As I drove into Brooklyn this May day in 1993, I also drove into my grandmother’s past. I rang the bell at Apt. 7F and when the door opened, I faced my grandmother’s 90-year-old first cousin, Evelyn. The confident tone of her voice put me immediately at ease, as if I had known her my entire life. She ushered me into the living room. Light poured in from the ample windows.
“I remember the day your grandmother Eva arrived from Europe,” Evelyn said. If her father hadn’t come to America, Evelyn could easily have been one of those women in our mutual ancestral shtetl, Kozlow, (once Poland, then Austria-Hungary, and since 1918 in Ukraine). She could have covered her head with a kerchief in a pattern that clashed with her dress and oversized sweater. She might have sported lavender anklets squeezed into backless slippers that flapped against the floor. Her home would have lace curtains to let in as much light as possible. But, Evelyn was born and raised in America, New York City, to be exact. She had reddish-blond hair curled away from her face, was a bit plump and perfectly amiable. But there was more to her than that. I studied her, watched her movements. In her younger days, she must have vacillated between proper young lady and cheeky vamp. Everything about her was symmetrical: hair parted in the middle, perfectly spaced eyes and eyebrows. But her lips smirked a bit as if to suggest she had a secret and wouldn’t I like to know what it was.
It did not occur to me as I sat on her sofa in the soft daylight that one hundred years before, Evelyn’s father, Benzion Zuckerkandel, arrived in America at age nineteen in May 1893. I did not know as Evelyn busied herself in the kitchen pouring me a drink that a surprise awaited me on her father’s ship manifest. Only now in 2018 as I checked his immigration record in the Ellis Island database did I find it. Right below Benzion’s entry was one for Henoch Zuckerkandel, twenty-nine years old. That’s my great-grandfather. I never knew he came to America. His passage occurred just about a year after Eva’s birth. I imagine he was scoping out the place before he brought the whole family, which was to have a few more additions before the time my grandmother emigrated. He must have returned to Europe. Maybe he couldn’t make a go of it. Maybe he couldn’t convince my great-grandmother to leave Kozlow, maybe she was pregnant again. The horrors of the Holocaust could have been avoided if only they’d all have come to America.
Evelyn told me how my grandmother knew no English. How exciting it must have been for Evelyn to meet a first cousin from the Other Side of the Pond when she was ten years old, someone who shared a Yiddish name, Chava, with her. I imagine Eva would have used Yiddish with her uncle. She must have been scared, too. She would not have remembered him from Kozlow, having only been a baby when he left. Now she was meeting him as a family man, meeting his wife and daughters.
“Eva stayed with us for years at Lynch Street in Williamsburg,” Evelyn said. “It was like having an older sister.” Eva was ten years older than Evelyn. How strange it all must have felt for my grandmother. No goats or chickens in the backyard. No thatched roofs. Maybe even little Yiddish.
Uncle Ben probably had more room and more money. He had sponsored Eva’s journey. But a widowed aunt on her mother’s side offered her more comfort on the Lower East Side. Here my grandmother could relax with an aunt and cousins she already knew, with people inside and outside the home she could converse with completely in Yiddish.
Perhaps it had been a plan to send Eva to America first and then her siblings would follow. Eva Zuckerkandel was brave to come to America alone. I could not imagine the strength she had to muster to leave home, her parents, and seven siblings. She must have thought she was off to a great adventure, the whole world open to her in a way Kozlow, a shtetl of 700 people, could never be. Uncle Ben paid for Eva’s wedding to my grandfather in May 1918. His Zuckerkandel family home served as her first home in her new country. He had a reputation, so Evelyn told me, of paving the way for family members to come to America. But when Ben sponsored a younger brother, he got more than he bargained for. The seventeen-year-old brother didn’t want to work, although he had been a tailor in Kozlow. After just a few months, he wanted to return home. Ben wouldn’t pay his way. The brother stayed, became a gambler and ne’er do well, and never married. He legally changed his name. “We saw him frequently,” Evelyn said. “But my father refused to talk to him.” Eva would have known him, since he was only ten years older than she was. What she thought of him, I couldn’t say, and my father did not recall him at all.
“I want to leave you my candlesticks,” Evelyn said. “They were my mother’s.” I nearly cried. I barely knew her, and here she was giving what was to me her prized possessions. I knew from my genealogical research that female immigrants left home with two treasured items: a featherbed and Sabbath candlesticks. I also knew as the youngest of four daughters, I would never inherit my mother’s set. Evelyn’s candlesticks witnessed my grandmother’s first Sabbath in America just a few days after she arrived on a fair, warm September Monday in 1913. Perhaps Eva helped her aunt light them. Perhaps she wondered what her own mother and sisters were doing that same Shabbos in Kozlow. Perhaps she recited the ancient Hebrew blessing, uniting her with her non-Yiddish speaking cousins.
But why give the heirloom candlesticks to me? Why not give them to a more immediate family member? As I now think about it, the candlesticks formed a bridge between the Old Country and here, between the immigrant and the American born. Maybe no one else in her family cared about family stories or the past. And then here I showed up, as interested as if I had been one of Evelyn’s contemporaries. I felt at home here, speaking about people long dead but as if I had personally known them all, as if I could see them now milling about the apartment. I was open to the idea of ghosts. They already knew all that I wanted to know about my family’s history. I was connected to them through my DNA and my research, which now served as collective memory.
I needed visual images to make that memory more visceral. Evelyn gave me a snapshot of a pregnant Eva, circa 1924, my five-year-old father standing in front of her, their fingers touching. She’s holding my uncle Harry, the baby, and it looked like she was ready to give birth again. The only photos my family had of Eva were at my parents’ 1946 wedding. Now here she was, proud mama of two boys. I wondered what dreams she might have had then. Did she think about bringing over her brothers and sisters, her parents? Was she already contemplating investing in real estate around town? Or did she worry about how she would run the family business while being a mother? She could not have known that she would develop diabetes and cancer and die far too young. Evelyn also gave me an 8×10 photo of her younger self and a 1957 photo of Ben Zuckerkandel with a great-grandchild.
Evelyn and I continued to write for a few more years. Our letters were filled with news of current family, weddings, and bar mitzvah celebrations. She looked forward to attending these, because otherwise she was bored. No spouse, no children, no sisters. One of her nephews would pick her up and take her to these events. She had become the dowager aunt. In 1996, at the age of 96, she was still living by herself in Brooklyn. Then the letters stopped. I assumed she passed away. Her nephew called me in 2004 to inform me of Evelyn’s death at 101. He knew nothing about the candlesticks. He and I lost touch.
Visiting with Evelyn that May day in 1993 placed me shoulder to shoulder with my grandmother’s America-born first cousin. She gave me her warmth and whatever memories she had. She made me feel my grandmother’s arrival in America. But I still didn’t know the woman who had never held me, never combed my bangs to the side and fastened them with a barrette. She never praised my latest drawing or felt the tingle of my fingertips in hers. Eva never sat with her grandchildren on her knee or celebrated their milestone events. She never got to attend two of her sons’ weddings. No matter how hard I tried, the realization slowly sank in that I would never really know Eva.
My grandmother, Eva, with my father in front of her, ca. 1924.
Evelyn Zuckerkandel in her heyday.
Ben Zuckerkandel with his great-grandson in 1957.
About the author:
Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches composition and history at Mercer County Community College. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Smart Set, Jewish Literary Journal, The Manifest-Station, Poor Yorick, Minerva Rising, and other publications.