Sit tight, folks. You’re in for a long one. This is a sample chapter I’ve put together on my self-made Jewish heritage trip to Slovakia for a book I’ll hopefully get to write.
People around the world have different ideas about how to express their thoughts and things get complicated when you’re working with a second or even third language. I’ve generally tried to give people the benefit of the doubt when they’re running their thoughts through the additional filter of translation.
But sometimes, the meaning is pretty damn clear and you wish people just kept their half-baked thoughts to themselves.
I’ll call my host Mark, a Slovak man in his early sixties with a perfectly-trimmed gray mustache and the kind of potbelly that would be recognizable across the world among beer-drinking fathers his age. We were connected through his son, who I’ll call John––my original contact in the area who had been doing research on the historical Jewish community of Bardejov and the surrounding villages where my ancestors were from. John promised to meet up with me at some point in my visit, but he was starting a new job and his time was limited. On the train to Bardejov, he called and told me his father would be willing to meet with me that night for dinner.
I met Mark in the lobby of my hotel and he suggested to eat at the on-site restaurant. “They have great food,” he promised.
After we grabbed a table, he said he wouldn’t be eating and shrugged off the menu when I asked for a recommendation. “It’s all good,” he said, accented with a nihilistic laugh. “I have no gastronomical sense.”
This casual flip-flopping would prove to be a theme with Mark.
The conversation was pleasant in between sips of my run-of-the-mill local Pilsner and bites of chicken breast doused in a mushroom sauce. I don’t proclaim to have a wonderfully reliable “gastronomical sense” myself, but it gave me the calories I needed for the evening.
It was unclear why Mark got involved in his son’s research. Later, in one of his many laments about how money rules the world, he would say, “It’s not a job. Job is something you do for money you need for life.”
Then, “It’s not enjoyment,” he added before throwing his hands up, amplified with the kind of indifferent sigh you give when searching for the right answer while verbally sparring with a significant other. As if to say, Whatever you want really is fine.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said with a sardonic chuckle.
And it’s not as if he had a special interest in heritage or ancestry. At least, that’s what he told me later on as we sped along country roads. I thought since he’d been helping people like me reconnect with their heritage, it would spark an interest in his own. But it didn’t and I ultimately wasn’t surprised. Most Europeans I’ve interacted with have shown relative indifference to their heritage, knowing that their family had been in the same country for centuries. Some had even gone so far as to admit jealousy of people from the Americas who know they’re the product of different heritages and can trace that ancestry back to faraway places.
Although Mark wouldn’t count himself as one of those jealous Europeans, he did find himself on the other side of the ancestral hunt. Almost fifty years ago, an American tracked him down as a distant relative. “He came here in 1970 and made a small movie,” he said, presumably referring to a home movie and not an attempt at Oscar bait.
The tragedy of it all was that after their meeting, Mark’s American relative went to Vietnam and died in combat. “His name is on the wall in Washington,” he said referring to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with more than 58,000 names of fallen American soldiers listed chronologically.
Mark’s mysterious motives aside, it’s clear that this is a thing he’s doing. He digs through archives looking for long lost records on request from searching families. He helped his son secure an €800,000 grant from the Norwegian, Icelandic, and Luxembourg governments to begin renovations on the synagogue complex in Bardejov. He’s met with and become friends with Holocaust survivors, going so far as to call some “members of the family.” It’s a sentiment John later echoed.
And that’s how Mark reels you in. He makes you think, “Maybe there are a few decent people left on this stupid little rock.” After all, he spent his Friday night, most of Saturday, and his Sunday evening with me, a stranger, to show me around town, introduce me to people, and to escort me around the villages my ancestors came from, and I have every reason to believe that it’s something he does with relative frequency––certainly more free labor you or I would likely ever offer a stranger.
Then, it starts to slip out. The casual racism.
“Those are the good Gypsies,” he said, nodding his head in the direction of some families hanging out outside of their homes on the hillside. We were in Kurima on our way to the Jewish cemetery where some of my ancestors were likely buried.
The way he said “good gypsies” implied he had more to say on the subject, like when a Trump supporter tests the temperature of the room by sighing and undercutting it with a mumbled “those people.” Even if I walked by a pack of puppies and said, “those are the good puppies,” you’d know I thought there were bad puppies out there and would be happy to elaborate if you’d be willing to open that Pandora’s box.
Mark also apparently hadn’t gotten the alert that “Gypsies” is not the politically correct nomenclature these days. But I truly don’t believe that he said it out of hate. He did interchangeably use the more appropriate “Roma,” so I’m guessing he just didn’t get the memo.
Seeing as he was both my ride in the middle of rural Slovakia and that I wasn’t going to find another researcher to show me around my ancestors’ villages (because the only other one was his son), I momentarily compromised my morals for something I wanted. You’ve done it too, so hop off your high horse and join me in the swamp of moral ambiguity. We have fun parties.
