Sunday, March 20, 2005

There’s a non-fiction version of this so-near-so-unreachable. Last spring, while idly googling my mother’s unusual family name, I came across the Polish Business Directory of 1929. There were my poor great-uncles, murdered in World War II:

Kaminiskiego 3
Grocery Items-Retail
Kolonjalne artykuly-Detal

It sent shivers down my spine: an official record, perhaps the only remaining record, of their existence, beyond family knowledge (which, now that my grandfather is dead, amounts just to their names and occupations). Even Yad Vashem had never heard of them.

It’s unbearable how inexorably the past slips away from us. I cried on New Year’s Eve 1981, because all the festivities smacked of ingratitude to good old 1980. It’s incredible that within my short lifetime everyone who could remember World War I has died. In Oxford colleges at Armistice memorial services one still recites, “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them, we will remember them.” For how much longer? But ending the tradition would seem like a betrayal.

I own a xeroxed volume of the private memoirs of a woman who was born in 1896 and died in 1993. She once said to me, “Munich was such an exciting city before the war!” Really? In the 1930s? It was hard to believe. Later, after she died and I learned how old she really was, I realized she had meant before World War I. I still can’t believe I knew someone that old; and I never knew it.
In her memoirs she mentions having tea with Hans Richter, which puts me at three degrees of separation from Brahms, and eight from Bach (Brahms - Schumann - Mendelssohn - Mendelssohn’s great-aunt Sarah - Bach’s Berlin son). We could all have tea in heaven.

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