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“Was Your Grandfather Jewish?”
By Harvey Gotliffe © 2011
After both of my parents died unexpectedly seven weeks apart late in the summer
of 1981, I began to fill a journal with thoughts that surfaced on warm afternoons, during
crisp autumn evenings, and when sleep was interrupted on cold winter nights.
At 45, I began going to synagogue twice a day in a Detroit suburb, something
I had never done before. I joined other mourners in reciting the kaddish prayer. I sat in
the back row of the small, side chapel, furtively observing those who had lost parents,
spouses and even children. I witnessed their agony and anger, and after talking with them
over breakfast, I would go home and add copious notes to the journal.
As I emptied my parents’ apartment, I found a crudely drawn family chart in the
bottom of a file cabinet drawer, and I wondered about my connection to some of the
names. I played taped conversations I had made with my parents five years earlier, and
sat mesmerized listening for the first time, and writing down names of strange sounding
places in distant lands.
I started a second journal in a small brown notebook, adding information taken from
the tapes and from responses to letters I had written to relatives whose names sat in my
parents’ phone book, and I drew a tighter family chart.
In the spring of 1982, I mailed out letters to Jewish centers in European locales where
relatives once lived, as well as to social and governmental organizations, naively hoping
to find even the remotest family lead. The responses were far from encouraging, but I
decided to make a journey through Europe that August and visit the places mentioned in
taped conversations and written correspondence.
In the second journal, I wrote cryptic notes to myself on Lithuania after mulling
through Jewish history books in the synagogue library. “Kovno/Kaunas,” I inscribed,
“Check Central Archives.” On separate lines I listed “Synagogue Yaghsto St.. “
“Refuge in 1760’s in Slobodka (Vilijampole),” “Jewish cemetery plowed — 1963,”
“Yeshivat founded Zevi Levitan in 1963.” I underlined “Levitan” for that was the last
name of my grandfather Max Gotliffe’s uncle, the man who had taken him and his
orphaned siblings to England at the end of the 19th century.
The page headed “Klaipeda, Lithuania,” was devoted to my grandmother Annie, Max’s
wife, who was born there in 1876 when it was called Memel, Germany. I marked down
“Jews as of April 20, 1567,” “Settled freely as of 1812 – emancipation of Jews from
Prussia,” and “1867 – 887 Jews.” There was no way in this universe that I could have
foreseen that these innocent references would make me the central figure in a prolonged
interrogation by Russian authorities behind the then-unyielding Iron Curtain, on a
fast moving train in the middle of nowhere.
I roughed out a seven-week journey and asked my travel agent to make the necessary
arrangements for a flight to Paris, then the train travel through France, Germany,
Denmark, Norway and Sweden, before taking an overnight boat trip from Stockholm to
The time and activity during those legs of my journey were flexible. When I received
the confirmation notice of my itinerary beyond Helsinki into Russia, however, the timing
and places I wanted to visit were precisely spelled out.
The notice stated that I would board the Leningrad Express on Aug. 29 in Helsinki,
and on the other end of the line an official Soviet Intourist guide would escort me to the
Hotel Europeiskaya. Two days later, I would leave Leningrad on the night train into the
Lithuanian SSR, arriving the next morning in Vilnius, the legendary Vilna of yesterday. I
planned to stay there for five days, taking a one-day side trip to Kaunas, the Kovno of my
grandfather’s birth, before traveling on to Warsaw on Sept. 5. The agenda was
formal and exact, with no foreseeable problems. A pocket-sized booklet was included
with the invoice — “The Russian Adventure Primer” — which opened with what would
become an ominous promise that this would be “one of the most memorable trips you
will ever undertake.”
At noon on Aug. 29, I gazed out the window of my small, cell-like compartment
as the train left the safety of the Helsinki Station, and three-and-one-half hours later, it
halted in the middle of a field by Vainikkala, on the Finnish-Russian border. Ten
uniformed Russian customs officials emerged from a surreal mist, each carrying a worn
leather briefcase as they followed their somber leader garbed in a lifeless, dull brown
I had an eerie, foreboding feeling as I sat on that quiet train surrounded by tall grass
and purple wildflowers, under dark and gloomy skies. The silence was abruptly
interrupted by the shrill sound of the train’s whistle, as we jerked forward once, and
then again, and soon we were moving rapidly toward Leningrad through thick forests
embedded in the rocky terrain.
Within minutes, I heard a hard and rapid knock on the door to my compartment, and when it was opened from the outside, I was confronted by a short, jovial customs inspector bedecked in a pale gray uniform. He entered and began speaking to me slowly in simple English sentences delivered in a deep Russian accent. He began his set routine by reviewing my customs declaration form, counting my cash and traveler’s checks to be sure that the total matched the figure I had written on the form, and then asked me to open by two pieces of luggage.
The inspection went smoothly, and to an outside observer, it began to look as if we were in cahoots as we performed a seemingly well-rehearsed comedy routine. He would reach into my larger bag, pull out an article, look to identify it, and when I told him what it was he would repeat my description.
“”Soap,” I said. “Soap,” he echoed.
“Thermos,” I pronounced. “Thermos,” he confirmed.
“Dirty underwear,” I confessed as he gingerly held up a pair of my shorts, and he and I
laughed when he mimicked me, “Dirty underwear.” Soon the entire contents of the bag
were strewn about the seat.