I put the comment aside for the moment and focused on the reason I was there––connecting with my ancestors. Accompanying us was his friend, a born-and-raised local of Kurima who’s studied the history of the village, which used to include the Jewish community, and even a bit of old Hebrew when he got his degree in theology. Now he’s a principal at the local elementary school. He looked like a priest with his jet black jacket, shoes, and shirt. All that was missing was the white collar.
Chris, I’ll call him, rode his bike to meet up with us. Seeing as the twenty-minute drive to Kurima was already the longest amount of time I spent in a car since being back in the States for the holidays, I was envious.
You couldn’t ask for a much better day to be out cycling, which seemed to be the sport of choice that morning with several cyclists out in packs. Warm spring sun, clear blue skies, empty roads through the rural countryside; it’s near torture for me to be in a car with such idyllic conditions. But I put my personal objections aside in the spirit of being a grateful guest.
Chris led the way along a grassy trail to the cemetery entrance. We passed a couple of homes with the owners standing around outside, chatting with their neighbors. Mark and Chris waved, exchanging a few pleasantries before letting me know that they were Roma.
“The Gypsies are afraid of death, so they do not come here,” Mark said, referring to the Jewish cemetery we were approaching. I couldn’t find anything later on to corroborate that Roma have a deeper fear of death than, say, anyone else in the world. I bet I could go toe-to-toe with just about anyone on the topic, regardless of their ethnicity, unleashing my anxieties like a boxer going to town on their opponent in the corner of the ring.
The cemetery was just past the houses, surrounded on all sides by a white wall. A do-it-yourself- style metal bridge escorted us a short distance over a small stream to the locked entrance. Hebrew characters were freshly painted above the lock.
“That’s the phone number so anybody visiting can call and get in,” Chris explained.
Walking through the gate, I was taken aback. It was practically empty; a square-field of flattened, overgrown grass that formed mushy, awkward lumps to walk over. The macabre section of my brain immediately flashed to horrific visions of me falling into one of the plots. Wouldn’t that be a twist in my ancestral journey? I thought. A horror version of Pixar’s Coco.
In all, I counted three or four partial tombstones. Only one of them was completely intact, but the Old Hebrew characters would’ve been difficult for even the sharpest eye to decipher.
This I didn’t expect. I had no illusions of being able to find an ancestral grave and connecting with one of my ancestors. How would that go anyway?
Psst, Joe! Over here! I’m Abraham Stern, your third-great-grandfather. I’m buried here, so come have your moment or whatever.
Though if I’m being honest, I did think I could maybe follow the Jewish tradition of putting a rock on one of the tombstones and feel good about myself for doing my first purposefully Jewish thing in a Jewish place, knowing that the remains of my ancestors were nearby. But without the walls, a passerby would be forgiven for mistaking the plot of land as the site of where a house burned down a century ago and was never replaced. I asked what happened.
“Locals took them during the communist period,” Mark explained. “To build roads or use for themselves.” I suspected by “use for themselves,” he meant the materials tombstones are made from, not as some strange wall decoration like something that might pop up at an Applebee’s or TGIFridays alongside a team photo of the local high school football team.
There was one maintained building within the cemetery. It was no larger or more remarkable-looking than a tool shed. Inside, the remains of Rabbi Yechiel Michal have been laid to rest inside stone boxes. It’s a small room and I immediately felt uncomfortable knowing there was a tiny skeleton next to my feet, meant to be revered. And revered it was, covered in sheets of paper with Hebrew prayers written on them lying next to extinguished candles.
“Fifty Orthodox Jews come here every year from around the world to pray,” said Mark.
“How old is all of this?” I asked. “I mean, when did it stop being an active cemetery?”
Both Chris and Mark didn’t seem to have an answer and posited educated guesses. Chris handed me a small pamphlet with information on Kurima, including the cemetery, which claimed it was in use until the Nazis came in the late 1940s. When I pointed the text out, they shook their heads in joint disagreement, insisting that the New Jewish Cemetery that we’d visit next must be older than the Nazi invasion.
Their skepticism made sense to me and I’m not one to hold the copy in tourist brochures as the word of the Almighty. Besides, the grim reality is that there would’ve been no use for a Jewish cemetery after the ’40s.
Trotting back down the hill, Chris and Mark made note of the Roma again as we passed some by and they exchanged pleasantries. I couldn’t help but bite.
“You said these are the good Roma?” I asked. “What do you mean by that?
I didn’t love phrasing my question in such a stark duality when talking about a group of people. After all, you don’t have to go far back in time (or at all, lately) to hear talk of “good Jews” and “bad Jews.’ But I felt it made sense to use their language to get an honest answer.
And that’s precisely what I got.
“They own houses,” said Chris, turning back slightly toward the Roma locals we just passed. “Like white people. They get along with us.”
