing her loyalty to the Austrian government, known as Austria-Hungary when my grandmother was born in 1892. At that point it was still the realm of the Hapsburg Empire. As a U.S. citizen, she would belong to a different country than her parents, Henoch and Pesia, and her siblings, Naftala Hersh, Srul, Rivka, Chana, Ruchel, and Chaim Leib. I get anxiety traveling from one New Jersey county to another and here she trekked from country to country, most likely traveling by wagon to Tarnopol, a train to Brody and another train or set of trains to take her to Rotterdam where she boarded the SS Ryndam bound for New York in 1913. She’d been alone. She’d been twenty-two. Way too old to get a suitor in Kozlov, most likely.
The clerk must have been having a rough day. She moved at the pace of melting candle wax. Finally, after maybe fifteen minutes or so, she brought out a dusty, taupe-colored ledger book as big as a Torah. Using the certificate number, she found Eva’s papers, including the Certificate of Arrival –For Naturalization Purposes issued by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Naturalization, Certificate of Arrival Division, Ellis Island, New York. All the naturalization papers for one person were grouped together as if in a single sheath. Here her name was given as Chawe Zuckenkandel instead of Zuckerkandel.
Her first paper was the Declaration of Intention to become an American citizen. Eva declared her intention to become an American citizen on September 22, 1922, the same year women had to file papers themselves; they could no longer become citizens through their husbands. She’d been living in New Jersey since May 19, 1918—the day of her wedding at age twenty-six to my grandfather, Max Krasner, of Russia, born May 20, 1876, and sixteen years her elder. She could have declared her intention as early as 1918 when she reached the required milestone of living in America for five years.
The second paper was Eva’s Petition for Naturalization. It stated my grandfather was naturalized in Newark on July 30, 1926. He had lived in Newark since his arrival in 1899 and filed his first papers at the Essex County Courthouse. The document described Eva as 5’3” with brown hair, brown eyes, and a fair complexion with no distinguishing marks.
Across from these vital statistics were three other typed lines with the names of her children. My father used his index finger to scan the information. At the top of the list in clear type: “Milton, born Oct 31, 1919, at Newark, N.J., lives with me.” He pointed, his eyes moist, his words coated in his mother’s embrace. “Milton, that’s me!” he cried. He pulled his decades-old handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed at his eyes. I choked back a sob myself.
The clerk paid him no attention. She’d probably seen these points of discovery so many times before. But for my father, I think he felt like his beloved mother was standing right next to him, holding his hand. Maybe he was eight years old again, pulling baby brother Herman in his red wagon, making deliveries for the store. Maybe he was standing in the kitchen with a bowl on his head while his mother cut his hair to the rim for an even-all-around, newspaper spread around his feet to catch the hairs. Maybe he held her brown paper bundles as she trotted from one vendor stall to the next at Newark’s Prince Street or the Lower East Side’s Second Avenue to do her marketing, list of items in hand. Maybe he fidgeted when she took him in tow to visit her Aunt Jenny on Fourth Street. Maybe she had already begun to show him how to handle the books, entering inventory and goods sold into a ledger. After all, she’d been a butcher’s daughter back in Kozlov and probably knew a thing or two about keeping shop.
By signing this document, Eva stated she would renounce allegiance to the Republic of Poland. This gave me a clue to how she viewed herself. Kozlov was in Galicia, the part of Poland annexed by Austria during the first partition of Poland in 1789. Despite introduction of the German language, evidently Jews in Kozlov, even so many years later, identified with Poland. Until the borders changed again at the end of World War I and the shtetl found itself within Ukrainian borders where it still exists today.
On the fifteenth of June, 1928, in the one-hundred-and-fifty-first year of “our Independence,” and about six months after filing her Petition for Naturalization, Eva Zuckerkandel Krasner became an American citizen.
In the spring of 1992, now divorced and free to breathe, I hired a sitter so I could attend the genealogy meeting on the third Thursday of the month. But I didn’t really feel like going. I had a strong urge to go to Kearny instead. I called my mother from work.
“I think I’m going to come over,” I said.
“I have nothing for you to eat.”
“I’ll pick up something on the way.”
“I have a steak. You want that?”
“Just tell me when you’ll be here so I can put it up in time.”
I was looking forward to the steak, but when I arrived, something was horribly wrong. My father was upstairs in the master bedroom, weak and disoriented. His hands, once vital, could not grasp tangible objects, even a tissue. They could not guide or comfort, protect or warn. The hands that once held his mother’s and mine were of little use to him now.
“Call 911!” I yelled downstairs.
My mother, a former hands model in the Forties, placed her perfectly manicured hand (my father posted photos of her enviable nails on the wood paneling by the phone) picked up the receiver from the wall phone, and punched the numbers.
I grew very calm and took over. I directed my mother. I held a cup of orange juice to my father’s lips, and after plumping his pillows, eased him against them. I stayed with him upstairs until the doorbell rang. I ran down to greet the EMT. I recognized a guy I went to high school with. He asked me about my father’s medications. Normally my mother would be able to rattle off this kind of information with complete authority and accuracy, but she was speechless and took a long drag on her cigarette. I didn’t know how I knew, but I answered with the exact names and dosages of his medications, which to me sounded like the names of Russian villages.
My father’s blood sugar was dangerously low. The EMT members escorted him to the ambulance and drove off to West Hudson Hospital. His diagnosis: Diabetes.
My mother said, “Thank G-d you came here tonight.”
My father never came to another genealogy meeting. Instead, he now followed in his mother’s diabetic footsteps. He endured dialysis for a few years and then succumbed in 1997. My diabetes diagnosis came in 2002. Each night when my hand holds my insulin pen, its hard plastic casing reminds me of the strength of rock candy. Its liquid crystallizes in my blood stream.
Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches creative writing in New Jersey. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in “Lilith,” “Jewishfiction.net,”” Jewish Women’s Literary Annual,” “Poetica,” “Blue Lyra Review,” and other literary journals.