Keep a file of all of these documents or a copy of these documents in a safe place. Tell your children, family members, and emergency caregiver where to find this file in an emergency. 1
This is my father, Anatole Trachtenberg (1911–1984).
His titre d’identité et de voyage, the French refugee’s passport he carried when he immigrated to the US in 1939, gives his name as “Naftula Anatol Trachtenberg.” I don’t know what to make of “Naftula.” It’s not a name he ever used; I never heard anyone call him by it. It may be a misspelling of “Naftali,” his Hebrew name, which ordinarily would come after his first one: Anatole Naftali. He used it only for religious occasions.
The photo was taken when he was about twenty-eight, though to my eye he looks older. Back then people entered maturity earlier than they do today, and my father had had a hard life, having been a refugee twice before. He’d immigrated to France from Austria in 1938, following the latter country’s absorption—unresisting and in some quarters enthusiastic—into the German Reich. His parents were either too old and frail to leave or were simply unable to get exit papers and consequently died within the next few years, his father of sickness and malnutrition in Vienna, his mother, I recently learned, in the gas chamber at Sobibor.
The family had come to Austria from Russia during the civil war of 1918–1921, when my father was ten. He remembered riding in a wagon, hidden under a haystack. He was delirious for much of the journey from an ear infection that, in the absence of a doctor, had to be treated with “blood eagles.” That’s what he called them in the stories he told me when I was a child, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized he’d been speaking of leeches, the German word for which is Blutegel. The use of leeches in medicine is very old and, since their saliva contains a powerful anticoagulant, not without merit. Still, they didn’t help his ear infection. At around the same time I realized what blood eagles were, my father saw a doctor who informed him that for much of his life he’d been deaf in one ear, presumably the one that had been treated with leeches. It’s startling to think that a man can go through life unaware of having only half his hearing, especially if, like my father, he was once a professional musician and listened to music regularly and with discernment. As long as he lived in New York he was a regular at the Met, and when listening to WQXR could almost instantly tell you what aria was playing, the opera it came from, the singer, and often the conductor. All with one ear.
It wasn’t until recently, after my stepmother died at the age of ninety-four, that I acquired a dossier containing the physical documentation of my father’s migrations. These documents, beginning with the one that records his family’s membership in the Jewish community of Baden, Austria, give the sketch of his early life a definition that was previously missing. They authenticate those stories, pulling them toward history. Stories are private, personal, often unverifiable. They have fluidity. Nobody gets too upset if the stories their parents tell them keep changing in their particulars. We left in summer. We left in winter. The hay was to protect us from the cold. The hay was to hide us from the Cossacks. The money was hidden in a pot of marmalade. It was stowed under the wagon bed. The infection was in my left ear; it was in my right. But history is public, fixed, monumental. A history whose particulars change is suspect; it may not even be history.
You can picture an individual’s documentary history as a straight line moving from the past into the future with its significant events represented by documents: birth certificate, vaccination records, records of schooling and employment, driver’s license, marriage license, tax returns, passport, visas, et cetera. In this way, the entire track of his life is made legible. Read from left to right, the way one usually reads timelines, it might be a sentence.
You can picture the stories someone tells about his or her life as a different sort of line, one that meanders or wobbles, that sometimes backtracks as the teller returns to an earlier event or doubles when an incident changes in the retelling. For the sake of clarity, it can be represented as a sine wave:
The relationship between these two lines—the straight line of documentary history and the meandering one of narrative and anecdote—might look like this:
The pattern suggests a thread attached at one end to an invisible needle. In another moment the needle will be pushed through the fabric, the thread will be drawn taut, and the seam represented by the straight line—a seam that somewhere beyond the margin has come apart—will be mended. Finding the stories behind any collection of personal documents, or in the documents that authenticate those stories, can be considered an act of repair.
