Monday, May 2, 2011

My Grandfather's Granddaughter: A Jewish-American Tale

This coming month marks the one year anniversary of the passing of my grandfather, George Steiner, of blessed memory. I have been thinking about my grandfather a lot lately -- with the upcoming unveiling of his gravestone, the end of my father's aveilut (year of mourning), and Passover Yizkor all recent familial topics of conversation. But, tonight, with the historic news of the death of Osama Bin Laden, thoughts of my Poopa (the silly name I coined as an infant unable to pronounce "Grandpa") cannot escape my mind.

When I think about my grandfather, and his passing in particular, a number of questions arise with my memories. I think about what it means for me to no longer have any living grandparents. Has my childhood lapsed? Have I lost a vital connection to my past? (As many of you know, I am a genealogy nerd -- having spent several summers working at the Center for Jewish History's Genealogy Institute. My capstone project as a CJH Fellow was a documentary timeline of my grandfather's life.) But these questions, vital as they are, are not what dominate my thinking about my grandfather tonight. Rather, it is America, the nation and its actions, that led me to think of him tonight -- and that is a critical part of my thinking about him always.

Before he was my grandfather, George was a son, a husband, a father, a soldier, and a friend. And he excelled at each role in which he was cast. To digress for a moment, I'll add a word about him as a husband -- of the most devoted order, for nearly 52 years.

In addition to being wonderfully kind and caring, my grandmother, Gloria Steiner, z"l, was an amputee, having lost her leg to bone cancer while a young mother in her 30s. Even now, eleven years after her death, it is strange for me to write that -- as I never once thought of my grandmother as disabled. The reasons for that stem mainly from her grace, courage, and, in the days before modern prostheses, unfailing determination to do everything that an able-bodied person could. They also stem from my grandfather. More than her supporter, he was her champion -- both allowing and encouraging her to do all the things she wanted to do. I could try and list his daily devotions to her, but there is no way to fully paint a picture for you of the kind of dedicated husband he really was.

The trait of dedication -- of devotion, of doing what is right -- is one that my grandfather honed in the United States Armed Forces. Born in Nitra, Czechoslovkia, George immigrated to the United States with his parents, Joseph and Matilda, in 1923 -- when he was barely 2 years old. Raised in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, he was a Boy Scout par excellence and grew into a tried and true American boy. Upon graduation from high school in 1939, George voluntarily enlisted in the US Army and was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone. Just as his active duty was scheduled to end, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and George embarked on an additional 4 years of service. Together with the Army Corps of Engineers, my grandfather built bridges and saw combat throughout France and Germany. Though he never shared this fact with his children or grandchildren, he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor after running into mortar fire to retrieve a wounded member of his company and, with another soldier, carry him several miles to the nearest army hospital. (We only learned of this story, and the medal, upon finding the well hidden paperwork while sorting through my grandparents' apartment after my grandmother's death.) These days, when we often rush to share our accomplishments with the world through text messages, Facebook, or, sometimes, a blog, it is all the more astonishing to learn that others have kept their most meaningful accomplishments secret.

While my grandfather did share some stories of the antisemitism he experienced in the military, I don't know if, during his six years of service -- especially those spent fighting in Europe, he knew that his grandparents, numerous aunts and uncles, and 27 of his 28 first cousins were being led to their deaths by the Nazis. There is certainly no way he could have known that, after the war, there would be no record of Jewish survivors from the town of Nitra.

It is this interplay between his patriotism and his Jewishness that has rooted my grandfather in my thoughts tonight. Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. I grew up in a home, and in a community, that is steadfast in its dedication to Holocaust education. As a grandchild of survivors (my mother's parents met as refugees in Siberia), I am proud to carry the banner of Zachor -- Remember, Never Forget. Today, as thousands crowd the streets of Lower Manhattan waving flags to the choruses of U-S-A, U-S-A, I remember the victims of Bin Laden's terror along with the six million who perished merely because they were Jews. As I remember, I am saddened by the fact that, 66 years after the liberation of the concentration camps, baseless hatred still exists in this world and I am heartened by the tremendous step the United States has taken today to eradicate that hatred. And, while I am filled with pride and patriotism, I still face the same questions that confront me each Yom HaShoah, each time I think about my grandfather. How can I be better? More grateful? More active? For as long as I can remember, I've grappled for answers. And, for as long as I can remember, I've fallen short. Today, as my American and Jewish identities merge in a way that they have not before, in a way that my grandfather might have found familiar, I redouble my efforts to honor the past and impact the future -- to fulfill my potential as my grandfather's granddaughter, to merit the privilege, American Jew.


  1. Great post. Some of the stories sound familiar from his funeral. You are a gifted writer and an eloquent speaker. Knowing your family, I am not surprised that such a man is your direct ancestor and foundation.