Reclaiming the Jewish Heritage That Was Taken From My Grandfather

I wanted to engage with the culture and history my grandad was forcibly sheltered from, but how?

For years, mystery plagued my family.

Why was grandad Arthur left in that orphanage, and who made that call? We knew it was in Cardiff, and a possible mother, Phyllis, likely abandoned him. The story ended there, until Arthur discovered, a few years before his death, that his mother had attempted to stay in touch, send him money and presumably was forced to give him up because of circumstances beyond her control back in 1923. But we still didn’t know his father.

2020 bestowed upon me a great deal of enforced free time and allowed me to continue my work on our history, consistently put on pause before the pandemic due to life. But my present pausing gave me all the time in the world to discover the past.

A DNA test — along with months of crawling around my parent’s attic hunting for paperwork and filing too many freedom of information requests — finally revealed the truth. Arthur, raised in a Christian orphanage, was born out of wedlock to the son of a prominent Jewish couple. He died long before he could know this, but I felt some glee in uncovering what had unfairly evaded him in his lifetime.

He’d gotten close. Letters that various caretakers sent to each other (kept in storage for almost 70 years until he gained copies of them) expressed his mother’s wish for Arthur to know more about his father and Jewish heritage, but those wishes were not granted. Instead, his caretakers chose to harbor what they saw as a foul secret of a young, sickly boy. His health deteriorated in the late 90s. He didn’t get through all the documents. They wound up in my parents’ attic, directly above my childhood bedroom, still pressed together as only a stack of fresh copies can be.

Arthur was captured as a prisoner of war during World War II. He was only 17 and had been serving in a ship’s kitchen, primarily for room and board. He endured four years in prison, internment and concentration camps. The injuries and treatment he suffered at the hands of the Nazis damaged his health, contributing to his death more than 50 years later. His survival was made possible by his Jewish heritage being hidden from everyone, including himself, allowing him to be treated as any other British prisoner of war would be: terribly, but better than most behind those fences.

After the war ended and he was released, he returned home to Liverpool, met my Nanna Jean and built a life in a destroyed city. They continued a life of devout Christianity and started a family, the truth lost to time and hidden beyond the priorities of creating a home. In his later years, he unsuccessfully challenged the UK government alongside other merchant seamen. A compensation scheme was enacted for prisoners of war, however it came with many stipulations. Many fell through the cracks due to their treatment falling under some arbitrary threshold of severity politicians had concocted.

Then he was gone. I was only 5, and my memories of him are blurry. He’d had a stroke when he was 75 and it drastically reduced his quality of life. Sometimes I’m unsure if my memories are real or concocted from photographs, an effort to create a more positive story than the truth: a man I loved was approaching death.

Now, at 28, I wish I could let him know the search is over. We don’t know the why or the how, but we know the who. Who he is, who we are: a family born of Belorussian immigrants from a shtetl decimated decades after their emigration.

I didn’t know how to broach our Jewish heritage. I felt like something had shifted, but did it matter or change who we are? I found myself googling, in pandemic-induced insomnia, whether I was Jewish. I asked friends what they thought, scouring communities online for an answer I later realized no algorithm or message board could provide.

A friend described this period — an all-consuming reflective, critical search into myself, with no answer ever being good enough — as solidifying my Jewishness. Judaism encourages one to question continually. A search for truth and revelation, at its core, is quintessentially Jewish.

I wanted to engage with the culture and history my grandad was forcibly sheltered from. I wanted to reclaim what I felt was stolen from him, my father, his brother, myself and my cousins. But being Jewish wasn’t a part of who we were. We hadn’t known we had any connection to the Jewish community, ethnically or religiously. Everyone, except me, was brought into the Catholic Church (ironically not Arthur’s domain in Christianity anyway) and didn’t engage with any organized religion beyond early childhood — and the only reason I wasn’t? Because my parents didn’t get around to it. That’s how little religion played a role in our lives. But with my discovery, I found myself wanting to give my family the option of engaging with Judaism, to give back a choice over something that had been unilaterally decided for us.

As I continued learning, I questioned if I was appropriating Jewish culture and tradition. Am I an outsider, trying to cosplay as something I’m not? But how can I appropriate what was taken from my family a hundred years ago? How can I feel guilt in connecting with my roots, in trying to defy the casual antisemitism of the 1920s that led Arthur and my family down the path we walked?

How do you, with no ties to any organized religion or Jewish community (having grown up in an area that rounded down their count of self-identifying Jewish people to 0.0% of the population), embrace the small part of you and your history that is Jewish?

Education and nourishment were the pathways I chose. I needed to know what we had lost. As I googled “how to light a menorah” on the train home to visit my parents, with a suitcase filled with kosher wine, chocolate gelt and candles, I longed for the traditions we could have formed as a family.

I knew I wanted to start fresh with my dad and light the candles together each night in memory of Arthur. I wanted my nieces to learn of their great-grandfather and the homeland they’ll never know as we tore into the gelt around the dinner table. I wanted to bring my friends fresh babka from my favorite bakery in North London, where we’d later meet for a coffee, split our portions and ask the owners the flavors they’re thinking of for next month.

I doubt I’ll ever be a religious man. But connecting to my history and heritage is my form of faith. I realize now that the questions I asked when I first made my discovery could never be answered by Google — only I could come to those extremely personal conclusions. Who I am is the sum of those who came before me: those who fled Ireland in the famine and those who fled Belarus for a safer life. Who they are lives on within my generation and the next. There are likely thousands with similar stories, their history carefully manicured to ignore the parts society deemed unattractive.

Arthur didn’t have a chance to complete his search for who he was and will never know the home he was torn from. But we, his family, have solved some of his mystery, and we now have new traditions and stories to honor him and those who came before.

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