Uncovering Family Secrets ( originally posted in Women Writers Women Books)

Uncovering Family Secrets

June 2, 2016 | By  2 Replies


Survivor guilt is a force that endures, whether within the context of the tragic wars of yesterday and today, or the ongoing trauma experienced by families.

As a second generation American, whose relatives immigrated from Eastern Europe before WWII, it would take decades to uncover the details of their intricate pasts─ the dark secrets they chose to bury in order to survive in this promising new world.

My maternal grandparents and their siblings had long dreamed of America─ a land where they believed they could be free and no longer live in fear of pogroms and later, Hitler, but there was an enormous price to pay for this freedom. One day I would come to understand why most never felt whole having fled their homeland as young adults, torn by the devastating choice of leaving their elders behind.

Sometime in the late 40’s, during a boom of postwar jubilance, which brought the family closer, there were signs even a young child could decipher, hinting that terrible things had occurred. What I didn’t know was, because pangs of guilt gnawed at them, there would be even more suffering and additional loss.

For the first eight years of my life, I had the privilege of living across the street from these relatives who resided in a spacious, brick and stucco home that once accommodated two unmarried brothers, two unmarried sisters, my grandparents and their two children, one of whom was to become my mother.

Almost every weekend I would spend time with my great aunts who fussed over me, read to me, or brought me to the bustling market places of Brooklyn where I remember seeing fish jump from huge tanks unto sawdust floors, as if trying to escape, and chickens being plucked in a back room, or bloody cuts of beef fileted for our Sabbath dinners. We observed customs but did not attend synagogue.

There was, I would learn, a great deal of fear which followed the family from the old country, first Riga, and then Vilna. Their mailman, after learning the family was Jewish, suggested my grandparents anglicize the spelling of their last name. They complied. There were no symbolic Mezuzahs leaning in and placed on the doors of their home, no Chanukah celebrations.

As an overly curious child, timid and sensitive to sounds (they spoke rather loudly) I became obsessed with observing these adults who formed a loving circle around me often anticipating my every need. Often on my visits, samplings from that evening’s dinner, a piece of matzah ball or fried chick peas would be spooned in my mouth.

I was like a sparrow, tucked in my nest waiting to be nurtured. And yet, there were times when I watched them tend to these chores totally distracted, as if I were invisible. As young as I was, I continually sought clues for why these people I cherished acted so strangely.

What I knew was…too often when I skipped into my grandmother’s jade and white-tiled kitchen, the banter froze, and their warm and welcoming eyes shifted quickly from my gaze. Someone always shooed me into the tiny bedroom off the kitchen suggesting I take the nap I did not need.

It was a small, stuffy room that reeked from moth balls where, from a space under the door, I heard them speak in a strange, funny language, or worse, sometimes there was sobbing. I was left with a deep void─ a feeling there was so much more I did not know. And… at six or seven, should not know. I wonder still if the behavior I witnessed created an early sensitivity, eventually leading me to seek out the truth.

Decades later, when I began to take my writing seriously having published some poetry and fiction pieces, I attended a conference where I posed a question to the author, Susan Isaacs. I shared that I had been struggling with how to approach a historical novel inspired by my family’s complicated history.

Without pause, Susan answered: “Wait till everyone is dead!” The audience laughed, of course, but as I quickly tabulated my family tree, I realized, thankfully, there were quite a few very much alive. Some who would prefer our family secrets stay right where they’d always been─ buried.

BookCoverSweetnessFinalJunehttp://booksbywomen.org/wp-content/uploads/BookCoverSweetnessFinalJune-1-116x180.jpg 116w, http://booksbywomen.org/wp-content/uploads/BookCoverSweetnessFinalJune-1-300x464.jpg 300w, http://booksbywomen.org/wp-content/uploads/BookCoverSweetnessFinalJune-1.jpg 385w" sizes="(max-width: 194px) 100vw, 194px" />I thought about some of the tales I had been weaving together about this complicated Brooklyn family. The patriarch, for example, inspired by my grandfather, had tried to keep his only daughter from returning to a design school because there was a war brewing in Europe.

I tried to imagine how that would affect the female protagonist both as a wife and mother in the years to come but I already knew the answer.

And then, about ten years ago, on one of my routine visits to one of my only remaining relatives, my aunt, then 99, everything changed. After lunch she placed a cookie tin on the oilcloth and told me to open it. Inside the ancient box, instead of cookies, I found a slew of tattered documents and faded photos: a birth announcement for a baby named Rosha, born in 1931, and a sepia photo of that little girl, the child who would eventually adorn my book cover.

My novel, The Sweetness, its title borne out of irony and the dire circumstances of a young girl’s fight for survival has taken me nearly a lifetime to uncover, finding fragments and the missing links that led me to understand the fate of my beloved family ─some whom simply disappeared, and those I never knew existed.


A former video producer, Sande Boritz Berger received an M.F.A. in Writing and Literature from Stony Brook University where she received the Deborah Hecht Memorial prize for fiction. Her debut novel, The Sweetness, was published in September 2014 by She Writes Press was a semi-finalist in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel awards. Sande lives with her husband in Bridgehampton, New York.

Find out more about Sande on her website: www.sandeboritzberger.com

Follow her on Twitter @EZWriter25



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