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by Ann Birstein


Jet Lag: A Journey to the Terrible Past

JET LAG

Yidn farshraybt—Jews, write it down!”

—The historian Simon Dubnow, age eighty-one,

as he went to his death in Riga in 1941

The trip began with a Polish joke. I was kind of expecting it since I was about to fly on Lot, the national airline of Poland. Also, adding to my nervousness, I was one of a group of Jews embarking on a tour of Jewish sites in Eastern Europe—hardly the happiest of destinations.

But I had to take this trip, to see for myself those terrible places I had heard and read about most of my life. Not that I’m a Holocaust survivor nor the child of survivors, except in the sense that we all are. My own parents had emigrated from what everyone called “Russia” in the days before World War I. A place and a life they were glad to be rid of and rarely talked about, though when relatives met there was always the dark rumble of old pogroms, of Hitler, of mysterious family members lost or misplaced, of letters to weep over, of letters that didn’t come. I never did figure out whether my Great Uncles Yankel and Mordecai had taken up residence in Brooklyn or remained in Brest-Litovsk, or what were the names of my father’s mysterious twin sisters, who had definitely stayed behind—and disappeared. They were all mythic figures. But I felt I owed them. I owed them all. I owed them my own good fortune. I owed them respect. I owed them at least a visit.

Also, on a less exalted plane, I was curious to see that part of the world where I had never been but where I had originated, so to speak. It was hard to explain to friends from Iowa, for example, my sense of awakening in America without a clue as to what had come before—the look of the houses, the landscape, the color of the sky. My parents had never understood why any of it should interest me. They themselves had no desire ever to go back to those awful places again. They would certainly have thought I was crazy to go on this trip.

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