Ten years after my grandfather died, I found myself sorting through a shallow plastic bin that held the accumulated documentation of his life. My mother had labeled it in Russian: Mother and Father. When she downsized from a house to a condominium, the bin migrated to me. It is humbling to consider that, to all intents and purposes, a human life can be contained inside a shallow plastic bin. It is even more humbling to consider that it can be contained in less than a shallow plastic bin. My grandfather had been a thrifty, patient, and meticulous person who didn't like to throw anything away. Besides, who knew when some relevant authority might demand a full accounting? Sentiment had stayed my mother's hand but I intended to be ruthless. One old Israeli bus pass is poetic; one hundred are oppressive.
My grandfather was born in a small Latvian town during World War I. His first languages were Yiddish and Latvian. Traditional Jewish schooling and an interest in Zionism contributed functional Hebrew. He also had some Russian, which he was later obliged to cultivate as a soldier in the Red Army and over four decades as a Soviet citizen. Though he spent the last twenty years of his life in Canada, he never learned English. Of the things worth keeping in the bin were various photographs, passports, notarized English translations of birth certificates, a marriage license, the official acknowledgment of my grandfather's frontline service during World War II, a clinical description of the wounds he sustained, and the consequent benefits afforded him by the Soviet state. There were two sets of claim forms for wartime reparations—a legitimate one to the Germans for their crimes, and a spurious one to the Swiss for their laundering of "looted assets" itemized as:
Two houses, furniture, dishes, jewelry: $100,000 US (approx.)
Store with leather, shoes, leather furniture: $300,000 US
There were also numerous letters written in Russian and in Yiddish. My Russian wasn't good enough to decipher the cursive script, but millions of Russian-speakers—including my mother—could do it. The Yiddish was another matter. Once the vernacular, it was now the preserve of academics. I knew one, a professor at the University of Toronto, who was writing a monograph on heteronormative bias in Galician graffiti.
I made an appointment and brought the letters to her office. Some were from my grandparents' friends, resettled in Düsseldorf; others, postmarked from Israel, were from my grandfather's younger brother, Venyamin, affectionately called Venya. I knew Venya only from stories told to me by my mother and grandfather. I knew, for example, that when he was a boy, a horse had stepped on his head. He'd nearly died. For the rest of his life he bore a dent in his skull in the shape of a hoof. After the war, he married a Jewish woman, reputedly unkind. They had two children. The first was a son, the spitting image of Venya. The second was a daughter, exceptionally beautiful, who strongly resembled a Latvian who'd lodged temporarily in their house. Later, it emerged that Venya also had an illegitimate child, a blond girl, raised by her maternal grandparents.
Though unwilling herself to do the work, the professor connected me with one of her graduate students, a tattooed Norwegian named Knut, who agreed to write a summary of each letter for a standardized fee. He explained that this was a common way for Yiddish students to supplement their scholarships. A generation of Jews appealed to them with their inherited glyphs. Most often the letters were banal, but occasionally something interesting, even scandalous, surfaced. A secret in the secret language. Knut preferred when this didn't happen. People got upset and he suffered moral qualms about profiting from such disclosures. He'd consulted the Talmud for guidance, but to no avail. The sages diverged.
Two weeks after I turned over the letters, I met Knut at a popular, as yet unboycotted, Israeli coffee franchise near campus. Though he greeted me warmly, I detected unease. He began with the innocuous Düsseldorf correspondence, which concerned itself mostly with the realms of health, education, and finance. Who was hale and who was ill. What afflictions had stricken. Who, thank God, had prevailed and who, God forbid, had succumbed. Also, the inexorable passage of the brilliant grandchildren through the stations of the school system. The admirable and incomprehensible directions they pursued in life. The exact dollar figures of their salaries and the purchase prices of their homes. Venya's letters mostly conformed to the same model. It was only in his last four letters, sent in the six-month period between my grandmother's death and his own, that the substance changed significantly. Faithful to our agreement, Knut had summarized these as well, but he cautioned me to reflect before I took possession. He didn't pretend to understand the implications of everything he'd read, but he believed the letters touched upon matters of a delicate nature. It was possible, of course, that what he'd uncovered was already common knowledge to me and my family. And perhaps, even if it wasn't, I might not be disturbed. People had different sensitivities. However, from the tone and context of the letters, Knut suspected that they addressed something confidential between my grandfather and his brother.
Though I was tempted, I took Knut's advice and resolved to reflect. One of life's cruelest lessons is that a person can't unknow something. And there exists enough unavoidable pain in the world that one would be a fool or a masochist to actively court more. My grandfather, whom I loved very much and whose essence was still sometimes palpable to me, was dead ten years. His brother, a man I didn't recall ever meeting, was dead seventeen. What did I stand to gain by scavenging through the past? The reflexive answer, of course, was that sacrament, the Truth. After all, it was just a cruel stroke of history—perpetrated by the dread mustached visages—that explained why I couldn't read the letters myself. And would my grandfather have kept them—like so many Israeli bus passes—if he didn't want them to be found? Perhaps the sin wasn't of trespass but of laziness and indifference? How many vain and useless things had I done while these letters languished, humming with meaning? And wasn't there a privileged kind of knowing available to us only after our loved ones were gone? In other words, I walked around the block and justified doing what I already wanted to do.
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