A-number and any immigration documents (work permit, green card, visa, etc.) Documents demonstrating your residence in the United States and amount of time you have been physically present in the United States
The documentary history of my father begins in Austria but notes that the family originally came from Berdychiv, in what is now Ukraine. He may have lost the Russian records in the course of his later migrations. They may have remained with his parents and been destroyed with them. The earliest documents I found certify my father’s schooling in Baden and his employment, while barely in his twenties, with a petroleum company that sent him to work at its refineries in Romania. There’s a membership certificate from the musicians’ union of Austria. This probably meant more to him than his job in the petrochemical industry. He rarely spoke of that, while he often recounted playing with a small band, mostly popular songs, some of which he’d written. He started out wanting to compose serious music like Alban Berg, with whom he’d studied briefly when a not-yet-famous Berg was supplementing his income giving music lessons. As a young man in the 1930s, my father was in much the same position as many of the young people I knew forty years later: working dull, underpaid day jobs to support what they thought of as their real work as artists, writers, actors. In the ordinary passage of time, the aspiring artist is either rewarded with a little recognition and money or rejected often enough to become discouraged. Sometimes, if the inclination is strong, she continues to practice her art without thought of reward. My stepmother, for instance, who had a sweet, floaty, light soprano, used to enjoy singing at talent shows at the club where she played golf. Her showpiece was “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Any of these things might have happened to my father—success or some accommodation with failure. Instead, larger events, affecting millions of people around the world, overshadowed his artistic aspirations and put a premature end to them.
Another document certifies that he has been trained as a garde-manger, or pantry chef. This proved fortuitous after he came to New York, where it gained him entry into the food business and eventually into kosher catering, which became his occupation for the next forty years. He was very good at it, not just because he knew food but because of his warmth, charm, and attention to detail, traits to which clients often attached the adjective old-world. He used to keep their testimonials framed on the walls of his office.
There’s the Alien Registration Permit—the German term is Zuzugsgenehmigung—that he had to present to the police every six months, each time receiving a stamp as proof of his legal residence in the city of Vienna in the Republic of Austria.
In the same dossier—made of stiff, black, pebble-grained leather—I found his exit visa and a letter stating that the bearer had paid his taxes. These would have been the final penalty levied on him as a Jew seeking to leave a country that was making itself so inhospitable to its Jews that, by May 1939, nearly half of them had emigrated. To obtain the visa, he would have had to spend days waiting in lines at municipal, police, and passport offices, as if rehearsing the formation that in the next few years would become customary for Jews everywhere within the borders of the continually expanding Reich. The taxes would have been his exit fee. He also would have had to submit an inventory of his property, which would be confiscated when he left. After the war, like other Austrian survivors of the Shoah, my father got reparations from that country’s government; they passed on to my stepmother when he died. I don’t know if they ever equaled what was taken from him. As recently as 2018 it was estimated that Austria had paid Jewish survivors and their families only 10 to 17 percent of the total value of their stolen property.
- a passport with at least two empty pages. The passport should have been issued within the last 10 years. The passport must be valid for at least 3 months beyond the date on which you intend to leave the Schengen territory, or, in the case of multiple journeys, the date on which you intend to leave after the last stay. 3
The Austrian documents give way to French ones. My father’s temporary-residence permit, issued in September 1938 and valid till December, then extended three times, says that the bearer is forbidden to hold a job: ne peut occuper aucun emploi. However, elsewhere in the dossier one finds a paper testifying to his employment as a garde-manger, the trade for which he had been trained in Austria. So, something changed. Or maybe documentary history is as unstable as the stories that get passed down in families, not because the documents lie (though they often do) but because they’re just paper. They testify not to what happened but to what was validated by a border guard or a functionary in a government office. And of course the functionary may have been distracted. The guard may have been bribed.
Between story and history lies memoir. Memoir is a more formal and coherent container for the stories one tells about one’s life, as a photo album is a more formal and coherent container for the snapshots one keeps in old suitcases and desk drawers. A memoir renders life subjectively, as life feels to somebody passing through it, and when the rendering is successful we come away from it convinced that, yes, this was what it was like to lie in your crib one morning raptly watching the curtains stirring in the breeze; this is how it felt to be a groveling fifteen-year-old, florid with acne, being dumped by your first girlfriend; this is how it was when your mother went crazy. We have the illusion of having shared some part of the writer’s existence. We’ve gone along for the ride, even if the ride happened twenty years earlier and the writer has long since parked and gone upstairs for a nightcap.
Still, I wonder how even the most accomplished memoir might affect a border patrolman or a customs agent or a corrections officer, somebody who holds the power of life or death. When you show your ID to a customs agent at the airport, there’s always a moment when he looks at the photo and then at you, comparing. The photo, then the face. If one of those functionaries were to read The Liars’ Club or Autobiography of a Face or Little Failure or Experience or Memorial Drive and were placed in authority over the writer, would what they had read sway them? Would they look the other way as the writer stepped out of the brush? Would they wave her through the customs line? Would they leave the cell door unlocked? There’s a difference between being moved to tears and being moved to mercy, and nowhere is this truer than in circumstances in which people are tasked with being merciless. Don’t be too nice. When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you can take the hand away.
The power of a great memoir is that along with impressing you with a sense of the writer’s individuality, it brings you to a heightened sense of your own. As if out of thousands of readers the author had written his story for you alone. But history isn’t interested in individuals. In history the individual ceases to exist. She is subsumed into the mass of history’s objects, and she passes through the coils of bureaucracies whose peristalsis might be designed to break down not just individual lives but also the very notion of the individual. Stalin is credited with the saying that a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. In history that one excess death always gets subtracted, leaving only the millions. A number followed by six or more zeroes, repeated in column after column in the secret documents of the state.
My father lived in France for a year and four months, but his dossier contains no application for French citizenship or permanent residence. Both were probably out of the question. In the years just before the war, France, which had formerly prided itself on its tolerance, experienced a resurgence of anti-Semitism. In the beginning, most of it was directed not at the well-established, well-assimilated community of French Jews, but at the tens of thousands of refugees from Central and Eastern Europe who had come fleeing the Nazis. So many Jews, many of them poor, speaking French with coarse accents or no French at all, aroused the fears of the host population. People spoke of an invasion. They spoke of French jobs being stolen, of French culture being extinguished. The nation closed against the interlopers. My father was one of these, a refugee allowed to alight briefly on the French Republic as a bird alights on a fence before it flies on.
The visa application form for a child under 18 must be signed by a parent or guardian.4
Everyone who lives in a modern state is subject to bureaucracy, but refugees are more subject to it than others. Consider the comparative significance of the hackneyed phrase “Show us your papers” to citizens of the country and foreign asylum-seekers.
In the years before the war, the ordinary French citizen had no legal obligation to carry identification, and indeed things like ID cards were very rare. Foreign-born Jews, however, had to carry every proof of their legitimacy, beginning with a Nansen passport, a document issued by the League of Nations to stateless refugees. After France fell, more documents were required: an identity card with address and picture, a work permit for those lucky enough to have work, and an exit visa for those seeking to emigrate. Of course, all these documents identified them as Jews. The consequences for not having them became more severe. The most extreme would be arrest and removal from French jurisdiction to that of the German occupiers, who eventually transferred some seventy-six thousand Jews to concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Most of these were the new immigrants. The French may have felt they were only being sent back where they came from. On French documents of the time, their fate was indicated by the euphemism “Left for Germany.”
In an exhibition documenting the July 1942 roundup of seven thousand Jews at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, I came upon a photo of a pair of brothers from Poland. Although I can no longer find the photo, I remember the caption: A police officer decided that the younger child could be successfully taught to speak and behave like a proper French boy and so handed him into the care of a French family to be raised as a gentile. But for the older child it was too late; he was sent on to Auschwitz.
The boys probably looked much like the ones in this photograph, taken at the transit camp at Drancy.
I imagine that the policeman studied the boys closely, comparing their faces to the photos on their papers, inwardly measuring the length of a nose, the depth of an occiput. At length he determined, not without sadness, that one of the faces was too Jewish.
When did the boy who was saved learn what had happened to his brother?
Thanks to the German mania for record-keeping, we know that between June 22 and the end of July 1942, 5,996 French Jews were sent to Auschwitz from the Drancy internment camp on the outskirts of Paris. Five hundred ninety-one were gassed on arrival. Of the rest, who were selected for labor, only eighty-one survived to the end of the war.
When I sat by my father’s bedside while he was dying, I often found myself staring at the monitors that registered his vital functions: the smoothly undulating or spiky green lines of his heart rate , blood pressure, and temperature. Maybe the oxygen saturation of his blood. When he was unconscious or lapsing in and out of a borderline state, I spent more time looking at the monitors than at his face. His face was terrible to look at: gaunt, discolored, rigid with pain, even the blood vessels in his eyelids engorged with pain. In comparison, the display on the monitors was soothing in its abstraction. Almost thirty years later, when I myself was very ill in a hospital, my attention was also drawn to the monitors by the bed. Again, there were two or three green lines moving across a black background like celestial objects across space. I didn’t know which line meant what. Of course, what I was seeing was not my actual breath or blood pressure, but a visual rendering derived from tens of thousands, maybe millions, of bits of information per second picked up by the sensors attached to different parts of my body. That information was far more specific than what would have been provided by an old-fashioned stethoscope or sphygmomanometer.
This is probably why the doctors and nurses who cared for my father, and later the ones who cared for me, stared at the screens so intently while they were in the room, so intently that the patient was almost an afterthought, the corporeal residue of the data it was their job to summarize and interpret. The bodies of their patients were slow and inarticulate; the data was quick and eloquent. It was the data that was the story. You can see why they gave it more attention.
As the term suggests, concentration camps originated as places where people were concentrated for purposes of surveillance, control, and punishment. The earliest ones, in Cuba during its war of independence, in South Africa during the Boer War, and in Southwest Africa during the Herero and Nama genocides in the early twentieth century, were used by foreign colonial powers to imprison rebellious indigenous populations. They were commonly overcrowded and filthy, with scant rations; in the camps in Germany-ruled Southwest Africa the occupants were methodically starved to death. Under the Third Reich, as if conforming to the evolutionary trend toward specialization, the camps metamorphosed into dedicated sites of enslavement and extermination. Like their predecessors, they were set up by foreign occupiers, but most of the unfortunates murdered in them were also foreigners, routed from across Europe and shipped hundreds of miles to Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, and Mauthausen in a ceaseless traffic of doomed persons.
One of those persons was my father’s mother, Fanya, also called Feige or Fanny or Anny, who, after her husband’s death, was gathered into the traffic and borne away to the east. For as long as I can remember, my father spoke of her as having been killed in the camps: the camps—he used the plural. But how did he know? As a child I couldn’t articulate that question, and when I was older it seemed at once too accusatory—though I certainly didn’t hesitate to accuse him in other ways, on other occasions—and too intimate. There was a time when my greatest fear was of seeing him cry. Because of my timidity, my father died without telling me how he’d learned his mother’s fate, and for years—decades—afterward the mystery troubled me.
Among the contents of the dossier is a letter from the New York Section of the National Council of Jewish Women postmarked May 28, 1947, informing him that his mother can be traced as far as a certain train that departed in June 1942, for Izbica, Poland. After that, no more is known of her.
This must be how he learned. He opened the letter and read it sitting at the dining-room table or standing in the hall with his hat on, he may have been that impatient. Maybe he had to read it a second time before it made sense. And then what? Did he do what even as a small child I couldn’t bear to see him do? He must have told someone, perhaps not my mother, but his sister Bella, who would have understood at once when she heard his voice on the phone. “They told me about Mama.”
In 2010, a distant relative contacted me through an ancestry website and sent me a document that identifies the date on which my grandmother departed Vienna: June 14, 1942; the train number, twenty-seven, and the destination, Izbica, a ghetto of the Lublin reservation.
A more detailed account of my grandmother’s last days comes in an email from Michael Simonson, an archivist at the Leo Baeck Foundation in New York:
In April, May, and June of 1942 around 10,000 Jews from Germany and Austria were murdered in the Sobibor extermination camp. The mass murder of German and Austrian Jews in Sobibor is not well known because the official destination of these transports was Izbica. Anny Trachtenberg’s transport was one such deportation. Izbica was a ghetto and many of those deported were really sent there. However, oftentimes the trains officially destined for there were rerouted to Sobibor. Fanny Trachtenberg was on transport DA-38, which left Vienna on June 14, 1942, in the evening. Two nights later it arrived at the train station in Lublin, Poland, and not in Izbica as expected. At the station in Lublin a quick selection took place and fifty-one Jews between the ages of fifteen and fifty were taken off the train and sent to a local labor camp. Only a few of them, perhaps one or two, survived the war. The remaining 949 Jews remained on the train which continued toward Sobibor, arriving there the next morning. The train was quickly unloaded on arrival, and the deportees murdered in the gas chambers. As a woman over fifty, this was almost certainly her fate.
Three years before these events, while he was still a refugee stranded in France, my father wrote a letter to a stranger in the United States; I think of the letter as the center of the dossier, its hinge or crossroads.
The stranger’s name was Jerome Trachtenberg; he was an attorney who lived in Nyack on the west bank of the Hudson River, thirty-five miles north of New York. According to my father, the US embassy in Paris allowed some refugees to come look through their public records in search of relations who might agree to sponsor them. Jerome Trachtenberg wasn’t related to him; he only had the same last name. Still, in the letter, which is undated, my father addresses him as “uncle.”
My father already spoke several languages: Yiddish, German, the Russian he still remembered, and French. Judging by the letter, he also spoke some English, evidently quite well. Only small clues suggest he wasn’t a native speaker: the use of the simple past instead of the past perfect, the slight clumsiness of “following sentences,” and later, as he became more tired and agitated, “have pity with our misfortune and pains” and “we are so much needing.”
You surely know the situation in Austria. He may have used the phrase to spare himself having to recap that situation or in anticipation of the reader’s reluctance to learn of further outrages in a distant country, with which newspapers of the time were filled. He may have wanted not to seem patronizing, though the phrase you surely know carries an implicit judgment of the one who, for whatever reason, doesn’t know. There is always something one doesn’t know, and there is always something one doesn’t want to know, the story one clicks on and then, having read the lede, clicks away from, unable to bear more.
I was researched, had to hide during weeks and decided though it was perilous to leave Austria … I went through several prisons and had to endure great pains and all that only because I am a Jew. But I succeeded to escape from this hell and to reach the neutral ground of France.
Maybe there was something wrong with his papers, or the guarantees they had formerly carried had been withdrawn. This would have reduced the documents to just pieces of paper with writing on them. My father used to tell me that while crossing into Switzerland from Austria he’d been arrested and put in a jail cell with a “mass murderer.” As a child I found that terrifically exciting. The letter speaks of several prisons, which suggests he was arrested more than once.
The letter continues:
But herewith the problem is not solved because it is impossible to stay here. Thousands of emigrants are here without means all there money taken from them, they go living corpses, desperate and hopeless.
Beyond this, further analysis becomes impossible, at least for me. But I note that even in his despair my father refers proudly to having sold his songs for money. Just as, about a year later, in his declaration of intent to apply for US citizenship, he lists his occupation as “composer.”
Which is to say that his letter achieved its purpose. Jerry Trachtenberg wrote back. He was enough of a lawyer to have my father checked out by a contact in Paris to make sure he was who he said he was, especially a hard and honest worker who wouldn’t become dependent on him or a drain on the resources of the nation. What he learned satisfied him, and he agreed to sponsor my father. To the end of his life my father held Jerry Trachtenberg in the affection and esteem worthy of an uncle, to whom he was deeply indebted. I remember meeting Jerry a few times, maybe at my bar mitzvah, possibly even at my father’s funeral, for he outlived him by almost twenty years.
You could cite this story as evidence that a personal appeal—even one to a stranger—can achieve more than any number of documents issued by a state. True, Jerry Trachtenberg might have changed his mind and withdrawn his offer and suffered no penalty for it. States, too, revoke their guarantees when these become too onerous, or when the state in question undergoes a radical change of governance. So maybe it all depends on the mercy of individuals. A while ago I read about two twelve-year-old boys from Honduras, identical twins whose parents brought them separately across the Mexican border to claim asylum in the United States, one with the mother, one with the father. They thought this would give them a better chance of staying until their cases were brought to immigration court. Instead, officials released the boy who had come with his father and sent his brother and their mother back to Mexico, where they eventually found a room in a squalid shelter with no electricity and no lock on its door. When they ventured out into the street, they were cursed and beaten. Four months passed before they were allowed back into the US (the country that had taken in my father when he was a living corpse) and reunited with the rest of their family.
Elsewhere on the southern border, another migrant was forcibly separated from her two-year-old by an agent who told her, “This is what happens when you come to my country.” The child was sent to a juvenile detention center operated by the Department of Health and Human Services. A visitor once described conditions in such facilities on the US border as “government-sponsored child abuse.” As of July 2019, seven children had died in them, or shortly after being released from one, in the course of a year.
The undocumented migrants who cross the Mexican border into the US typically carry nothing more than a national ID card of their country of origin. That is what is meant by undocumented. The children carry even less. Often they just have a piece of paper bearing their name and maybe that of a relative somewhere in the country. So when they are detained by the Customs and Border Protection, the arresting agents have no photos to verify who they are. They can only look at their faces.
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas speaks of the face as a shorthand for the irreducibility of the human Other, the way that Other beggars any ideas one might have about it. In his formulation, to see the face of another is immediately to be placed in a position of obligation to him. That obligation is infinite, as it would be, say, to God. But the obligation to God is a rising movement, from Earth to heaven, the powerless to the all-powerful, from the mortal to the immortal, while one’s responsibility to the Other moves laterally or maybe even downward, toward a being one has the power to kill.
This is my father, Anatole Trachtenberg (1911–1984). Voici mon père. Das ist mein Vater. Eto moi otets.
Looking again at his declaration of intention to apply for naturalization, I saw that he arrived in this country on January 18, 1940, on the Ile de France, sailing out of Le Havre, under the name Naftula Anatol Trachtenberg. But he signs his name simply “Anatole Trachtenberg.” And the succeeding document, his petition for naturalization, stamped September 18 or 28, 1941, gives his “full, true, and correct name” as Anatole Trachtenberg, formerly Naftula Anatol Trachtenberg. So he changed it. He left Europe with one name; in America he found another. I have no story that explains that. In the absence of one, I must speak of his history as broken or at least still in need of repair. The needle has entered the fabric but has not yet been pushed through. When this happens, one must go forward with a torn place always exposed on one’s person.
Human beings in transit are harder to observe than ones at rest in a hospital. They yield less data, and the data they yield are coarser, enough to fit in a handful of documents that could be carried in a wallet or dossier. Much of the information is never verified. You add an inch to your height, you shave five pounds off your weight. You list your religion as “none” when you were raised a Jew and practice a lax, inept kind of Buddhism. The relation between the information in travel documents and the information in the traveler’s story is like the relation between the data on the screen and the signs and signals of the body. A series of discrete readings vs. a slowly accruing narrative, granular detail vs. impressionistic breadth. The data collected by medical sensors are literally binary, electrical impulses translated into ones and zeroes. Those on a passport are similarly limited. The subject is either male or female, Hispanic or non-Hispanic, white or Black or Asian, a resident of this state and not another. The information on one’s travel documents may be true—let’s assume it’s true—but it rarely corresponds to one’s resting inner sense of oneself, the self on idle. Or maybe I’m speaking just for myself. I suspect it’s only at those moments when the outer self is under threat, as happened to Jews during the Third Reich, as happens to Black people during traffic stops in much of the United States, that the divide between the inner and outer self collapses and one starts to feel like the person on one’s travel documents.
That divide isn’t quite the same as the divide between the public and private life. For many of us, those terms—public, private—no longer mean much. There is the life we present to the world on social media:
Twenty-four years with my honey. My dad is in the hospital. Margaritaville, bitches. There is the life we present to the ones we love, a child’s valentine the recipient may not really want, a story told by the old to the young, who don’t really listen. There is the life we present to the state and its assigns at customs, the bank, and the DMV. The last life is the one that people have the least feelings about, or the most predictable ones: Nobody likes the photo on his or her driver’s license. For years we carry it with us, renewing it when we have to, until we no longer feel the need. We’re not going anywhere.
After we die, the documents of that life become meaningful in a different sense. Having afforded the bearer purchase on the present, they now become tokens of the past, of interest only to those who care about it. Someone finds them in a drawer of the empty house and pauses, considering whether to add them to the other papers in the trash. He looks at them for a long time. I used to wonder why the photos in those documents never showed their subjects smiling until I learned that there was a policy against it. At least this was the case in Europe in the last century. Actually, when I last had a new passport photo taken, at a CVS in the town where I was living at the time, the photographer also told me not to smile.
Notes 1 – 2 are from the “Family Preparedness Plan,” published by the Immigration Legal Resource Center. Notes 3 – 4 are among the “Required Documents” provided by the European Commission.