November/December 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 6
The Sufis, whose religion is thousands of years old, describe a myth of a tradesman who twirls wool around a large spindle, working continuously. A moment’s loss of concentration or lack of “awareness” will cause the strand of wool to break and the day’s effort to be lost. The myth instructs us to be aware of our circumstances and accept our circumstances no matter how difficult. It is this awareness that allows us to navigate the shoals of our lives, but to achieve this awareness we must first understand who we are and where we come from. History teaches us this. Those of us who view history as dry facts upon a page forget that we are history, and that our lives are to be studied by future generations. Our thoughts, feelings, and experiences are the raw materials for future historians. The facts of our lives are important, but they are not the sum of history. The study of history develops over time, when hindsight provides the perspective we need to place our ideas within the context of the times. A living entity, history offers us an awareness of the present through an understanding of the past. It is a guidepost to the future, uncovering the facts behind our existence while providing us with an understanding of the present.
My father owns a photograph of a very old woman, her face deeply wrinkled yet containing all the wisdom of the ages. “Grandpa’s mima,” he explained to me one day, “the matriarch.” The photograph once hung in the Seward Park Library, on New York’s Lower East Side, where my grandfather’s mima, or great-aunt, lived, and where she died at the age of one hundred. The library had given the photograph to my grandfather, who in turn gave it to my father. The mima, as my grandfather called his aunt, had escaped the Nazis’ rise to power, having realized that the Jewish people would soon be unwelcome in her native Germany. Relatives of hers, including her sisters, disagreed with my aunt’s assessment of the situation. They felt she was overreacting. They and their families had lived in Germany for generations. Surely, they argued, we are as German as everyone else is. Besides, things cannot get much worse for us. They will certainly improve. Despite the ever tightening noose on Jewish rights, my aunt’s family refused to accept the reality of the situation, and they paid too great a price for their trust. True awareness had escaped them. By the time they realized the danger, it was too late. Hitler closed off the escape routes, and my great-aunt’s sisters and so many others like them perished in the Holocaust. They had trusted too much in the goodness of man. History proved them wrong.
My father loves studying history, and he is rarely found without a book on ancient or modern warfare. Studying the photograph of my grandfather’s great-aunt, I asked my father about my grandfather’s role in World War II. I knew he had landed on the shores of Normandy but little else. To my surprise, my father looked at me blankly. He could recite the battle sites of every war but knew little about his own father’s part. Together we e-mailed my eighty-year-old grandfather, and he was happy to relate some of his experiences. He had landed on a Normandy beach three days after D-Day, June 6, 1944. As a mechanic, it was his official duty to make sure that the soldiers’ vehicles were kept running. Unofficially, my grandfather was known as “the scrounger.” If the men in his platoon needed anything, they would send him after it. He was expert at talking French farmers into contributing eggs to the war effort, for instance. That didn’t surprise me, as my grandfather is very much a talker.
My grandfather was neither a general nor a fighter. His story was not the most dramatic of the war, but it was real and it belonged to my family. For what are we all but single points on the lines of our families’ histories? History is important to me, to all of us, because without it our lifelines have no beginnings and no ends. History contains all that we are and will be, helping us to understand that what we must face today has probably, in some form or fashion, been faced before. History makes us aware of ourselves and the world around us, enabling us to accept what are sometimes difficult and painful truths.