Oh boy, I thought. Buckle up.
“The government gives them money for houses, for school, and they just don’t use it. They’re lazy. They don’t want to work,” Mark added.
“It’s like in the U.S.,” Chris continued. “With the brown people. The blacks.”
Abort! Abort! Abort!
That’s when I stopped asking questions. I usually try to allow for something to be lost in translation, but there’s not a hair thick enough to split what they said. Although that was the only time I engaged on the topic, it came up time and time again throughout my day with Mark.
“Gypsies, gypsies, gypsies,” he’d say in a perplexed ‘what are we going to do with you?’ tone while driving past a Roma settlement. “Would you ever imagine this? In the 21st Century?”
The scene was unexpected for me. Trash and plastic bottles were strewn about the makeshift homes and dirt paths leading to the road. It reminded me of a slum I visited with a local non-profit in San José, Costa Rica. But instead of challenging the system that would allow for such poverty, Mark seemed content to lay the blame entirely at the feet of these Roma folks.
In that respect, it actually isn’t unlike when your suburban born-and-raised relative’s only experience with people of color in the United States is driving through their neighbors on highways. They see a disheveled house and assume they did something wrong. “Why don’t they fix up their house?” they’ll ask, condescendingly in the same breath as, “Why don’t they just get a better job?” as if either of these things is ripe for the picking.
Rarely does this hypothetical relative consider the lingering legacy of slavery, the lack of generational wealth because of racist policies borne out of the abolishment of slavery that continue to this day, or the fact that their highways were in many cases built for the sole purpose of segregating white people and wealth from people of color who were just starting to become economically mobile.
Now it’s fair to say that most jobs in the United States come with a price tag. You need to be able to afford your own car and the insurance if you’re not one of the rare lucky ones who can find a public transit connection that doesn’t take two hours one way.
I have opinions on this, as you can see.
Perhaps above all, I felt uncomfortable, squeamish even, as Mark so comfortably embraced the same kind of prejudicial language that may have forced my ancestors out and eventually led to the death of the local Jewish community, some more than likely my distant relatives.
It was a double-edged sword. On one hand, I wanted to say “Quit ruining my ancestral pilgrimage! I’m trying to have a moment over here.” On the flip side, I would’ve been wandering aimlessly around Bardejov without Mark’s research and hospitality. What’s more, in a twist that gave my brain whiplash, he’d later chastise extremists who continue to fuel anti-Semitic and anti-Roma rhetoric.
Of course, prejudice rarely makes sense.
“They live in villages and never change their mind,” he said about racists at-large in an ongoing guffaw during an afternoon stop in Cigelka––a town near the Polish border where I had some evidence of my third-great-grandfather living. “Anti-Jewish, anti-Roma… Why? Why hate these people?”
Someone with a larger Twitter following might have used the moment to tweet-shame the man with a deluge of self-righteous scorning and watch the retweets pour in, filling their stores of social media gratification like the Highlander absorbing the power of his victim. But I decided that despite some of his uncomfortable language, his heart was hovering around the right place.
We had driven by more Roma people on the way up to the church in Cigelka with the most scenic view of the village; the Orthodox church standing atop the hill and a gentle stream running downhill hill under the bridge to the church grounds. Mark said Roma make up the majority of Cigelka these days in a village I could more easily imagine as the 19th Century shtetl (Jewish village) than Dubinné––the last record I have of my ancestors in the Old Country, with its nondescript road and homes on either side.
Few remnants of Jewish life remain in these villages. Mark could point out the pub in Kurima that used to be owned by a Jewish family. Chris noted the holes in the door frame to an abandoned home that likely used to hold a mezuzah. He paused as I took in the splintered wood and chipped paint where the holes were.
If I appeared unmoved, it’s because I was. I had no idea what a mezuzah was. He could’ve made the word up for all I knew. It did sound suspiciously like a kazoo and my brain, quickly trying to make sense of it all without revealing my embarrassing lack of Jewish knowledge, tried to imagine why nineteenth-century Jews, my ancestors, would post a musical instrument to their doors.
I think Chris could sense my ignorance as I feigned interest like I was at an art gallery, trying to understand why I should care about the seemingly random assortment of shapes and colors in front of me. But no matter how hard I stared, I couldn’t figure out what a mezuzah could be. My pride broke and I finally asked. Chris looked at me shocked, his eyes slanted and confused as if I were one of those Magic Eye images you have to stare at to see the full picture. I could tell he was thinking, “What kind of Jew is this?” Maybe if he stared cross-eyed long enough, my diluted Jewyness would reveal itself and he could better understand what he was working with.
“You know?” he insisted. “A mezuzah!”
I froze. Maybe I shrugged my shoulders. I can’t remember.
“What kind of a Jew doesn’t know what a mezuzah is!?” he said, wincing and chuckling at my ignorance simultaneously. (I knew that’s what he was thinking.)
