Letters to My Father:
Excavating a Jewish Identity in Poland and Belarus

A Memoir

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My father died on October 4, 2014. He was 102 years old. My three siblings, Michael, Janie and Lisa, were at his bedside. I was not. I was in Europe. Somehow over time my father and I had exchanged places; I was regularly in the Old World from which he had come, he in the New. I realized it was a risk to be out of the country given his age. So much of my life had been influenced by my father that I told myself I should go ahead with my plan to be in Europe anyway. Still. It was strange. I shouldn’t be there, the daughter who had spent so much of her life seeking out his story so that her own could also be told.

Author Kathleen Balgley with father, Ely Balgley, and her daughter, Emily Ratajkowski

And his story, veiled as it was, revealed a life began as a Jew in Poland in 1912, an existence in a shtetl of extreme poverty, hunger and the absence of a father.  The arduous journey he, his mother, and three siblings made to the US was in 1920; he mercifully escaped the Shoah, though many of his family did not. Not long after his arrival, he made a decision to turn his back on his Jewish identity. Later, he sought even to bury the place of his birth, responding with, “New York,” when asked. Some argue it’s understandable, an American story of assimilation, a reasonable choice given the danger he had experienced and from which he wanted to protect himself and his family. But the abandonment of his true story, the erasure of his history exacted a price, and that price became the heart of my conflict with my father.
 
From as early as my childhood, I was compelled to recoup that history. That drive felt fueled by sources unbidden, forces I could not even explain. I call it “bashert”, the Yiddish term variously translated, often as one’s destined soulmate, I invoke as “destiny.”
 
Even as a child, I was following in his footsteps with my enchantment with music. Even then, I was drawn to “otherness” in people, “everyday exoticisms” in my local neighborhood, before I knew such was in him, and in me. His silences were a mystery, and troubling to me. His sudden emotions about certain events, like the murder of the Israeli athletes at Munich, when he told my mother in my presence, “If the world is like this, I don’t want to live in it!” And her horrified look, that told me this was not the first time she had heard reactions like this from him. I felt his tottering—on the one side, taking joy in his music and his science, yet on the other, not too far from giving up on the world. His dark view would flicker in and out of his enthusiasm for Chopin, Shakespeare, Einstein.
 
I had gone to Poland to learn hard truths, but maybe especially because of his ambivalence towards life, also to rescue hope. He had not approved initially of my going, yet he was ultimately game, coming to Poland with my mother. His trip surprised him; I surprised him: I shook him at points out of his denial and pessimism, but it needs saying I also inherited those traits. The closest he and I touched on this shared ambivalence was when he smiled with understanding as I told him I had heard a saying, “There is nothing so whole as a broken Jewish heart.”
 
I learned about the “candle child” phenomenon, the idea that one child in a family unbidden becomes the receptacle for history lost, the source of light for forgotten or repressed memory, and that it may even be hardwired. I became that candle child, the one member in a family moved by forces uninvited to retrieve what had been lost.
 
Such retrieval requires a search, a dredging up, if you will, from the well of requisite forgetting often attended by shame. I intuited my father’s shame, his disdain for his past. Given the pathos of his (and my) family story and the stories of Jews worldwide, this seemed a crime to me.
 
It was the drive to rescue what my father had left behind that sent me to Poland on a Fulbright for two years just before the fall of the Iron Curtain, and then later to his birthplace now in Belarus, to search the stories and fates of the Balgley family in archives there. Later I found my relatives in Israel and Germany, and some in the United States whom I had not known existed.
 
I wanted to bring back the story to my father and to my siblings, to share a history of which we should be proud, a story at once powerful and fragile.
 
It’s possible my father and I had our closure before he died. It was a St. Patrick’s Day. We were in California at a place called “The Abbey Pub” where we each had a beer, he by now in a wheelchair, me by his side. He pondered silently for a moment, and then remarked on the strange miracle that his long discarded Jewishness should come back to him in the form of his second daughter. When he said, “You are a lot braver than I ever was,” an entirely new door opened for me.