Then our lighthearted routine ended as he motioned me to open my smaller brown bag and began to carefully examine its contents. He took out my mini-tape recorder, and had a quizzical look on his face as he held it in his hand. Although he did not question me, I voluntarily explained that I would be using it to record conversations with my cousins in England. He removed my camera, thumbed through some travel books and train schedules, and studied my maps of Europe.
The inspection seemed to be normal, but thorough, until he found my three journals. Those small notebooks fascinated him, and he first glanced through my daily trip journal which I had been keeping since I left Detroit. Next, he slowly read what I written in the journal that held my family chart and references to the Jewish communities in Lithuania. Finally, he looked at my personal observations in the journal that I had begun keeping after my parents had died.
The door opened again, and the inspector’s immediate supervisor came in. He was a tall, dour-faced officer and my once-friendly inspector jumped up and showed him the journals, and the two of them whispered in Russian, and I did not understand the language at all. The officer took all of my books and left but returned in a few minutes, accompanied by the man in the lifeless brown uniform, who was in charge of all of the Russian officials on the train.
He was in his forties and stood in front of me as he observed the scene. I was sitting on the thinly padded seat by the outside window, and when he walked over and sat beside me, he was holding the three journals in his hands. He nodded to the tall officer who closed the door and pulled the drapes tightly across, and then stood with his arms folded across his chest blocking any access to the outside corridor.
The customs inspector told me to repack all of my belongings, but as I started to do so, he motioned me to stand and then to remove my belt. When I handed it to him, he slowly pulled it through his fingers, trying to discover a hidden bulge that might be concealing something — perhaps smuggled money for a Jewish dissident. When he was done, he reluctantly handed me the belt and told me to remove my wallet and place it and
everything in my pockets onto a small table. As I did so, the three Russians watched me intently. The inspector officially examined my wallet in front of his superiors, and when he removed my press pass, they all eyed it with great interest.
When the leader nodded once more, the inspector told me to put everything back and motioned me to sit down. I had no inkling what their next move would be, so I hesitated to clean up the confused clutter of all of my belongings that had once neatly fit into my two bags.
The customs inspector stared at my feet and told me to remove my one of my hiking boots. As I reached down to untie the laces on my right boot, he shook a finger back and forth, and smiled broadly, as if he had finally caught me.
“No. No. The other one,” he said, and I loosened the laces, removed the left boot and handed it to him. He held it in his hands and carefully looked at it from several angles and then proclaimed, “American boot.” He strained unsuccessfully to remove the heel and wanting to impress his superiors, he pounded the heavy boot against the palm of his hand. When he couldn’t find any hidden compartment or illegal contraband, he reluctantly handed the boot back to me, and was let out by the third official who was blocking the door. He hurriedly resumed his guard-like stance, and while the official in charge remained at my side, I put the boot back on as the train rhythmically rocked along.
The leader told me that he had read my “personal verses” and then methodically went through each of the journals, carefully scrutinizing words, questioning specific lines, statements and references on many of the pages. His voice was steady and emotionless, in tandem with his expressionless face. When he finished the journals, he faced me and
inquired, “Are any of your relatives alive in Lithuania?” and I replied, “No.” He asked, “Do you know of any Jews in Lithuania?” and again I answered, “No.” He turned to the pages with my notes on the Jewish population of Lithuania and the 19th century dates, looked at me and wondered why I was so interested in that specific information. I politely explained that I was doing research on where my family had come from and that these were just facts from history books.
He weighed my response for a moment and then went on. “Do you have any Jewish acquaintances in Lithuania?” and I told him, “No.” He quickly asked, “Do you have any Jewish acquaintances abroad?” and I parried “Yes,” to which he countered, “In the United States?” “Yes.”
His voice, which had lulled me into a feeling of benign safety with its monotonous flow, became firmer and more deliberate, as he slowly inquired, “Was your grandfather Jewish?” and I responded, “Yes.”
“Was your mother Jewish?” “Yes.” I replied and he went on.
“Was your father Jewish?” and I answered, “Yes.”
Our eyes met for an instant as he asked the final question in the sequence, “Are you Jewish?” Without hesitation, I answered, “Yes.”
He closed the journal and opened the one that contained the observations I had made in the synagogue. “Why did you write about ‘rah-bees?” he asked with an elongated accent. I took a deep breath and slowly told him of the suddenness of my parents’ deaths, and that I had written what I saw during daily services. I glanced directly at him and for a
fleeting moment as he slowly shook his head back and forth, I thought I saw a touch of emotion creep in, but his face once more held the same stark look. When he came across the name “Shapiro” who was the assistant shamus at my synagogue, he wanted to know if it was the same Shapiro he knew of in Russia. I assured him that it was not.
He went back through each of the journals, searching for something he may have overlooked. After he finished checking through the final page of the third one, he closed it slowly and stood up. When he placed the three journals neatly on the seat next to me, they appeared out of place with the rest of my scattered belongings. As he began to leave, the officer guarding my only exit unfolded his arms, pushed the drapes apart and opened the door. He followed his superior into the corridor, closing the door behind him. I was left to wonder what would happen next on my incredible odyssey.
Harvey Gotliffe is a freelance writer and publisher,
who lives in Santa Cruz, California. His blog is
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For more articles on Jewish Life, see our Jewish Life Archives
from the August 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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