Every time I speak about the books I’ve written, inspired by your life, I’m inevitably asked the following question: “What would your grandmother think about you exposing her past?” I have no way of knowing because you died when I was just twelve. So my response varies and is not rooted in fact. Basically, I lie and tell people I’m sure you would be pleased knowing that your secret is out. But the truth is, as your namesake, I feel kind of guilty, and am worried that you might actually be annoyed with me. After all, you hid your past from your own daughter (my mother) until she found out, by accident at twenty four.
You were so determined to conceal your roots that you managed to sheath yourself with a new persona when you came to Canada, a façade you never removed. But beneath the surface, I can’t help but wonder if you ever secretly wanted to return to the culture that formed you, to the traditions that led to your frightening exodus.
While I can’t take back what I’ve written, especially in this era of social media, where rumors spread through cyberspace’s tentacles faster than a disease, I can explain why I ended up divulging your carefully guarded secret. Blame your sister, Nucia. It all started with her in Montreal on a hot summer afternoon six months after my first child, Amanda, was born. It was a battle of wills, me plying her with questions and she doing her best to evade them. Luckily, Nucia was no match against my shrewd reporter skills. After assuring her that I would keep any information she gave me within the family (a white lie that was necessary, if not ethical) she began telling me about your shared childhood in Russia, your escape to Shanghai and your illicit relationship with the man who would become my grandfather. My hand shook as I listened and wrote, finally getting the long-awaited glimpse into your world, how you lived, and the perils you faced because of your religion. I was especially moved by your courage which helped guide you to California where you received a Commerce degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1930.
Nucia’s information formed the plot of your life, why you went from one place to another. But it didn’t reveal who you were and made me wish I’d been older when you died, mature enough to care about my heritage, curious enough to ask questions that went beyond, “Did you bring me a souvenir from Barbados?”
I look at photos of you as a young woman, hair in a thick braid that falls to your waist, your unreadable eyes, and wonder what you were doing when told you had to abandon your house one night. What important things were you forced to leave behind? What were you thinking as you fled east, across Russia, to Shanghai which accepted you without papers, without questions, without prejudice? When I heard this, I realized I owe my existence to Shanghai. Your aunts and uncles who weren’t able to leave Russia, perished in the revolution, and those who sought refuge in Europe, died in the Holocaust.
By the end of my afternoon with Nucia, you’d become my hero, and I had a newfound appreciation for my roots. I tried to put myself in your shoes, wondering how you coped under an anti-Semitic authoritarian ruler. I wanted to know what you talked about, what you ate, what you wore, what you did for fun. What you dreamed about. What frightened you.
I began researching Russian pogroms; hundreds took place in shetls all over Russia. How did you function, knowing you could be attacked at any time? I discovered that Jews in Russia who converted to Christianity would no longer be considered Jewish and, therefore, were no longer targets during pogroms. Your family chose to keep its faith and leave Russia, which implied a steadfast desire to hold onto Judaism. Yet you ended up marrying a Christian and forsaking your own religion. Were you tired of running, of living in fear? Did love trump faith?
When I stumbled upon the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, ignited by vicious and fraudulent newspaper headlines, I knew at once that I had to write about it. As a journalist myself, the idea that a publisher would spread propaganda through his newspaper, abusing his power, disturbed and enthralled me. The glimmer of a book began to percolate in my mind. And when I discovered a Kishinev family with two children, who suffered unjustly from this horrific event, I decided to name the children Rachel and Nucia, to honor you and your sister. My character Rachel took on your traits—curiosity, intelligence, a strong-will. Wanting more from life than was expected at the time. I started living vicariously through you as I wrote, trying to get inside your head, to think like you’d think, to feel like you’d feel. In this way, I got to know you better and felt closer than ever. It was a life-changing experience for me and I hope you’ll forgive any liberties I took.
The settings for all three books mirrors your journey to freedom, but fiction diverges with history. My character arrives California in late 1905, 22 years before you, and just in time for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which displaced the immigrant community. Plus, she has to learn English in America whereas you learned the language in Shanghai. It takes her years to graduate from high school while you landed and went straight to Berkeley.
Both you and Rachel get into university, and both of you struggle with your faith; the character Rachel must figure out how to balance her dream of being an American with her old-fashioned traditions. You gave up your Judaism entirely when you settled in Montreal where signs proclaimed, “No blacks, no dogs, no Jews.” Nobody, me included, could ever judge you for making this choice, especially when, on the eve of the second World War, Canada turned boatloads of European Jews away, Jews who ended up perishing in death camps. Still, I’ve been told that although you raised your girls in the Anglican faith of my grandfather, you never spoke during a church service, never sang a hymn, took communion, or recited from the bible. To me, this means you might have harbored a lifetime affinity for Judaism, tucked safely in your heart where nobody could see it.
I finally found the answer I’d been searching for while listening to an orphaned Holocaust survivor. He said that his seven grandchildren and the continuation of his Jewish heritage are the prizes he received from the war Hitler lost. And he said he speaks now in honor of his parents, who don’t have a grave, telling their story so that they didn’t perish for nothing. Addressing the youth in the audience, he said the people most at fault were those who did nothing. At that moment, I knew I had done the right thing in uncovering your Jewish faith, that I’d told a story that had to be told.
Exposing your past has given me the chance to know and understand you and Russia. I keep photos of you on my desk which remind me daily of my heritage. My favorite is one where you’re sitting, holding me as a baby in your lap. Your hands cradle me tight and both of my hands rest on yours, as if I’m embracing you, too.
Writing has allowed me to share you with my children, who I hope will continue to pass these stories along to their children one day, strengthening the ties from generation to generation. For this reason, I am now quite comfortable saying that you would be proud of me and of what I’ve accomplished, just as I’m proud and honored to have had you as my nana.