I’ll admit it stung at first. Having my level of Jewishness questioned was one of the many reasons I didn’t study my heritage sooner. But I knew it was inevitable, like a standup comedian bombing on stage. It was going to happen and better that it did in rural Slovakia with a small audience.
Chris finally explained that a mezuzah is something Jewish people posted on their doorframes. I repeated the word over and over again, trying to burn it into my memory like a kid prepping for a vocabulary test. I wanted to look it up later and learn more.
Inevitably, I forgot the word over the day as it morphed into variations of “zoomah” and “mezu-something” in my head. Fortunately, Googling “thing Jews put on doors” gave me everything I needed to know, explaining that a mezuzah is a decorative encasing holding a Hebrew prayer that’s supposed to be affixed to the door frame of a Jewish home according to Jewish law. They can actually look quite beautiful and I imagined myself getting one eventually even if the religious significance didn’t particularly resonate with me. But if someone with a drop of Irish blood can get a Celtic cross because it looks nice, surely I could be worthy enough to have a mezuzah. I decided I’d confer with someone more knowledgeable later on to make sure the gesture wouldn’t be blatantly offensive.
But in northeastern Slovakia, the mezuzahs were long gone. The only remnant of Jewish life in Dubinné was the oak tree, a remnant only because it would’ve been around before and after Jewish settlement. Now it’s a front yard ‘attraction’ next to someone’s driveway with a red car parked in the garage.
This is hardly the first time that a host of mine had let their casual racism slip out unprompted. What baffles me is that these people are always aware that I’m a writer. I never try to hide it. You’ll never hear me offer some cover occupation like a CIA Agent who swears they’re just an accountant. I often even give people a heads up that I’m likely to write about my experiences if I know my intentions beforehand.
None of it matters. People still say things to me, a stranger, that could get them fired if they shared these same thoughts with their manager. The fact that this keeps happening is the only reason I don’t so quickly brush off the otherwise ridiculous “have you ever plotted against the United States?” type questions from Homeland Security prior to boarding a flight. I’ve seen enough evidence to suggest that there are people out there who might actually admit, “Yes. Yes, I have” after landing in Newark.
“Gypsies are going to be the second biggest problem in Europe,” Mark said. I didn’t want to know what he thought the biggest problem would be. I doubt it was climate change.
Then once again, whiplash. He’d do or say something else, revealing a thoughtful, earnest man who ultimately wanted to do the right thing and live a good life in an increasingly complicated world. His obvious compassion for people––even if he sometimes articulated it poorly––was so obvious and palpable that I hesitated to share the less than savory things he did on occasion say.
Some of you reading this probably have a relative like him at your Thanksgiving or holiday dinner table. He showed the same sentimentality for family and memories that I see among my loved ones.
After taking me to a hidden Jewish cemetery––unrelated to my story, just something he found one day and wanted to show me––we took another detour down a road that quickly turned to dirt.
“I probably shouldn’t be on this,” he said with a masochistic grin as we bounced around the uneven path. I thought he was going to permanently bust up his vehicle.
We ended up at an old holiday resort that he took his family to during the communist period. I watched as he stood at the edge of the dry lake his kids used to swim in and replay the fond memories in his head. I could sense a struggle to keep up with a changing world. Not that he missed the communist period. Far from it. But the opening of the borders has allowed young Slovaks to more easily leave and it’s created a brain drain of sorts to other European Union countries with better prospects.
On more than one occasion, Mark lamented the lack of opportunity for young people in Bardejov and the corruption in local government––a point he emphasized by reminding me of the relatively recent news of a journalist, Ján Kuciak, who was killed for looking into such matters on a national scale.
He was thoughtful and clearly cared about matters beyond himself. Although his empathy didn’t seem to always respect the plight of local Roma, he definitively spoke out against their persecution––of them or any other group of people. That’s not nothing, especially since there are children in cages on the U.S. border as I write this and a good chunk of the country is okay with the guy who enacted that policy.
After two more detours––one to get coffee at the Slovakian equivalent of Target and another to visit a friend restoring an old church door he found––we were back at the Suburbium Synagogue complex in Bardejov, spending more time in the buildings yet to be restored with ongoing excavations. There were shopping carts and bags full of disheveled Hebrew text, original artwork reemerging from underneath stains of time and disuse.
In a smaller room currently being used for storage, Mark explained that this is where many Jews were cramped together as they awaited transport to the camps. He pointed out where they’d scribbled their names on the wall, still visible, so they wouldn’t be forgotten.
More immediate efforts have been placed on preserving letters and drawings written by the synagogue’s students. A selection that Mark shared featured crayon drawings by children in the weeks and days leading up to deportation. One drew a scene with a black crayon showing a train with bombing aircraft above. He then suggested that it could just as easily have been my drawings in there as a memorial to the next tragedy.
