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I've been thinking a lot about my family. True, by and large they are insane and I think that by and large they are also brilliant adds to that.

That seems a particularly apt phrasing for my birth kin, their brilliance, their longing to shine. As though together we are a constellastion and each of us a single star struggling to define itself against the light of other stars and the loneliness of space.

Brilliant to me doesn't mean more intelligent, so much as a particular kind of intelligence, a brightness that is shiny and stands out, that is hungry too that demands to be seen. That is fiercely competitive in its own way, often punishingly, sometimes devouringly so.

Looking over my blood kin I can't think of anyone who wasn't very clever, except my maternal grandmother (and I don't think she was dumb, just naive and of a fragile nervous constitution) and I must say I admire their endurance, the fact that they kept going through some of the toughest events imaginable in the world and within.

Much as my family can make me incoherent with irritation I find thier history termendously interesting.

On my mother's side, my great-grandmother who was a Croat Jew married a brutish man of Hungarian Gypsy/Jew descent because she wanted to take care of his children. He had seven children by his first wife who had died in a mysterious *accident*, the oldest of which was seven, the youngest 5 months old and he was not only poor but also known to be violent. And very soon she had two more children by him (I am mystified by the human impulse to reproduce into poverty) and the youngest of those two daughters was my grandmother). My great-grandmother divorced her husband not long after and gained custody of all the kids (pretty risky behaviour for 1908)- which he didn't contest and just fucked off and was never seen by anyone again, especially not his children who didn't even go to his funeral. Thus ended Jacob who didn't love and was not loved.

The two eldest children died early and it left two sisters and five brothers. The youngest of the brothers was my great uncle Aladar, a mad old git and the only one of my grandmother's siblings who was still alive in my lifetime.

He was incredibly rich and incredibly stingy and incredibly prone to quirks and *eccentricities*, a terrorist if you let him, but we got along because I was bright and funny and unafraid of him and I made him laugh, entertained him. He was always amused by the fact I answered back but was never rude.

Like I was 5 or 6, and my cousins were 8 and 12 and we were all at the seaside with him, the great-uncle took us to a cafe and asked us what we wanted to drink. We said *Juice*, he said *Juice is expensive, you can't have that, have tapwater instead that's free* and I piped up with:
*Well then, why on earth do you need all that money for? We're not rich but we always have enough for juice* And he laughed and brought us juice.

And lots of examples like that. The guy who resented paying for juice but when I was a little girl bought me the most expensive dress I have ever owned (which was worth more than all my other clothes put together) He could be incredibly stingy and generous, the sort of guy who made sure all his staff were well-paid but did his best to ride buses without paying the fare (even though he could have easily bought the entire bus company), and at the end of his life he left his money to Israel (which is fair enough) although he did buy my aunt and my mom each a house and a car, a fact that I still feel deeply grateful for.

He was a mean, eccentric old bastard but he could be equally amusing and tyrannical, but often I'm sorry he's dead because I wish I'd had a chance to know him better, and I've been thinking of him of late.

My memories of him are sketchy and hazy, he had a huge old house in Rome and no children of his own, so he quite liked having children around because he was very lonely after his wife died. He had such a longing to laugh, and be entertained, and I think as a child I had this bright, dynamic energy in spades, and he enjoyed sparring wits with me (even though I didn't realise that's what he was doing at the time). Like, I was four, and I was affectionate but I did not like getting hugged by him and he'd say something like:
*Nina, I'm lonely, come talk to me and sit on my lap* and I'd say something like: *I'd be delighted to, but just this minute I have vertigo* (I didn't actually know what vertigo was, except that when my grandmother said she had vertigo no one expected her to move), and that was the same summer that we went to stay in the hotel with him (which was the first hotel I had ever been in) and I remember being mystifed and tugging his sleeve and whispering conspirationally *I think we have servants* because it was like something out of a Russian fairytale to me, meals that magically appear, beds that are miraculously made and rooms cleaned. It was fun there and beautiful. A place in Slovenia called Bled that is splendid to see and I'm glad I got to see it before Yugoslavia died.

Wonderful scenery and an emerald green lake on which I

1) learned to swim
2) acquired a phobia of swans because the bastards bit me and used to attack swimmers.

And I'm digressing hugely, when what I really wanted to talk about was my family's history from before I was born.

So there we have it. Croatia, the 1930s and the seven surviving children have grown up. Aladar and his brothers have opened a store selling clothes for men, a business which takes off because they are bright and enterprising and good at it, and into which they hire a Croat man to help them run it. The year becomes 1940 and one day the Croat man appears and says he has something to tell them, that Germany is about to invade and that it's going to go very badly for the Jews, that there are concentration camps in the making, and although he is an Ustasa (a militant, anti-semitic group of the Croat military, a bit like skinheads) he feels that because they have treated him so well the years he has worked for them he is going to help them escape so he provides them all with false papers to get them across the border, out of Croatia and into Italy.

These are all recurrent themes in the history of my family, miraculous escapes, migrations, flight, help at the eleventh hour from the unlikeliest sources.

They leave, they disperse. I know one went to Canada (and was lost at sea and found again), but I think three were in an Italian Concentration Camp for a while (and they were much better off than they would have been in Aushwitz or Jasenovac or Dachau, but they each got out in some way. I don't remember how they all got out, I will have to ask my mother. I think one escaped. And as for Aladar he had help from a Roman Catholic priest.

The priest said that there had been some dreadful mistake and that Aladar's wife Ibika was his (the priest's) sister, so they released her right away and he took her into the church to live with him. I think Aladar found some way of bribing his way out, and hid in the church with the priest. There was a section of the wall in the church hollowed out, and covered up with loose bricks so that every time there was a raid, or an inspection Aladar would hide there and they'd wall him in.

