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100 Years Ago Yesterday, We Got Out of Europe

Yesterday I got an e-mail from my cousin Matt saying, "a hundred years ago today Isak Altbaum left Europe…thank God we got out of Poland!" Attached to Matt's e-mail was a manifest of all the greasy "steerage aliens" (a term … Read More

By / June 6, 2007
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

Yesterday I got an e-mail from my cousin Matt saying, "a hundred years ago today Isak Altbaum left Europe…thank God we got out of Poland!"

Attached to Matt's e-mail was a manifest of all the greasy "steerage aliens" (a term worth reviving, if ever one was) packed into the bottom of the ship Amerika as it set sail from Hamburg to New York on June 5, 1907. Isak Altbaum's name is there, and he's listed as a 33 year-old tailor from Russia, of the "Hebrew" race, travelling alone.

Isak was my great-grandfather, the first of my family to make it to America, and I'd always known that he arrived in New York sometime after the abortive 1905 Russian "dress rehearsal for revolution." The story of his flight to America seemed more mythical than historical, and this unexpected hard evidence–the name, the actual date, the papers that accompanied him to America–felt almost indecent, like a challenge to the 20th century Exodus narrative that my family has woven for itself over the decades. This wasn't just one man's trip across an ocean, after all, but my family's own piece of the Great Wave creation event upon which all Jewish-American family folkore is built.

And now old stories would have to be reevaluated in light of historical fact. Even worse, the centennial was being rudely thrust upon me–it was a hundred years to the day since my family left Europe for America. I felt as though I should be taking stock. What would Isak think of the lives of his American descendants, at T+100 years? Is this what he came for? Would he have been horrified by us? He left everything he knew, and everyone he loved, to cross an ocean in the bottom of a ship for the dream and privilege of starting over, alone, impoverished, in a profoundly foreign country. Is the life I'm leading worthy of the Odyssey that made it possible?

These are irritating questions to have thrust upon you in the middle of a work day. So instead, I began to think about the far more frightening questions with which this voyage ultimately confronted Isak himself.

Amerika sailed from Hamburg, an alien metropolis to which Isak would have travelled in order to catch a ship to the bigger, more alien metropolis across the ocean. He made his way to Hamburg from Frampol, the east Poland shtetl that was his home for the previous 33 years. (Frampol, some of you will know, is also the name of the fictional shtetl in which Isaac Bashevis Singer set many of his stories, but yes, there was also a real shtetl called Frampol, near Lublin, and it's where my family was from.) As a kid I often heard the story of what Isak and those who followed him to America were told when they left Frampol to head to America: "Don't ever forget where you come from," said the family they left behind.

That line was always presented to me as if it were thick with poignance and pathos, but in less reverent moments I wondered whether, with all the accumulated Talmudic wisdom that was surely bouncing around Frampol, they mightn't have sent Isak on his way with something a bit less obvious, a bit more zing.

In any case, in the family lore that came down to me, the story of the people of Frampol ends as we, the America-bound young and foolish, head toward the sea to catch our ride to the Promised Land, and the people we left behind send us off with their little nugget of saccharine Old Country wisdom, each of them looking just like Tevye or his Marxist son-in-law Pertchik (the women the same, but in dresses). And that's how Isak's parents and siblings and cousins in Frampol have remained frozen in the narrative of our Jewish-American family for the past 100 years.

But of course life didn't stop in Frampol in 1907. Did Isak use telegrams or mail to remain in touch, to learn how the people he'd loved for all the first half of his life were faring? How did Frampol, and my great great-grandparents, great uncles, etc., make out during World War I, the Russian Revolution, or later? Suddenly yesterday I wanted to know, and Isak must have been desperate to know the same.

But if he did learn anything about the lives of our family who remained in Frampol, find out, it wasn't passed along to the next generations. Just "Don't ever forget where you came from," and then the heavy suggestion that, sometime later, the cataclysm. Surely they were all killed by the Nazis? Is it possible that their story somehow had a happier outcome?

In 2007, a question like this need not remain a mystery: yesterday, after getting my cousin's e-mail, I googled around a bit. This is what I found, excerpted from an out-of-print book titled Eyes on the Sky, by one Wolfgang Schreyer:

13 September 1939, the town of Frampol, with a population of 3000, and without military or industrial targets, nor any Polish Army defenders, was practically annihilated by Luftwaffe bombing practice. In the opinion of Luftwaffe analyst Harry Hohnewald: "Frampol was chosen as an experimental object, because test bombers, flying at low speed, weren't endangered by AA fire. Also, the centrally placed town hall was an ideal orientation point for the crews."

Given the alternatives, I suppose this amounted to quite an outstanding stroke of luck for the Altbaums and other inhabitants of my ancestral shtetl. They never lived to suffer ghettoes, deportations, camps, were never separated from their children or spouses. Instead, they were wiped out on a single fall day because they made for particularly fine target practice for the young heroes of the Luftwaffe.

And yet however much DNA I may share with the people who died on 13 September 1939, and even though some of them loved a person (Isak) who loved a person (my grandfather, Sam, Isak's son) who I loved, I can't, even if I try, feel very much more intimacy with their tragedy than I do with any other catastrophe affecting no one I know. Their parting request to us, the new Americans branch of the family, was that we not forget them. And we do remember them. But as I read about their demise yesterday, I felt no more horrified, infuriated, or depressed than I would reading about any other atrocity. Mostly, I just felt the amoral fascination of a history buff to learn that the Jews of my ancestral shtetl were massacred in so eccentric a fashion.

I do, though, wonder about Isak, who in photographs always seemed to look dour and a bit irked, as though he was peering out at the 21st century ass-clown American luftmenschen he'd spawned, and wasn't pleased, wasn't pleased at all. I can't be sure why his own story of Frampol concluded the day he left in 1907. Was this a conscious decision of his? Is it possible he genuinely never knew any of what unfolded in Frampol's 32 remaining years.

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