My Name is Sara Kathryn
My full name is Sara Kathryn, but it has never meant much to me. I have always known that I am named for my great-grandmothers, those black and white faces whose photos I have seen but whose stories I had never heard. In fact, beyond their names, I knew almost nothing at all about Great-Grandma Sarah and Great-Grandma Katie, not even where they came from. When, as a child, I was assigned class projects that required me to trace my family tree, I always hit a stumbling block. My paternal grandparents were both long dead, and my father had no knowledge of their background. On my mother’s side, I was blessed with healthy, vibrant grandparents who were very much alive and well, but in seeking their help, I still ran into trouble.
“Where are we from?” I would ask.
My grandpa, characteristically upbeat and joking, would harden: “We’re Jewish,” he would respond.
“But Grandpa,” I would insist, “Jewish isn’t a place. Where are we from?”
Despite my protests, I never got an answer. “We’re Jewish,” he said, and that’s all there ever was to it. Still, I longed to know more about my family, where our ancestors came from and what stories our roots told. I feared that once my grandparents passed away, the opportunity to learn of our history would be forever lost – and yet, even with them alive, I could find no answers.
My grandmother died just last month after a short but difficult battle with a rare lung tumor; my grandfather preceded her in death by almost exactly four years. I miss them for a number of reasons, of course, but among those reasons is the fact that I felt sure I would never learn any more of our family’s history than I already knew – which is to say that I would never know anything at all.
But life has a funny way of revealing its secrets to you just when you need them most. In going through their things after my grandma’s funeral, my uncle made a startling discovery – among old documents, including his kindergarten report card and my grandfather’s military discharge papers, we found copies of both of my grandparents’ birth certificates. On them, of course, were printed the full names of their parents, including the name of my grandfather’s mother. Everyone knew Great-Grandma Katie had immigrated to the country from somewhere in the former Soviet Union; she spoke limited English, and no one in our family, my grandfather included, knew what her maiden name was before she married my Great-Grandpa Joseph. Yet there, on a piece of paper that had been tucked away in a drawer all these years, was her full name: Katie Roskin. Occupation: Housewife. Birthplace: Russia.
My family sat together in a moment of stunned silence. Even learning Great-Grandma Katie’s surname felt like a piece of the puzzle. How lucky we were, just to know! I photographed my grandparents’ birth certificates and returned home to Google my heart out, searching for immigration records that might indicate when Katie and Joe came to this country – or, more importantly, where they came from. Unfortunately, I had no luck.
But then, another secret revealed itself: Just a week after my grandmother’s death, her nephew sent along an email he had received from a distant cousin named Jesse, who was tracing our family’s genealogy as part of his master’s thesis. Jesse had translated a letter written in 1935 to Great-Grandma Katie by her mother, a letter that had long been in the possession of another relative who could not read it. Upon translation, that singular letter revealed a great many details of Katie’s life: It told us that her mother was named Chana Leja Suraski. It told us that Chana lived in a small town in Poland called Knyszyn, where she subsisted in great poverty. It told us the names of other relatives – brothers and sisters, perhaps, or cousins. It told us that Katie’s brother, Zorach, was immigrating to Argentina, where his wife had family. And though it didn’t tell us as much, it led us to suspect that our family, too, shared a tragic history with which so many Jews can relate: that Chana and her entire family, aside from Katie and Zorach, were murdered in the Holocaust. A later email from Jesse confirmed that he had spoken with Zorach’s nephew, 82 years old and living in Buenos Aires, who told him that, indeed, most of the family perished in the Shoah. In fact, nearly all of Knyszyn’s 2,000 Jews were murdered.
I’ve spent my whole life a step removed from the Holocaust. Have I known the pain and sadness of being descended from a people who were once the target of genocide? A million time yes. With no knowledge of my own family’s history, I have walked through the Holocaust Museum and Yad Vashem with tears in my eyes and knots in my stomach, grieving for those who left no one to grieve for them and naming myself theirs so that we both may have the connections we deserve to past, present, and future. Until recently, though, I had no idea that among those nameless faces, those footless shoes, those unidentified numbers, were my real relatives – those whose blood I bear.
My family died in the Holocaust. Does it change me? I don’t want it to. I want to remain connected to those six million others who died, to continue to feel that I am their family, as well. Having a connection to the Holocaust – something no one should ever hope for – should not make me feel more Jewish. Still, I can’t help that some small flame within me burns brighter with this knowledge, that I am made more complete by knowing some of these details of my family’s history, horrible though they may be.
I don’t have all the answers to my family’s history, and I likely never will, but these pieces are enough for me: Yes, I now that we are Polish, but above all, as my grandfather insisted, we are Jewish. My name is Sara Kathryn, but my name has never meant much to me – until now. I am named for Sarah Schumann Mamet, mother of my grandmother, and for Katie Suraski Goldman, mother of my grandfather. May I be worthy of bearing their names and carrying on the traditions of their faith.