In Ashkenazi Jewish culture, we name our children after deceased relatives as a way to memorialize and honor those who are gone. Generally, a child is not given the exact name as the departed. This permits a child to capture the best aspects of the person for whom she is named, but not be entirely in his or her shadow. It also allows a female infant to be named for a beloved male relative and vice versa. Sometimes families use the first letter of the dead person’s name to create a new one. Other times, parents play on the meaning of names, so that a girl might be named Aleeza (“gift of joy”) after an uncle named Isaac (“gift of laughter”). However, children are never named for living relatives, for the Angel of Death is easily confused and might take the young person rather than the older one by accident. My younger sister, Dana, was named in honor of my grandfather’s sister Doba. I did not know very much about Doba until recently, and even now I have only the barest facts. She was born in 1897 to Hersh and Pesa Rajsman. At some point, she married a man named Icchak Srodogora. They worked as grocers and lived at Franciszkanska 12, in the Old Town/Miranow district of Warsaw. In 1923, Doba's daughter Beila Basia was born. Icchak believed that Doba was deported to Treblinka in 1942 or 1943, according to paperwork he filed in the 1950s seeking an official death certificate for his wife. The request was denied.
My father told me that Doba was my grandfather’s favorite sister. Dana is soft-spoken and generous. I like to think that Doba passed these qualities on to her. I decided to memorialize her kindness in the book that I am writing based on the precious few facts I have about my grandfather and his family. Doba wears a sheytl, the wig that married women are required to wear in Hasidic culture, and it is always a bit askew because she is in constant motion and flustered. She is the person that my grandfather turns to when he needs help and to share stories of his exploits as an "enlightened" Jew. She always listens, half horrified by her heretic brother's antics and half amused.
When Dana had a son, she named him Marcus after our grandfather. The man we knew as Michael Reisman began his life on October 26, 1911 in Warsaw as Motel Rajsman. In the past few years, I learned that after he fled Warsaw in 1939 he lived for a short time in Bialystok, a Polish city with a large Jewish population that was occupied by the Soviets. He was arrested in 1940 and imprisoned in a gulag (which saved his life, for the Nazis seized Bialystok a year later) until 1942. He worked on a collective farm for two years before moving to the steel mills of Magnitogorsk, where he met and married my bubbe.
Grandpa never told us much of this, although Dana and I spent much time with him when we were growing up. Instead, we played Bingo, with Grandpa as the caller. “OH 65!” he bellowed as if we were in a 2,000 square foot hall full of hearing impaired senior citizens rather than a foot away from him on the other side of the marble coffee table. We quietly colored on the back of envelopes formerly containing Social Security checks while Grandpa read the newspaper or played solitaire in the dining room. We watched professional bowling on television. When the picture rolled, Grandpa dashed in from his seat at the polished dining room table to pound on the top of the faux wood box to still it. He engaged us in rousing games of "Go Pish," his version of the children's card game "Go Fish." We found this version hilarious, and his green eyes flashed joy whenever we laughed at his jokes. Grandpa also made us hot chocolate and picked the bones out of smoked fish for us and cut up slices of fruit and cheese, even when we weren't hungry.
Marcus turned two years old this past Friday, April 29. At his birthday party, he laughed as he pretended to put my old koala bear puppet in a small box, then admonished Fuzzy Wuzzy for being so silly. He warned the picture of the dinosaur on his party plate that the food on it was "my pizza," but when he was done, he moved a piece near the dinosaur's mouth. Marcus grabbed us all in big hugs many times.
My grandfather lost his family in the Holocaust. I hope it comforted him to see his sister in my sister. I miss my grandfather dearly, but it comforts me to see him in Marcus. We will never forget.