by Christopher Bailey (Geneva, Switzerland)
For two summers I lived in San Francisco with my Grandmother Adele while I was with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
Over the meals the two of us shared together, my grandmother often talked about what lore she could remember about the Jewish village in Romania where she was born, or at least the stories told to her, (she couldn’t remember the name of the village), her passage as a little girl in steerage with her sister and their mother to the United States, and their hard life living in tenement housing on the Lower East Side of New York, sharing an apartment and one bathroom with three other families.
Her last name was Itzkowitz, not her given name, but the name the clerk at Ellis Island gave the entire boatload of Jews as he could not understand Yiddish. But even seventy years later, my grandmother would tell me how her mother would take her and her sister Tillie up on deck twice a day from the hold for air—women and children were allowed this luxury—and how above them the ‘white people’ (she described their 1908 clothing as white dresses and jackets, like angels…) would stand on the balcony looking down at them in pity, and toss leftover items from their breakfast to the hungry steerage passengers below. Her mother would try and catch what she could to give to her young daughters.
Once she caught an orange for my grandmother. As she described the sensation a lifetime later, my grandmother told me she had never even seen an orange before and did not know how to eat it. But it looked like sunshine. When her mother helped her peel it, she could smell the anticipated taste from the spray of citrus oil released from the torn peel, and her ancient face lit up with the retelling.
As she described taking her first bite, and feeling the sweet summery juice explode in her mouth and comfort her insides, she exclaimed as if again experiencing it for the very first time, “It was like tasting sunshine…”
Life was not easy on Essex Street. The women from the earliest ages worked in the garment industry. Her father, who eventually joined them, could not find a job. She remembers him sitting in a corner, holding up his Yiddish newspaper, looking for news of home, and trying to block out the chaos of the families beyond the wall of his newsprint paper, all the while holding in his regret and anger and sorrow for leaving Romania, anger which planted the seed of the colon cancer which soon would take his life, the same cancer that very nearly took mine a century later.
My grandmother also described her ‘pet,’ a mouse in the tenement, which she slowly taught to trust her by saving scraps of food furtively stolen from the dinner table and laying them out for the mouse, a little nearer her little hand every day, until the mouse learned to eat right out of her hand, its tiny lungs and heart beating in double time in her tiny palm.
Eventually, after growing up in the sweatshops, and as a young woman joining the labor movement, she eventually left New York with my drunken hard scrabbling grandfather for California, because in her words, “It’s where oranges come from.”
Gabriel, my son, last year did a little ancestry research and actually found the village where my grandmother was born, a place called Lasi. As he read up on it, he discovered that it was the site of the most systematic slaughter of Jews in Romania during the Holocaust. As far as we know today, only those members of my family that took the boat survived.
When my grandmother died some years ago, my father and his brother went to clean out the house. I asked him months later where he kept the boxes of letters and journals she had shown me in her basement. I mentioned it too late. He had thrown everything out.
That Thanksgiving, when he told me that he had emptied the house and kept nothing, I told him some of the stories that his mother had told me. He knew nothing of them. As I told them, I felt a chill coming over me as the realization began to sink in. My memories of those conversations were all that was left of that world.
Christopher Bailey was educated at Columbia and Oxford Universities, as well as at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After a career as a professional actor and playwright, he is now the Arts and Health Lead at the World Health Organization, where he co-founded the Healing Arts Initiative, which looks at the evidence for the health benefits of the arts. As an ambassador for the field, he has performed original pieces such as Stage 4: Global Stories on Empathy and Health, and The Vanishing Point: A journey into Blindness and Perception, in venues around the world, hoping to spread the WHO’s definition of health as not merely the absence of disease and infirmity, but rather the attainment of the highest level of physical, mental and social wellbeing. To view some of his work, visit: The Vanishing Point and Chris Bailey at The Met in NYC