I don’t love the frequent reminder of “that could’ve been you” just because of my heritage. It reminds me of when a classmate of mine in a social studies class years ago told me I was probably Jewish enough to be killed in the Holocaust. He was right, I later found out, but talk about putting a damper on your day. Not to mention that being the sole connection to my Jewish heritage––at least, the only one that I was aware of at the time––didn’t exactly make me want to lean into it.
Then again, with the relative maturity of adulthood now in my arsenal, I realize that persecution can forge identity even as much as nobody wants to be defined by their persecutors. Oddly enough, it’s often the persecutors who broaden the definition of an identity beyond the group itself. Just as Nazis had their race chart lumping in many “Jews” who might not have had that as their identity, many then-segregated U.S. states codified into law the so-called “one-drop rule” that designated anyone with a black ancestor as a black person.
Even if I didn’t consider myself a Jew, it’s not like it would’ve saved me. Plenty of Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust were just as assimilated into mainstream German culture as I was in the United States. That didn’t save them and it wouldn’t have saved me.
“We would’ve had some hiding to do,” as my brother once put it.
Of course, there are descendants of survivors who kept quiet about their Jewish identity for the rest of their lives. But there are also plenty who felt emboldened to own their identity after being persecuted for it. Jews are hardly the only historically persecuted minority to behave in such a way.
There are also those who didn’t fit into either bucket, like me. Life in the United States ended the isolation of shtetls for many Jews. So, it’s no surprise that many inter-married just like any other immigrant culture, leading to descendants (again, like me) who aren’t really a majority anything if you’re to parse DNA or cultural history.
I realize that parsing DNA and cultural history is tip-toeing uncomfortably close to Nazism and bogus race science. In case you couldn’t already tell, this is all tricky stuff to navigate. Sometimes it’s like Tom Cruise in a Mission Impossible movie, trying to carefully avoid the invisible lasers that will trip the alarm. Except in this case, if you trip the alarm, you might find yourself on a Reddit forum full of white supremacists. Not recommended.
At the end of the day, I think people like me just have to do what speaks to them. I see that within family members of my generation. My brother loves rattling off Yiddish words and phrases. One of my cousins connected most with Jewish foods, like our grandmother’s matzo brei, even though she had no idea our grandmother was Jewish until she was well into college. In fact, it was my Anglo-Saxon mother who broke the news.
“What did you think the matzo ball soup was all about?” she asked my cousin.
Nobody else in my family, as far as I can tell, has engaged with their Jewish heritage beyond that. In fact, one cousin just celebrated her daughter’s First Communion, though Jewish rabbinic law would still say they’re both Jewish––and I’m not––because the connection passes through the mother.
(Interestingly, Judaism originally passed through the father––think Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, and so on––but the rabbis changed it to the mother.)
And I think that’s perfectly fine. For me, it makes sense and feels right to engage deeper with it the further I go, so much so that I’ve gotten to the point that I will call myself a Jew––not because a Nazi race chart would say so but because it would feel weird to otherwise deny it.
“Who me? A Jew? No, no, no. I’m not your goy––I mean, guy! I meant guy. I’m not a goy––shit––I mean, I am not the guy you’re looking for.”
I do want to stand in solidarity with other Jews in the world. That has been and always will be part of it. But above all, I call myself a Jew because that’s the heritage and culture I’ve found myself most identifying with as an adult. I know that doesn’t fit everyone’s definition of a Jew and the very many definitions of it, but as I’ve also learned, you’re never going to please everyone––especially a room full of Jews with more opinions than there are people.
All that said, and tying it all back to my earlier point about persecution forging identity, I can’t say that’s not part of it. I’ve always been a bit contradictory in that respect. I mean, I started getting interested in living overseas because people kept saying I was already living in “the greatest country on Earth” and I thought that was bullshit.
Anti-Semitism has been steadily on the rise once again. It would feel especially strange at this moment of history to deny being a Jew. But I know I can also claim that identity with relative safety and privilege. I’m white and not visibly Jewish. I can write comfortably from my Berlin apartment about this stuff, knowing that I’ll pass as a German (or just an American once I open my mouth) in public.
Once, a Jewish colleague of mine and I discussed at a bar after work how Neo-Nazis would even pick us out of a crowd. She was an American who got German citizenship as a descendant of someone who lost their citizenship under the Nuremberg race laws. But she was also secular, like most Jews these days. How would anyone find people like us? You know, if you don’t voluntarily sign up for a DNA test and then write a book about it.
Then we stopped, realizing we probably shouldn’t worry about the logistics on behalf of white supremacists.
