Culture, Identity, Justice, Politics, Religion

Tales From the Family Attic

I’ve been hearing stories of people losing jobs, having trouble finding jobs, stealing massive amounts of money from Jewish institutions, and generally getting very worried. It’s troubling, painful, and can be hard to listen to.
But during the great depression one Jewish man, calling himself B. Virdot to conceal his true identity, placed an advertisement offering to pay people to share their stories with him.  The people who wrote to him had no idea who he was, and his grandson, who had heard the story, had no idea it was his own grandfather until this past summer, when he found a suitcase of their letters in the attic.
His grandson, Ted Gup, wrote an article in the NY Times about his grandfather and the letters he found. Searching for an explanation for this act of kindness- he comes up with this one:

So why had my grandfather done this? Because he had known what it was to be down and out. In 1902, when he was 15, he and his family had fled Romania, where they had been persecuted and stripped of the right to work because they were Jews. They settled into an immigrant ghetto in Pittsburgh. His father forced him to roll cigars with his six other siblings in the attic, hiding his shoes so he could not go to school.
My grandfather later worked on a barge and in a coal mine, swabbed out dirty soda bottles until the acid ate at his fingers and was even duped into being a strike breaker, an episode that left him bloodied by nightsticks. He had been robbed at night and swindled in daylight. Midlife, he had been driven to the brink of bankruptcy, almost losing his clothing store and his home.
By the time the Depression hit, he had worked his way out of poverty, owning a small chain of clothing stores and living in comfort. But his good fortune carried with it a weight when so many around him had so little.

If his grandson is right, Samuel Stone (a.k.a. B. Virdot)  was able to listen to all these stories because he had not forgotten his own. Perhaps our daily obligation, as Jews, to remember our own story- of slavery and oppression, can help us listen to the stories of others, however painful and troubling they might be, and reach out in times of need.

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