My grandfather’s origin story reads like a Horatio Alger myth: born to a poor family, hungry, resilient, determined to forge a better life for himself, he worked his way up through the ranks of a logging company—laborer, estimator, lead forester. While running a crew on a large property in the countryside, he met the teenage daughter of the estate owner; there, in the glow of the summer woods, the young forester, Eliyahu, and my grandmother, Sabina, fell in love.
Eliyahu came from a lower class family, but he was strong, handsome, and well-spoken, and my grandmother’s parents allowed him for a time to inhabit their world, a world where horses were brushed to a shine, where the kitchen was perpetually stocked with fresh milk and butter, hot stews and baked bread.
If this had been Alger’s America, the story could have ended well for the lovers, but this was Poland in the 1930s. Before Sabina was twenty, her estate had been seized, she had moved into a crowded, stinking ghetto, and her parents had been shot like animals. She’d been beaten, mauled by dogs, starved, dehumanized, and finally, herded into a work camp. Her only child—a fourteen-month-old boy—had been torn from her arms by the Nazis and burned in the ovens.
This all happened to successful, educated people, in modern times, in one of the most advanced nations of the civilized world. And when Hitler’s men forced my grandparents onto a death train to the Belzec concentration camp, they would have doubtless perished with the rest of these modern, civilized people, had it not been for that scrappy forester and his indomitable, ingenuitive spirit. Unwilling to accept the fate of the helpless and the damned, he tore the wire mesh from the window of the cattle car, pushed his young wife out from the speeding train and jumped after her. Dodging bullet fire, they tumbled into the woods.
For nearly a year, they lived in a muddy hole in the Holobotow forest. They were scavengers: filthy, desperate things, frightened by every sound. They learned to move during the night, to glean information by disguising themselves as peasants, not to trust other humans. And they survived.
Where were they supposed to go after the defeat of the Wehrmacht, these remnant Jews of mass murder? Many emigrated to Israel. Some went to Australia, some to Shanghai. My grandparents, determined to pick up the pieces of their shattered dream, tracked back over the dust and bones to my grandmother’s childhood estate in Lvov. When they arrived at the door, they were met by an angry Polish family who told them, “It’s not yours anymore,” and who chased them off the land with death threats.
If the United States had been accepting the “homeless, the tempest-tossed” in 1946, the death toll of the Holocaust would likely have been lower. But U.S. immigration had been on lockdown since the Depression, and restrictionist congressmen, afraid of allowing “communist atomic spies” through the borders, struck down bills aimed at helping the refugees. As Ed Gossett, a representative from Texas, argued: “We will do well to absorb the poison already flowing in the bloodstream of this country without the injection of more foreign virus.”
Meanwhile, my grandparents—those pale and emaciated ghosts—found themselves in a displaced persons camp in the American zone in Germany, a staging area for people without a country. My grandfather reconnected with one of his cousins, Schlomo, who had emigrated to Montreal before the war, and whose brother, Isaac, had been killed in the gas chambers. “If you tell them you are Isaac,” Schlomo wrote, “they will let you in.”
So Eliyahu became Isaac. He and my grandmother took the long, sickening journey over the Atlantic in the bowels of an ocean steamer. They dropped the old world, the world that had failed them, and landed as refugees in Canada, without a home, without a penny, without a language.
Again my grandfather worked his way up, Alger-style: busboy, stucco man, construction foreman, home builder. My grandmother—the girl of the summer woods, who rode in carriages and slept under eiderdown—callused her hands with broomsticks, cleaned toilets and windows. They were productive, frugal; they saved and strapped, and eventually they bought a townhouse in Hampstead, in Québec, where they raised my father in the shadow of the terrible thing that had happened in Europe. They told him about the forest in Poland, and about their baby burned in the ovens. They overfed him, as if to compensate for his missing brother, they worried over him, wiped his mouth too much, and taught him never to take things for granted.
When my father was a teenager, the Front de libération du Québec, a separatist paramilitary group, began setting off dynamite in mailboxes in English-speaking districts of Montreal. In 1969, the FLQ bombed the Montreal Stock exchange, and in 1970, my father’s tenth grade year, they kidnapped the Quebec Labour Minister and murdered him.
My grandparents read these stories in the papers, and while the other Jews kvetched about the violence, the conflict was something far more ominous to people who had seen how quickly a normal country could degrade into blood and madness. When Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s young, charismatic Prime Minister, implemented the War Measures Act, which suspended civil liberties and sent the “Feds” in to round up the militants, my grandfather’s survival instincts tingled. He applied for residency in the United States.
The United States had been the logical end of his immigrant’s trail all along. In 1972, he bought into a real estate deal in Florida and moved to Hallandale Beach on an “investor’s greencard.” Two years later, he and my grandmother became naturalized citizens.
My father, married by this time, stayed in Canada to earn his medical license and begin a family. But Montreal’s political climate remained uncertain. Constant battles were being fought over language and culture; societal tensions were mounting. So in 1980, the young doctor moved to the States.
I don’t remember the upheaval, or the apartment we stayed in before our first house. I was three years old when we immigrated here. I grew up safe and well-fed and clean. Unlike my father and grandfather, I never saw armies marching in the streets.
I tell my son things will be different for him. That he will not—as with the three generations preceding him—have to abandon the country of his birth. “Are you sure?” he asks me.
“No,” I say. “We can never be sure.”