While my great grandfather hid in a rain barrel, a Ukrainian villager raped my great grandmother. Some time later, my grandfather was born.
He looked Ukrainian—so much so that he could slip away to the village, pass as a Christian child, and overhear the neighbors scheduling their next attack on the Jews. Then he would scamper back to the shtetl and let his parents know it was time to hide in the woods again.
My father and brother inherited the Ukrainian rapist’s good looks, and I inherited his thirst.
I first learned about the Ukrainian rapist last year, in the context of one of my father’s breakfast table reminiscences. My father mentioned it as if it were one of the old family stories—like the stories about my father’s childhood, or my mother’s father’s death in an airplane crash, or my parents’ marriage. I’ve been hearing those stories since I tasted milk, but the rapist in the family tree was news.
Perhaps because the boy’s face reminded him that he had failed to protect his wife, my great grandfather made a daily exercise of beating my grandfather.
He beat him in Ukraine, he beat him in steerage on the passage to America, he beat him in the new land. He only stopped beating him when my grandfather, with my great grandfather’s written consent, enlisted in the US Army at age fifteen to go fight the Huns.
The US government arranged to have my underage grandfather’s soldier’s pay sent directly to my great grandfather in America.
My grandfather might have thought World War I would be softer than life with Poppa, but if so, he was mistaken. He emerged from trench warfare with a plate in his head, a metal disk in his knee, and certified paranoid schizophrenic as a result of exposure to mustard gas, a chemical agent the civilized nations were using on each other’s soldiers.
When he emerged from the hospitals, the US government gave my grandfather a disability pension, and this time the money went to him. Armed with those small funds, a mentally ill poor man’s talent for the grift, and his striking handsomeness, he won my grandmother and produced two children, one of whom was my father.
In deference to tradition, my grandfather beat my father every day. He extended the tradition by also beating my grandmother.
That stopped when my father, still wearing his Navy uniform, returned from World War II and threw my grandfather out.
In the decades that followed, my grandfather would sometimes appear out of nowhere, creating emotional havoc in my parents’ house until my father gently put him on a train back to New York.
My grandfather married seven women that we know about, but none of the marriages stuck.
He gravitated to the Bowery and probably died there.
We last heard of him in the 1970s when I was in high school. Late one night, the phone rang. I answered. A New York cop told me he had picked up a deranged homeless man claiming to be my father’s father. Could we come pick him up?
We didn’t live in New York; my parents were out of town; as a minor watching my younger brother in my parents’ absence, I couldn’t travel to New York to fetch my grandfather. So I told the policeman that my father’s sister—my grandfather’s daughter—lived in the New York area and gave him her telephone number. Then, very politely, I hung up.
I had a bad feeling, like I should have done more, but what?
We never heard another word about my grandfather.