I wrote the first five of these poems around the time of my grandmothers' deaths, taking pen in hand to express my grief and to try to make sense of the immense loss. We had lived together with them in our close-knit Bronx neighborhood. They connected our family to our cultural and political traditions, and to one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of our family: their emigration from the "Old Country" at the beginning of the 20th century.
The feelings that compelled these poems later led me to embark on a project to search out the history of my Grandma Bessie, who came from Kholmech, a small village in Byelorussia (now Belarus). In this quest, my father, Jerry Schechter, and I found a priceless resource in a bundle 102 letters sent to her over a period of twenty-two years (1913-1935) by her father and her many brothers and sisters. It took eight years to have all of these Russian and Yiddish letters translated. The work of placing them in the correct order and creating a context for them by researching the historical literature and official documents proceeded like a great archaeological dig into my family's past. We dug and dug. In 1998, my father and I had the results bound into a book entitled Bessie's Letters. The poems that appear in the second section all came out of these years of historical excavation and remembrance.
Memory survives only if sustained, and so we light yarzheit candles on the following dates in remembrance of my grandparents:
Karl Karish / October 12 (1963)
Max Schechter / March 30 (1966)
Sarah Karish / April 2 (1973)
Bessie Schechter / December 4 (1980)
I hope our children will light a candle for our Russian family as well, lost to us forever in the fog of time, of war, of Holocaust.
Bill Schechter, 1998
POSTSCRIPT...NINE YEARS LATER
The last line of the introduction above expressed my belief that my Russian family was "lost to us forever." Indeed, my father and I did not undertake our family history project in order to find them. Where would we even start? How could they have survived? We simply wanted our children (and their children) to know something about their roots.
But through divine intervention, fate, or unbelievable good fortune (take your pick), we found our family, thereby ending a separation of seventy years. Against all odds, many of them had survived the war and the Holocaust. And so we found what we weren't looking for, and what followed was beyond our hopes and imagination. As it happened, an Israeli historian had seen our work on the Internet. He later embarked on a project interviewing recent Byelorussian Jewish emigrants. Serendipity struck, connections were made, and a family was reunited in 2004, in a most unlikely place: Nuremburg, Germany.
Our original history project can be found at:
The November 2004 Boston Globe story of our family "miracle" can be found at:
Bill Schechter, 2007