Hunger for Family Knowledge and Moona Chaudhry

Today Dunreith and I tromped down to the South Boulevard El stop, where we caught the train and started to resume the daily rhythm of work.

My dad and her mother stayed at home.

I’ve actually seen a lot of Dad in the months since Diane’s death in August.  His arrival on Saturday marked the second time he’s been out to Chicago since her passing, and we connected in Massachusetts last month when I went in to check in on Mom and work on a freelance assignment.

Dad and his brother, my Uncle Ralph, spent their early years in Germany before leaving on the Kindertransport in 1939.  Dad stayed behind for a couple of weeks after Uncle Ralph departed due to his having appendicitis that required an operation and a couple of weeks of convalescence.

Dad said that during a recent visit to Cincinnati he and Ralph talked at some length, for the first time in their lives, about some of their childhood experiences in Germany and the United States.

As a child, Dad spoke very little about his childhood. My brothers and I nicknamed him “Reagan” for his almost unfailing response that he did not remember whenever what had happened whenever we did ask him direct questions.

I hungered to know more about his experience and our roots, and took a variety of actions to fill that need.  I visited our great-aunt Ilsa Goldberg nee Frank, PhD., who lived until the last of her 103 years in an apartment in Queens, New York.  Ilsa doled out family artifacts and stories one at a time, always holding onto more as if to ensure my return.  I also visited and filmed our great-uncle Ernie Lowenstein, who played a towering role in Dad’s life and decision eventually to pursue a career in medicine.

And, in 2004, I visited a non-Jewish family friend in Germany who had held our family bible for years after my great-grandfather, Joseph Lowenstein, was deported first to Theresienstadt, and eventually to Auschwitz, where he was murdered.  The G.s had a notebook filled by 65 years of correspondence between our families: reading its contents was like unlocking a key to a door that had long been shut.

Moona Chaudry, a psychologist in the DC area who works with Spanish-speaking clients, shared a similar desire to know what she had not been told during the two weeks that we attended the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma.

Her curiosity was sparked in part by learning about her grandfather.  A successful horse trainer, he had been invited to leave his native Pakistan for a comparatively better situation in Afghanistan.

He took the offer.

Moona understand that her grandfather had been valued for his skill, yet was troubled that he initially left the women in the family behind, essentially to fend for themselves until he was able to bring some of them to his new country.

Her family’s silence was another spur.

I understood that part completely.

I remember vividly watching the first half hour or so of the 1978 mini-series Holocaust with Dad.  He quickly stiffened and wanted us to turn on the television, yet, when we asked what was wrong, responded, “Nothing.”

I’m not sure if Moona’s quest has led to the realization that I came to a couple of years that I actually knew more about my father’s side of the family, where I had felt a deficit of information, than on my mother’s side, where information flowed freely from and about her.

I do know that I enjoyed learning anew that the urge to understand one’s roots and to break haunting silence transcend age, country and national origin.

Dunreith and I will be heading home soon to have some turkey soup that Dad made, and possibly to have another batch of homemade pasta.  We’ll chat a bit, and, hopefully, I’ll learn some more as we continue to fill in the gaps of our inevitably incomplete knowledge.

I wish Moona luck on her journey toward greater information, too.



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