In any event, this all felt relevant to me because Mark seemed oddly certain that pogroms––an organized slaughter of Jews––would make a comeback. Now that would be logistically difficult in a place like Bardejov where there aren’t any Jews any more thanks to Jozef Tiso, then-president of Nazi Germany’s Slovakian puppet state, and his deportation policies. Even when the Vatican stepped up and demanded that the former Roman Catholic priest put an end to Slovakian deportations, he balked, saying, “There is no foreign intervention which would stop us on the road to the liberation of Slovakia from Jewry.”
Only seven Jewish families survived through liberation in Bardejov. More than two-thirds of all Jews living in Slovakia had been murdered by the end of the Holocaust.
After sifting through some of the dusty documents of the synagogue, we stopped by the Holocaust memorial attached to the complex designed by an Israeli architect and survivor originally from nearby Presov. Mark pointed out some of the names on the wall that he’d just shown me scrawled in panicked handwriting in the storage room. The highlight of it all was a maroon-colored Star of David, rising out from under the train tracks that took millions of Jews to their deaths in concentration camps.
I met Mark’s son John and his girlfriend Katie at my hotel. There was something lost in translation on whether we were having dinner or just a drink. I assumed a drink, they were hungry for dinner, so I threw another beer back while they enjoyed their meals and we chatted. This is when I started to get a sense of John’s motivation for getting involved in memorializing the Jewish community of Bardejov and northeastern Slovakia.
First thing’s first, the Bardejov Jewish Preservation Committee is a non-profit founded in March 2006 by Emil Fish, a Bergen-Belsen concentration camp survivor who was born in Bardejov. After liberation, Fish immigrated to Canada and eventually settled in Los Angeles in 1955. He returned to Bardejov in July 2005 for the first time since 1949 with his wife and son by his side.
Less than a year later, he founded the committee with the mission to restore and preserve the synagogue and Jewish cemetery, otherwise left to disrepair. They’ve since expanded their mission to include restoring all Jewish properties of Bardejov while simultaneously building cultural awareness and historical significance of Jewish life in both Bardejov and Slovakia, advancing the knowledge of Jewish ancestry and heritage.
During his university days, John was pursuing a degree in theology and he made the history of the Jewish community the focus of his research. This led him to the old synagogue in town.
Before leaving dinner, Mark warned me that we’d be picking up a friend of theirs on the way to the bar.
“He’s crazy,” was the gist of their reviews.
But at the same time, brilliant and hilarious if you could put up with his sense of humor which seemed to range from the harmless to the creepy antics of horny high school boys, like taking pictures of attractive women at public events and sending outrageous porn clips to friends’ email boxes. I was warned not to give him my email address unless I wanted a visual surprise.
I stuck to their warning to keep my email address to myself, but it wouldn’t have mattered even if I did want to give it out. The man, something of a Slovakian Kosmo Kramer, would not (could not?) stop talking. It was a neurological exercise to try and keep up. His pauses only came for me to confirm American cultural references he learned by watching all of the movies and television shows produced in the United States.
We continued across the quiet cobblestones of Bardejov’s UNESCO city center in the dark, early evening hours in search of a bar with space for four and without clouds of cigarette smoke billowing up inside. After a couple of failed attempts, we ended up at Libresso Löwy––a bar Mark had taken me to the night before for a drink. There’s an “everyone knows everyone” vibe in Bardejov and I frequently saw it in action.
First, when Mark took me to this bar, we sat down with a friend of his who happened to be in the midst of campaigning for Zuzana Čaputová––a lawyer and activist who’d been compared to Erin Brockovich. (Weeks later she became the first woman to win the presidency and the youngest to hold the office. She’s reportedly eagerly awaiting her Julia Roberts portrayal.)
The night was like any other when a traveler stops in a new town and goes out with new friends. We talked, laughed, and I had some fireball-of-a-local drink at the insistence of
Slovakian Kramer. I’d had this night many times before but to do it where my ancestors came from made it all the more memorable. I’ve been fortunate to travel quite a bit in my young life, but I doubt I would’ve ever made it to Bardejov without that connection.
With some time to myself the next day, I went for a long run. John had tipped me off to a new trail from Bardejov to the nearby spa town of Kúpele that started from a gas station. He wasn’t kidding. The crushed stone path swept right into the gas station pavement as if that were a normal or logical place for a trailhead.
I traced the steep ascent into the thin slice of forest following the occasionally posted sign. The route was surprisingly forested. In Germany, there would’ve been signs all over a town like Bardejov with waymarkers leading the way to the trails. I can’t imagine I would’ve thought to check a gas station a kilometer outside of the city center without John letting me know.
The trail rose above the adjacent roadway before sweeping into thicker woodland, connecting with other trails. On my right, I started to see the edge of Kúpele. The dark brown wooden rooftops enclosed by the forest reminded me of spa towns I’ve visited in Germany. Except once I looped through town, I could see that communism had swept through like a tornado in Oklahoma. Some buildings appeared to be well-restored and even impressive, like the Hotel Astória. This was without question the crown jewel of town with the kind of grand elegance that’s often associated with old Europe. Why the communists let such a monument to wealth stand is beyond me.
