november 9, 1998
my mother was invited by a friend to a krystallnacht memorial concert at the library of congress. the piece being performed that night had been commissioned by the library and the german consulate. the composer was present that evening: a jewish pianist/ composer from leipzig who fled germany in 1934 and was living in washington, d.c.
after the concert, my mother went up to the composer, congratulated him on his piece, and told him that her mother was also from leipzig. he asked my mother for my grandmother’s maiden name. helga rabinowitz. did he know her?
before he could respond, other admirers surrounded him, begging for his attention, and his conversation with my mother ended.
the next day, my mom spoke to my grandmother on the phone:
‘mom, i went to a wonderful concert last night, and the composer was a man from leipzig. have you heard of him? his name is herman berlinski.’
‘well, did you meet his wife?’
‘she’s my cousin.’
my mom was floored. as far as she had ever known, the only family members to make it out of leipzig were my grandmother, her brother, their grandmother and two aunts (and their young families). now there was a cousin too! and she lived practically around the corner from my parents!
my mother looked up the berlinskis in the phone book, called them up, introduced herself, and invited them to thanksgiving dinner.
apparently, when my grandmother’s cousin walked in the door, she took one look at my sister, turned to my grandmother and said, ‘your mother! she is the spitting image of your mother!’
my great grandmother, malka, mary.
i missed out on thanksgiving that year. i was in germany, encountering my great grandmother’s ghost in a different context. but upon hearing the story, i was struck by the idea that my sister could find pieces of herself in someone else’s face. i was envious. i imagined that, in seeing herself in malka’s cheekbones, my sister could access a solid sense of place and belonging – something i yearn for. i imagined that my sister could locate herself within some kind of almost tangible historical trajectory.
it felt like time travel. or something even more extraordinary, like my sister was more than just my sister – a beautiful composite existing in a dimension of time far more expansive than the one we know.