I can't imagine what it was like for him, for any of them. The fear, the knowing that if you're found you're dead. That if you look scared you'll raise suspicion. And him, my great-uncle in the wall, in the dark. No light, little air. Having to stand and be quiet and still until the danger is past. Not daring to make a sound because then you are found and it's all over. The discipline it must have taken to maintain that silence, and the fear.

But the war ended. They lived. They were penniless (it was the first of his several rags-to-riches ascents and plummets) but they were alive, and after that war he made his first money by selling bad ham to the Germans and went on to make money and lose it and start over and lose it again, and make it again, because the one thing he had in spades beyond incredible intuition for business was stamina and endurance.

He might have been notoriously tight-fisted about most things (especially the trivial) but he honoured his debt to the priest well and saw that the priest and his family were looked after and wanted for nothing to the end of the priest's life.

That's his segment of the story, a segment of a segment. There is much more to it. In the family tapestry he is but a single thread and he has been luckier than most.

Still, there are consistent themes. I'm the scattered seed of the scattered seed of the scattered seed. I am the product of the unlikelies unions and long journeys.

On my father's side my grandmother's family were Germans and Poles/Russians who settled in the Ukraine, before they had all their proprety repossessed by the Bolsheviks and fled as refugees to Yugoslavia. My grandfather's family were originally French Crusaders who while crossing Georgia (next to Turkey) on the way to the Crusades decided that it was a lush green country and the people were friendly and the women were pretty and they made good liquor and that instead of going to kill infidel and die in the desert of dysintery they were going to stay in Goergia thank you very much, which is what they did, and they lived long and prospered and so did their children and their children's children until a segment that spawned me left Georgia with the reteating White Army to fight in France and then eventually come as refugees first to Turkey and then Yugoslavia (but not before my great great grandfather kicked Stalin out of seminary school thus in some way significantly shaping Stalin's future choice of alternative career).

And on my mother's mother's side are Croat Jews and Hungarian Gypsies and Jews whose descendants abandoned first Hungary then Croatia, ended up finally in Belgrade. My maternal grandfather's ancestors were probably the only ones who were from a particular place, they were peasant farmers who are tied to the land and tended to stay put and marry peasant farmers or their daughters and make more peasant farmers. My grandfather travelled though as did his brothers, though not wholly by choice. They crossed Albania on foot with the Serb army in WWI to fight on the Thessaloniki front and from there to France where my grandfather stayed and studied to become a doctor, and made some kind of amazing PhD in bacteriology (my mother showed me some very old, very yellow press clippings that said Young Yugoslav's great success in Paris) and at the end of his life earned himself a second bit of notoriety when gaining passing mention in an encyclopedia as one of three people to die of extreme allergic reaction to penicillin (which my mother also has a copy of for more morbid reasons). My great-uncle also did his share of travelling, namely as a political prisoner to Bare Island- a self-descriptive name- (a Yugoslav penal colony off the coast of Croatia)where he spent nine years incarcerated in solitary confinement many of which he spent writing on pieces of toilet paper and the walls of his cell a book he called *Joy*. He is not the only member of the family to get on the wrong side of authority, one of my Georgian uncles once removed was sent to the Gulag in Siberia for telling a joke about Stalin (not so funny now, eh?) ;)

They lived through hell on earth many times over my ancestors and I'm amazed at thier endurance and thier ability to survive (as well as piss off the wrong people).

They have such colourful histories after all, such wealth of stories between them.

I like the idea of Jungian psychology about The Collective Unconcious, the collective pool of experience/thoughts/memories of everyone who ever was.

And I think some of what our ancestors experienced, what they felt and knew is passed down to us in our genes woven hidden there concealed within the eyecolour, or the shape of a nose.

Sometimes I think that's why myself I am so restless, because it's such a deep and troubled pool I sprung from. The pool of thoughts, loves, hatreds, desires, fears, memories, of the thousand paths they travelled, and the thousand ennemies they fled and the millions of sights they saw and the thousand deaths they died.

Sometimes I think that I remember. As though they whisper in my bones, the old dead.

I don't mind all that much really. It's the living that tend to be a pain in the ass.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 12th, 2004 10:51 am (UTC)
You come from an interesting family! I don't know much about mine :( I know I'm descended from Hungarian gypsies, too, though!
May. 12th, 2004 11:26 pm (UTC)
heh. :) Small world
May. 12th, 2004 11:36 am (UTC)
my father's family are criminals
he's the only one who got away, became a doctor, married above his class (he comes from the village, my mum was born in the city and became a doctor too).

There's a rich vein of recentish heroism on both sides, because most of my family on both sides lived through the 1971 genocide (of us, by Pakistan) which became a successful War of Independence.

But regardless, the only family I count myself as having is my immediate family (dad, mum, bro, perhaps mum's sister my aunt). I remember all the way through high school here people were surprised that I did not know the number or names of my cousins.
May. 12th, 2004 03:53 pm (UTC)
A stunning tapestry of life.

I love you.

Your "other mom"
May. 13th, 2004 09:21 am (UTC)
Wow. *jawfloor* Your family history would make such a great book.
And here I thought I had an interesting family. *s*
May. 13th, 2004 10:05 am (UTC)
And here I thought I had an interesting family. *s*

You do. :)
Mine just lived in interesting times. ;)
May. 13th, 2004 08:33 pm (UTC)
That makes sense. All people are interesting, some are just faced with more than others. Takes something like that to prove what we can all make it through, I guess.
Anyhow, I saved reading that until just now b/c I didn't have time, but I'm glad I read it, it was fascinating.
May. 15th, 2004 11:22 am (UTC)
Nothing compared to yours. *s* We've lived through wars and such too, but they still didn't turn out as interesting as yours. You should really write down the story and publish it. I'd buy it.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


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