Elsewhere, buildings with an otherwise pleasant exterior were left disused with years of abandonment starting to show. Then there was the bathhouse which looked like it was pulled out of a communism pamphlet on brutalism. It’s as if the architect wanted to convey the despair and creepiness that comes with a haunted hospital covered in brown stains while people attempted to relax in the sauna.
“They must be comfortable, but not too comfortable,” I imagined a comrade saying.
The loop through town didn’t take long and I was back on the trail, listening to a podcast as I followed my feet. I had recently made a return to Marc Maron’s podcast WTF and was listening to his conversation with Lebanese-American actor, Tony Shalhoub. You may know him as the titular, germaphobic character of Monk or more recently as the frustrated father, Abe Weissman, on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
A chunk of their conversation focused on Shalhoub’s ancestral trip to Lebanon, the country his parents had left to build a new life in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Shalhoub had never visited Lebanon before but spoke of feeling an immediate connection to the country. I couldn’t say I was feeling a connection to the land itself, but it sparked a thought nonetheless.
For so long I had a negative (or at best, neutral) association with being Jewish even though I had never truly thought of myself as Jewish. An Orthodox Rabbi might say I’m not a Jew but having the family history was enough for it to come up every now and again. Besides the junior high classmate who told me I was Jewish enough to be killed in the Holocaust, there were my college roommates who drew a swastika on a cake after what felt like months of calling me a “Jew” in a Borat voice.
(I know what you’re thinking. What a waste of cake.)
I never had a positive association with my Ashkenazi Jewish heritage because I couldn’t recall any positive experiences with it. Even up to this point, I struggled with my visit to Slovakia already being dominated by the desecrated graveyard and a close look at what would’ve happened to my family had they never immigrated to the United States.
Within a few weeks after the trip, I watched a documentary on a far-right, anti-Semitic politician in Hungary who found out he’s Jewish and that his grandmother survived the Holocaust. Fast forward, he decides to embrace being a Jew and attempt to atone for his sins by going fully orthodox. Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, a Brooklyn-born Jew to Holocaust survivors, takes him in at his synagogue in Budapest where the young rabbi had taken on the incredible task of rebuilding the local Jewish community.
During a pivotal scene, the rabbi walks with the atoning Neo-Nazi through a Jewish cemetery. He says, “You come to the cemetery to think, we have to remember those who lived these lives and also the fate of the Jewish people. So coming back here is in fact reconnecting with your ancestors, to those who you had basically been denying.”
I had certainly never denied my family, but I was seeking to reconnect with this part of me that had essentially been dormant for the thirty-two years of my life. So I understand and appreciate the importance of reflecting on this history, both on a personal level and in the grand scheme of world history. But I’ve longed for the joys of being an Ashkenazi Jew. The Irish sing, the Puerto Ricans dance, and the Greeks, I don’t know, cook you lamb? (I married into a Greek-American family, so I think I can make that joke).
What does an Ashkenazi do? That sounds like the setup to a joke, but I really wanted to know! How do I get this unadulterated pride in my heritage that other cultures experience? Where’s my “Kiss Me, I’m Ashkenazi” tee shirt or parade down Fifth Avenue?
That’s when I realized that I was starting to make my own positive memories of being Ashkenazi just by being there, 150 years later, by meeting people I never would’ve met were it not for my heritage. Being a member of the tribe brought me to a corner of the world I’d never heard of a few months earlier, a place I would’ve never experienced had I just accepted myself as an American and nothing more. The tens of millions in the Irish diaspora end up on the same ancestral trail, swapping spit on the Blarney Stone with the millions who kissed it before them. I was in Bardejov, doing my own thing, sans spit.
There are no travel writers or influencers signing the praises of northeastern Slovakia as the next top travel destination. The last mention of Bardejov in The New York Times came, ironically enough (or perhaps not at all), in an ancestral story published in 1994. Reading the article, it doesn’t sound like much has changed. My Jewish ancestors took me someplace different, someplace unique, which is no easy feat in a world with a Google Streetview around almost every corner.
Not having been raised in the culture or religion, this trip to Slovakia quickly became the only connection I had to being an Ashkenazi Jew. It filled a puzzle piece that I imagine is missing for a lot of Jews who weren’t raised as such, like myself, and don’t have a memory of a comical, pre-pubescent Bar or Bat Mitzvah Torah reading to make them laugh on a bad day. Instead, having that Jewish blood is just an uncontrollable reminder for the wrong people that there’s something different about you, at least in their eyes, that they hate. If that’s your only connection to being Jewish or ethnically Ashkenazi, then why would you embrace it?
My prior indifference to embracing my heritage reminded me of a scene from Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman. John David Washington’s Ron Stallworth is trying to rally support from Adam Driver’s character to go after the local KKK.
