Monday, October 22, 2012

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I want to talk a bit more today about The Flat, the new movie I wrote about yesterday. The photos above show the major players in the film: The top photo is a shot of Gerda and Kurt Tuchler, a pair of German Jews who emigrated to Tel Aviv in the late 1930s. The other photo shows Gerda and Kurt's daughter, Hannah Goldfinger, and her son, filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger, who were surprised after Gerda's death to discover that Gerda and Kurt had maintained a friendship with a Nazi SS officer both before and after World War II.

The film had a bit of extra resonance for me, for reasons I've never discussed before here on the PermaRec site, but maybe now is the time. (No, the story does not involve any Nazis.)

One of the film's themes is that Arnon and Hannah have lived their lives with very little sense of -- or interest in -- their family's history. As Arnon puts it at one point, the family "lives only in the present." Throughout much of the film, Hannah (Aron's mother, and Kurt and Gerda's daughter) seems largely indifferent to the issues being raised. But this isn't the over-vehement indifference of someone who's in denial or willfully trying to avoid facing up to hard truths -- it just seems like she honestly doesn't much care one way or the other. Arnon repeatedly asks her, "Why didn't you ask grandma about [whatever]?," and the response is always, "I don't know, it never really occurred to me." She seems genuinely content with this answer. No discomfort, no tension, no sense of denial, just a lack of curiosity. Arnon acknowledges that he himself shared this mindset until his grandparents' friendship with the Nazi came to light.

Some of this, I'm sure, is the standard coping mechanism of Jews from Hannah's generation. If you ask too many questions or look too hard at the past, you're going to get mired in some very difficult emotional territory. But as I've discovered in the course of Permanent Record, there are also people out there who just don't take much of an interest in family history.

And here's the kicker: I'm one of those people. I know very little about my family aside from its nuclear core, I've never much cared about genealogy, and what little I've been told about our extended family over the years has largely gone in one ear and out the other. So it's odd that I've built a creative project based on other people's family histories. My Mom is a big PermaRec fan (she doesn't use a computer, but I make printouts of the Slate articles and send them to her), and I often wonder if she finds it strange -- or even hurtful -- that I spend so much time exploring and documenting the histories of other families while taking so little interest in my own.

Why have I led such an unexamined life regarding my extended family? I've thought about this a fair amount over the years, and here are some possible reasons:

• I didn't grow up with much sense of extended family. I never knew either of my grandfathers (one of whom had been a bootlegger and gone to prison and was rarely even mentioned), my father was an only child, and my mother was estranged from her brother during my childhood, so I never knew my uncle or my cousins. (My limited interactions with them at the occasional wedding or funeral suggested that they were, frankly, rather unpleasant people who I was glad not to have in my life.) My two older brothers married but did not have children. Our family was not religious, so there were no bar mitzvahs or holiday gatherings with relatives. Our family was essentially self-contained, and there was very little discussion of the extended clan. Even my grandmothers, who were a big part of my childhood, rarely talked about their own extended families.

• My parents changed their names from Lewkowitz to Lukas shortly after getting married -- your basic assimilation move. I remember at one point I got a school assignment to create a family tree, and I was struck by how nobody else in our extended family was named Lukas. It definitely made me feel like I had less of a connection to my roots (yes, I was a bit of a literalist), and reinforced the notion that the concept of family, at least as it pertained to me, began and ended at our house.

• I've always known that I don't want to have kids. I knew this even when I was a kid myself. I'm not anti-kid, but parenthood has never appealed to me. I'm not sure which is the chicken here and which is the egg (like, am I not interested in family issues because I don't want kids, or is it the other way around?), but I suspect the two issues are related in some way.

I'm sure some of you are already thinking, "That's why he does Permanent Record -- to fill a gap." But I don't feel a gap, or a loss, or anything else along those lines. Just indifference -- much like the sincere indifference I sensed in Hannah. And if I wanted to explore my own family history, nothing's stopping me. But for some reason it doesn't interest me as much as the stories I examine as part of Permanent Record.

Part of this may be the sense that other people's lives are inherently more interesting (or more exciting, or more titillating, or whatever) than our own. In other words: the voyeurism factor. Also, I've always been fascinated by objects and artifacts, and Permanent Record is an object-based project -- the rabbit hole starts with a report card, or a pharmacy ledger, or a speed skating jacket. I like using the object as the point of entry for finding and telling a story. (Too bad there are no old report cards or evocative coins floating around in our family archives -- I've asked.)

No doubt there are other factors at work here, but I can't spend all day on the self-psychological couch. Instead, I put this question to you: Do any of you out there fit this same profile (not particularly interested in your own family histories but very interested in the family stories I explore in the course of this project)? If so, please post your thoughts in the comments, or drop me a line. Thanks.


  1. Hi again, Paul. I come from a pretty normal family from North Carolina - conservative & Baptist (since reformed on both counts). My parents are still married, my family life was never anything other than vanilla. We went to family reunions, and I've met many of my relatives with "great," "second/third/fourth," and "removed" in their familial designation. I'm now in my mid-30s and married. I have two stepdaughters and two sons.

    I realize not everyone gets to the point where they realize a spouse and kids are what they want from life - for a time I didn't think I wanted it. The weird part is next, though. Since having my own family in the past 3 years I don't care about my "old" family at all. I do think we all get to the point where we realize our parents don't have all the answers and can't fix everything. I think me reaching that point has something to do with my change in interest, so to speak. But it isn't just the people I looked to for answers previously in my life, it's their supporting cast too.

    I've read Uni-Watch for many years, I love your little trips into other people's lives on here and Slate. The minutia and historical details fascinate me. I consider myself an amateur historian on a few topics that interest me...none of which are my family. I have a loving and supportive wife who I've shared this with, so I'm not in a situation where I'm reaching for someone else's understanding. Just thought I'd share a slightly different perspective on this for you. Cheers.

  2. When I was younger, I felt much the same way you do, but I as I've gotten older I've become more fascinated with my family's history. One thing that has made me change, I think, is that I can see my parents are not going to be here forever, so I'd like to know as much about them and their families as possible before they're gone. Funny enough, we've always been a non-religious Jewish family, too, and my grandmother was a bootlegger. Plus, I also had a mysterious, estranged (and strange) uncle. I'd encourage you, Paul, to do a little research on your fam. Once you go down that rabbit hole, I think you'll enjoy it. I mean, come on, a bootlegger. My grandmother used to run moonshine around North Carolina. My grandfather helped smuggle guns to Israel when they were fighting for independence. I'm related to James K. Polk. All these things I never knew growing up, but kind of wish I did. Who knows what you'll turn up.

  3. I am love with my family history and genealogy. (I do consider the two topics distinct although interelated.) I enjoy monkeying through the generations - tracking the tree forwards, backwards, left, and right. I can't fully explain why. I just find a satisfaction in digging through old documents to tease out stories, and I find happiness in seeing how the decisions of those generations before me have shaped my life for me today.

  4. I regret not asking my father about his family now that it's too late. I've seen his grave so I know he was born in 1876 but that's all. I wish I knew his father's name so I could find his Civil War record.