This week, our executive editor, Judith Fein, published a book that has already garnered great reviews and word-of-mouth referrals—THE SPOON FROM MINKOWITZ: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands. Writer Caren Osten Gerszberg interviewed Fein in the Q&A below for a YourLifeIsATrip.com exclusive. Read on to discover the story behind the story.
Q: In your book, you recount your lifelong quest--since learning six facts about your grandmother's life in Russia--to return to her village. Why do you think you were interested to learn of your family roots at such a young age?
JF: I think that some of us were born to be musicians, teachers, writers, social workers, or mathematicians. I was fingered by fate to find out the truth about my ancestors, and to honor all of those who came before me. My grandmother spoke with an accent, believed in unseen forces, and came from an exotic country. She didn’t want to talk about her past life. My mother refused to tell me about the village her mother came from. And the more they stonewalled me, the more I wanted to know. I was a little kid, but I followed the six paltry clues I had like a sleuth. In fact, I can honestly say that I was living in a detective story.
Q: Throughout your journey, you were repeatedly "hitting walls" when it came to learning about Minkowitz--such as with your mother and the man on the train in Paris. What provoked your will to continue the search?
JF: I was obsessed. No matter what anyone said or did, I was undaunted. I loved my grandmother. I was on the phone with her right before she died. It was my secret mission to get to her village and find out what no one would tell me. I wanted to know who she was before she was my grandmother. And when I grew up, I discovered that a lot of people were just like me. No one in their families spoke about what happened before they came to America. I was absolutely determined to find out, for myself and for others who had never asked the questions, but who cared, who were curious, who wanted or needed to know.
Q: When you first arrived in the Ukraine, you made connections with older women. How did that bring you closer to your grandmother and your plight to visit Minkowitz?
JF: There was something familiar about the woman at the market in L’viv who arrived by train with three bottles full of milk from her cows. She was poor, humble, struggling to make ends meet, like my grandmother, my great grandmother, and all the grandmothers before that. I was drawn to Barbara, who lived alone in the countryside in a ramshackle wooden house with a wattle and daub barn. Inside her house, I saw her goose down comforters. They must have been three feet high. They were exactly like the ones my ancestors brought over when they sailed in steerage to America. Even when I was in modern cities in Ukraine, I seemed to slip through the cracks, and I found elderly women who tugged at my soul, and harkened back to the life I knew my ancestors had lived. When I asked them how old their houses were, I found out they were from Czarist times, when my grandmother lived in Ukraine (then it was Russia). They wore the same babushkas my grandmothers wore. They ate the same food. We hugged each other. There was an instant bond.
Q: Prior to arriving in L'viv, you'd visited places like Dachau and Auschwitz. How did your experience at L'viv and what you learned about the fate of the Jews there feel similar or different?
JF: I had always shut down when it came to the Holocaust. It was a black hole I was afraid of falling into because it was so enormous; I feared it would swallow me up. I could never wrap my arms around something so systematic and inhuman. I thought about all the modern-era massacres human beings carried out against each other, and the never-ending waves of senseless brutality. I was adamantly determined to focus on the era long before the Holocaust when my grandmother lived there. But the Holocaust was everywhere around me. I couldn’t escape it. Finally, at the end, I had a small, intimate experience when it became real to me. Searingly, heartbreakingly real.
Q: You write about an unhappy emotional reaction to eating foods from your childhood at Igor and Hala's home. Since writing the book, have you resolved those associations?
JF: When I finally got to Ukraine, the more I became aware of the outer landscape, the more old feelings arose from my inner landscape. At Igor and Hala’s house, when I ate Ukrainian foods that were also my ancestral foods, I was silently choking on the fraught environment in which I was raised. I couldn’t push it away. Have I resolved those associations? They seem distant to me now, but I shudder when I think of the impact they had on my life. I could not write this book honestly without dealing with the pain and rage and craziness that is handed down from generation to generation. As someone recently told me, you transform it or you transmit it.
Q: It seems like fate that you stumbled upon your paternal grandfather's village of Bursztyn but were unable to confirm a connection. Did the "white feather" found at your feet bring you the connection you needed?
JF: I have not been able to confirm the connection. The white feathers at my feet always seem to me to be a sign from the ancestors that I am on the right path. But “right path” can have many meanings. My whole trip, every minute of it, was the “right path,” the one I was destined to follow.
Q: Your roots-seeking journey was obviously a cathartic experience. Would you say it healed the "chain of anxiety" between you and previous generations?
JF: No. Perhaps I shattered the silence, but the chain still has links. Breaking the chain entirely is a process. I hope I am further along in that process.
Q: When I traveled to my father's village in Transylvania, Romania, and tasted the foods he spoke of lovingly, it brought me closer to him and our heritage. Do you think the women in Moldova understood the importance that food played in your heritage?
JF: I do not know if any of the people I met were aware of how important they, their food, and their customs were to me. I tried to tell each of them. I thanked them over and over. By the way you ask the question, I know you understand. I hope they understood as well as you do. Each bite of food was a confirmation, an affirmation: this was, indeed, the world my people came from. When you go into a deli in any big city in America, and even in small cities, you are eating that soul food. Each mouthful I ate brought me closer and close to the reality of Minkowitz.
Q: What started out as your own personal journey clearly became one for your husband, Paul, as well. When did you decide to title the book, The Spoon from Minkowitz, as the spoon was a relic from his family?
JF: I have often seen couples fretting about what to name their baby. It was like that for me. I had hundreds of names. I was drowning in titles. One day, I went onto Facebook, and I asked for help. I listed a bunch of possible titles and subtitles. The Spoon from Minkowitz won. It felt right. It was as odd and authentic as my quest. And of course I had the Minkowitz spoon that connected me and Paul in front of me on my desk as I wrote.
Q: Now that you've realized and recounted the journey to find your roots, what's next?
JF: I will be participating in a series of events designed to celebrate and connect others to those who came before them. I hope to give more talks, plan more events, and in some small way help to heal the rootlessness so many people feel by connecting to our roots.
Caren Osten Gerszberg is a writer and editor, whose article, "Traveling to Find Your Roots," was recently published in The New York Times Travel section. You can read more of her work at www.carenosten.com