This summer, I traveled out of California to scattered cities around the world in search of a way to creative a cohesive narrative out of my family history. My Japanese mother and Jewish-American father always told me they married despite strong opposition on both sides, and that were it not for their patience and dedication to one another, I would not have been born. I grew up feeling the pulls from the invisible game of tug-of-war. History cannot be forgotten. They passed down to me the emotional scars left by the Second World War, despite my childhood that was as disconnected as possible from these memories. I was born in Japan, raised in San Diego, and sent to a French school at the age of five. Trapped between stories that I heard in school about Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the calm beaches of the American west coast and the bustling streets of Tokyo in the summer humidity, Buddhist funerals and Jewish weddings, the ability and inability to speak the languages that were chosen for me – I had to get away. I spent three months traveling with a mission to bridge these disparate histories.
I packed my bags as soon as the spring semester at Berkeley came to an end and flew to New York City. There, I met my Jewish great aunts over coffee at diners around Brooklyn and visited their homes, where they shared with me anecdotes about their adolescence in America during the war, a detailed family tree, portraits of my grandfather who fought in Italy, and photographs of my relatives who perished in Auschwitz. I learned about my cousin Sarel for the first time. She was a beautiful young woman who remained in Eastern Europe with her husband and six children, with high hopes for their real estate investments. They all died without leaving a trace. But my eyes somehow seem to have the same almond shape as Sarel’s, the same lost look from what I can see in her portraits. Perhaps that is what she left behind for us.
My aunts Sylvia and Florence mentioned that my great grandfather built a Jewish delicatessen in Worcester, Massachusetts. Without bothering to return to my Manhattan apartment to pick up my suitcase, I took the bus that night to Boston and a northbound train the next day to Worcester. The delicatessen was still there, with my grandmother’s maiden name on the sign: WEINTRAUB DELI. When I asked the waitress if there was anything vegan on the menu, she frowned and asked where I was from. “California.” She continued to look puzzled, as though to ask me what I was doing alone in this small restaurant on the other side of the country, so I added, “I’m working on a project for my university. My great grandfather built this place.” She said, “Wow, California, that’s very far.” And from that, I understood what a different world I had traveled to. There we were, two women not too distant in age but heading down distinctly different paths: me, a college student with the freedom to jet off wherever I wanted, and her, working at this deli tucked away on a small street corner. I was entirely foreign in this modest deli that my immigrant family once owned.
I flew to Krakow the next week. My father’s grandparents are from Poland and Ukraine. I speak no Polish, other than to ask, “Czy pan mówi po angielsku?” Do you speak English? I felt uncomfortable thinking about how I read the English signs at Schindler’s factory because I was unable to read the language spoken by my family. I realized I was seeking refuge in the English-language bookstore café when I grew too tired of not understanding conversations around me. But I was most disturbed by the crowd of tourists at Auschwitz. Last time I was there, the winter frost kept most people away, leaving me and just a few other young people to trudge through the snow, the cold wind sinking in through our coats, unable to imagine being prisoners left with only one light layer to try to keep their bodies from shutting down. During this visit, there were children yelling in the shuttles between the memorial and the crematorium sites, the sun was beating down on us, and friends were photographing each other under the metalwork that read ARBEIT MACHT FREI, labor liberates. A friend of mine later suggested that I must have been particularly upset because of the disrespect for the sacredness of the space, a Buddhist principle that I absorbed from the countless ceremonies that I attended in Japan as a child.
During the five weeks I spent in France, I hitched rides from Paris to Bordeaux, and then to Biarritz, through Spain, finally returning to the capital on a train. I love and hate being in France. Even though I learned to speak the language before I learned English, I still have a Japanese accent that I am not confident enough to wear with pride. In Bordeaux, I was at a family party when a house guest insisted on chatting to me about her vacation in Saigon and how very Vietnamese my posture was, though I told her that I am not at all Vietnamese. I did not know what to make of her fascination with my “slanted eyes” as she called them.
In Japan too, there were moments when I felt just as much an outsider as I did in Europe. I spent two weeks in Tokyo, during which my grandmother allowed me to interview her about losing her parents before the war, joining the labor force before her teen years, escaping the firebombing, and starting a family during the years of reconstruction after 1945. She showed me copies of her elementary school textbooks, thrilled that I shared her interest in literature. She showed me an epistolary narrative about a Japanese traveler in America. I read it out loud with her but often had to pause and ask her how to read certain iconographs, either because I could not remember how they were pronounced or because they changed after the war into more simplified brushstrokes, so I did not recognize the older, more complicated writing. I prayed that she did not feel a gap between us the way I felt it: a time gap and a slight language barrier that prevents me from experiencing Japanese writing the same way that she does, no matter how hard I have been trying to relearn the language that I sensed myself forgetting after leaving home at 17.
From Tokyo, I took the bullet train around the main island. I visited Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Fukui, and Kyoto. My late grandfather was born and raised in Fukui, but I had never been. I met his sisters and their families for the first time in my life. They were pleased to see that I was the exact same height as he was – a meter sixty-eight – and that I had about the same big appetite and capacity to hold my whiskey. My great uncle told me that he has faith that I have the same DNA as my grandfather. He was also drawn to the past. Even after he had settled in Tokyo and started a family and his own business, he would return to the countryside as often as he could, drink until it was too late to catch the final train, and leave regretfully the following morning. When my relatives followed me to the train platform to say goodbye, I think I somehow understood the little pang that my grandfather must have felt.
Somehow, I must be carrying not only my grandfather’s genes, but his memories. And as I traveled, I continued to mark myself with the memories that I was creating. My legs are still covered in mosquito bites from the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. I have bags under my eyes from the late nights in Paris. My shoes fell apart because of the excessive rain in Worcester for which I was completely unprepared. My previous attempts to summarize my identity in simple coined terms – double JAP (Jewish American Princess), Jewpanese – fell apart too. And instead, I returned to Berkeley with more questions to continue finding links in my family history, without feeling the need to complete a perfect, all-encompassing bridge between the two sides.
Lisa Levin is a Comparative Literature major with minors in Creative Writing, French, and Music. Her interests include queer studies, gender studies, dance (modern and ballet), veganism, and cooperative living. Her name is an anagram for “Evil Snail.” This travel was made available to her thanks to the gracious funding from the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship.