I grew up in a house six states from grief.
In the early 1900’s a wealthy merchant packed his family and all their valuables on a sled, took them from their small Jewish village in Russia and headed over the border into Poland. They could feel the town disappearing from the map and were determined to escape before it was completely erased.
As horrible as life was in Russia for the jews things only got worse in Poland. The only one to escape before the holocaust was Boris. He married a young American girl who was visiting relatives in Poland and returned with her to New York. There he became a hairdresser and raised three sons. One of his sons founded an incredibly successful graphic design firm. That son had a daughter who became a professor at the University of Chicago, and she had three children who grew up in a wonderful house, with a big back yard, and a family vacation every single year without fail. From persecuted to comfortable in only three generations.
Boris’ mother burned at Auschwitz. His sister was shot in the head after she was caught at the Czech border with forged papers. His other sister survived the death camps at Auschwitz and moved to Israel. She lived in Tel Aviv when Tel Aviv was just tents in the desert.
Now Tel Aviv is a huge city in the desert and when I visited Israel on my birthright trip -long before i knew I had any family who might live there- my tour group didn’t visit Tel Aviv, because it was not safe enough for tourists.
And the United States who, when Boris’ mother was being burned alive, put a quota on how many jews they would allow into the country, now somehow find it within their hearts to send those same jews that they rejected trillions of dollars of support and weapons so that they can continue to bulldoze olive trees, torture civilians, and generally terrorize arabs for trying to cling to the land that they have lived on for years. From bullied to bullies in only three generations.
But I grew up in a house six states from grief and so I get to think about things abstractly, philosophically, and in within the context of history. I get to write a story about it with a self-righteous tone and think “Wow. I did a good job writing this. I’m sure everyone will love it” and then I can walk out of my house and go to work and feel better for a while.
I didn’t know who Boris was or what he went through until a few months ago. I don’t know what he even looks like. Assimilation is the price of comfort in the United States and I’m lucky that jews are typically white people and were oﬀered that deal in the first place. Maybe if they weren’t I would remember what it was like to be chased from my home, tortured, humiliated and ground into human mulch to feed the tree of history.
Learning about it now, I find myself thankful to my ancestors for giving me a life of comfort, but thanks to those same ancestors I can identify with the people who’s lives that comfort costs.
About the artist...
Hal Baum is a writer/performer/musician from the south side of Chicago. He has performed in theaters across the city including: The Laugh Factory, The Playground Theater, and The Neo-Futurists. He just released his first EP “Holding Hands Underwater” on Preserve Records, and is currently working on a full-length album. You can hear his music on Spotify, iTunes or at https://halbaum.bandcamp.comIf you want to see pictures he draws of people on the CTA you can go to: https://halbaum.wixsite.com/peopleonthecta
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Check out his work from previous issues: