Meaningful You

Voices of contemporary psychoanalysis

Grandpa White’s Diary: Jewish Immigration in 19th Century

Beautiful book describes firsthand Jewish immigration from Poland in 1850s

This blog curates the voices of the Division of Psychoanalysis (39) of the American Psychological Association. Henry Seiden, Ph.D., ABPP, Chair of the Division 39 Publications Committee submits this post describing his recently published book, Grandpa White's Diary.

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My sister and I found our mother’s copy of her grandfather’s memoir in a box of her papers after she died. Ring bound, handwritten on both sides of lined notebook paper, now Xeroxed, most of it was written in 1898 when Grandpa White (my great grandfather) was 64. I began reading it, got excited by what I was reading and decided to set about transcribing and editing it—at first for the family. But the project grew. I think others will enjoy reading it.

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Although called a “diary” by his grandchildren, that is, by my mother and her cousins (who went to some trouble and expense to make the reproduction, probably in the early 1960s), this is a memoir, a reconstruction of the original diary Grandpa White says he began to keep when he was 15 and leaving his home in Poland, in 1850, for England and then America--a way of holding on to what he knew he was leaving forever. At the same time, he says, he was looking forward.  He would be recording his journey and the making of his new life wherever that took him.  As it turned out that would be many places: London, New York, Boston, Tampa, Key West, Nashville, Baltimore, Rochester, New York (again) and Newark.

The original diary was destroyed much later in his life, it seems inadvertently, although perhaps not so inadvertently—he explains this with little bitterness or perhaps with a restrained bitterness—by his wife, my great grandmother Anna, in the course of cleaning out an old trunk of his.

The “diary,” in the form in which we found it, is not easy to read. The handwriting is turn of the century (turn of the 20th Century); the letters have European flourishes. The punctuation is shaky or non-existent. Grandpa White—that’s Mordecai Abraham White, father of Henry White, my mother’s father (the Henry for whom I’m named)—usually neglects to start his sentences with capitals. His sentences run on—and on. Sometimes words in mid-sentence are capitalized as in German. Although he reaches for literate diction, his syntax is informed by Yiddish, his native tongue. He learned his spoken English in his adolescence; he began to learn written English and to write his diary in English, he says, when he was about twenty.

Still, Grandpa White, called “Max” in England and here in America, is a great story-teller. One wants to know what happens next. The incidents are related vividly, with feeling and with humor. The events, especially the early events, are set in a world so far away as to be exotic. And yet the stories evoke a kind of recognition: one hears Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Alechim; Henry Roth; Irving Howe’s, World of Our Fathers. And they evoke a more personal recognition in me.  Reading them I realize I heard my mother tell some of these tales. Maybe she heard her father tell them—or they are tales the cousins told each other.

Grandpa White dates the reconstruction of his diary (urged on him, he says by his children) to 1898. He sat and wrote every day in the Newark Free Library. He was by then retired from his life as clothing merchant and tailor—the tailoring a trade he learned first at age ten as an apprentice in Poland. He was also by then separated from my great grandmother and their six children, and living with his widowed sister in Newark.  One can hear that in these pages he is addressing himself to his children—telling his story and his side of their story. He had become increasingly devoted to a traditional Jewish life—and my grandmother had refused to go along, finally refusing to keep a kosher home.

Grandpa White went through the whole volume several more times after completing it, adding footnotes, headnotes and elaborations in the margins—and more stories and memories. He added an epilogue in 1908 bringing his life up to date and emphasizing the religious and moral turn he took in his late years — a turn fueled by a longing for his childhood home in Poland.  Many of his additions are in a tiny hand and difficult or impossible to read in the Xerox copy even with a magnifying glass. This adds a kind of ghostly mystery—a sense of stories behind the stories.

Among the stories: the experience of being a deeply disappointed and depressed greenhorn in New York City—having left London which was then at the height of it 19th Century civilization, for the muddy, garbage-strewn, slums of New York; his odd alienated experiences as a tailor and clothing merchant in Tampa during the war with the Seminoles, and in Nashville during the Civil War, and in Key West where white suits were big; his love life—how out of obedience to his father he married a woman with whom he never really got along (although they had six successful children, one of whom was my grandfather); the family struggle—still to this day—with the tension between a longing for the religious and cultural traditions of the Jewish past and the impulse to secularization in contemporary America.

And of course this is the story of a writer, unschooled but a writer nonetheless.  Grandpa White spent the last long years of his life writing his life. I have to think there is in this a genetic basis for my own writing. His son, my grandfather was a writer; my mother was a writer. She read to me; she told me my first stories.

I think others will find Grandpa Whites stories charming—and compelling psychologically. In transcribing and editing his memoir, I try to stay true to Grandpa White’s syntax and his voice, his Yiddish voice however ungrammatical, his American voice—one among the many family voices I hear in my own voice.

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Amazon: Grandpa White's Diary

Kristi Pikiewicz is managing editor of the American Psychological Association's Division of Psychotherapy DIVISION/Review.

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