“You’re a Jew!” he says. “When are you going to realize you’ve got skin in the game?”
Driver’s character appears to dismiss it at first, but later, as he’s working undercover as a white supremacist, he continually butts heads with one of the chapter members who suspects that he’s a Jew. He wants Driver to take a lie detector test to prove he’s not a Jew. Suddenly he’s continually having to deny a part of himself to survive in this mission and he admits to his partner that it’s getting to him, even though he wasn’t raised Jewish and it’s just something in his ancestry.
“I’m Jewish, but I wasn’t raised to be. It wasn’t part of my life, I never thought much about being Jewish, nobody around me was Jewish. I wasn’t going to a bunch of Bar Mitzvahs, I didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah. I was just another white kid. And now I’m in some basement denying it out loud. I never thought much about it, now I’m thinking about it all the time. About rituals and heritage.”
Okay, I wasn’t doing anything as admirable as trying to take down the KKK, but I can relate to the rest––suddenly thinking about it all the time, my heritage. I was never looking to make a connection with God. If that were the case, I’d have just as much reason to dive into Catholicism and follow in my Grandpa Bud’s footsteps who served as an altar boy and could only repeatedly cry “God” in the horrible months leading to his death. Or I could’ve gone with whatever brand of Christianity is flowing out of Vincent Christian Church in rural Otwell, Indiana, founded by my maternal great-grandfather, Benjamin Harrison Osgatharp.
Even though I wasn’t looking to make a religious connection, I did want to establish a positive connection with my Jewish heritage. Because like Driver’s character, I’ll never feel comfortable denying my Jewishness, no matter how big, small, or non-existent others may interpret it. I’m happy to be accepted as a fellow Jew by the community and I won’t be offended if someone who takes rabbinic law seriously refuses to consider me one. But you will never hear me deny being a Jew. Although I never met my great-grandparents and my relationship with my grandmother was rocky at best, I can still appreciate the fact that it was that side of the family that faced the largest obstacles to survive, and I can find a way to honor that.
Judaism even has a holiday to contemplate such thoughts––Tisha B’Av. The annual fast day is known as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, contemplating the various tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people from the destruction of Solomon’s Temple through the Crusades and the Holocaust. I’m not trying to equate my ancestors voluntarily immigrating to another country with any of these historic calamities, but there is an inherent tragedy when a group of people are isolated from society, whether it’s de facto or de jure, in the way it appears my ancestors were along with most of the historic Jewish diaspora––confined to their remote villages.
There’s tragedy in the realization that had things not worked out in the United States, my ancestors didn’t have a country awaiting them with open arms in the same way the progenitor of my Swiss surname could’ve just gone back to Switzerland. I can look back at my rejuvenated family tree and see the hundreds if not thousands of future lives that were unknowingly saved by just a few people making a bold decision to go, just as Abraham (yes the Abraham) did when God commanded him in Genesis to Lech-L’cha and go forth from his native land. I also couldn’t help but connect with those words and the actions of my ancestors when thinking about my life, how I had longed to leave my native land, to borrow the Biblical language, and have felt more at home among strangers than where I was born.
Coming to this understanding on a forest run outside of Bardejov was enough for me, even if I got nothing else out of this trip. I didn’t need to find a grave or an old building in the shtetl where my family used to live. I knew that wasn’t going to happen anyway. But I could right a wrong of the Jewish diaspora by returning to where my family came from without fear of persecution for what’s in my blood.
A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
I had one last beer with Mark the night before continuing onward to Krakow. He had called me up and said he had a present for me, promising to stop by the hotel later that night. Indeed, he came bearing a gift––a xerox copy of an Austro-Hungarian census document with members of the Feldman family in Dubinné.
Nathan Feldman, my third-great-grandfather, is listed as the patriarch with my second-great-grandmother Anna underneath. Their religion was marked as “Moses,” which amuses me for some reason.
She would go on to marry David Stern, have a son named Maurice (my great-grandfather), and as far as I can tell from followup research, immigrate to Circleville, Ohio within a year of his birth.
Unfortunately, her story would end shortly thereafter. She passed away at the young age of 34—a little over a decade after immigrating to the U.S.
Anna’s early death helped me spot a trend in my family tree (and likely yours, too) that women often died young, most likely due to complications related to childbirth (though that wasn’t necessarily the case with Anna since she appears to have lived several years after the birth of her last child).
Despite records in the Old Country being difficult to find, I know that David isn’t the only man in my family tree who remarried at least once following the early death of a spouse. My fourth-great-grandfather Moses Edelman (approximately 1789-1843) sticks out with one distant cousin recording in his research thirteen kids with three wives.
There’s an obvious Genesis joke here about being fruitful and multiplying. I guess Grandpa Moses enjoyed doing his mitzvah.