The other photos of Zayde show him on the podium at a union rally or at a major ceremonial event in a hotel, just a small figure with other immigrants at round tables in a large ballroom, all dressed in their best and smiling uncomfortably at the official photographer. I wonder if they still felt fear at the idea of being photographed. I also wonder if, at such moments, he thought about how far he had come, about the long and difficult journey he had taken and those he had left behind in unmarked graves somewhere in the "old country." There he was, a free man, with a long career fighting for garment workers, watching his children live the American dream, obtaining precious educations, practicing their professions as equals to their peers, raising their children without the fears that had darkened his own childhood.
I do not know whether those stories haunted him all his life because he never spoke of those "bad" times in the old country until the very end. As he entered his mid-nineties, he recognized that his memory and his ability to tell the tales were slipping away. At that time, the memories demanded expression before they were gone forever. First in his heavily-accented English, then in urgent Yiddish and finally in broken phrases with wild gestures and tears, he told us about his two older brothers, one a "nokim." a revenger; the other, a political activist, both swallowed up in the bloodbaths following the 1905-1906 uprisings that were ignited throughout eastern Europe as news of the "First Russian Revolution" spread. Zayde was sent alone to America by his grieving mother to avoid his disappearing as his brothers had into the maw of oppression and violence. That was the final brave act of a strong loving mother. They never saw each other again.
And so, as I read the news of children being sent alone across the borders from Central America to the southwestern US states or the tales of people drowning in their fragile crafts in an attempt to flee Africa for the more prosperous European countries, I think again of the desperation that drove my great-grandmother to send her last surviving son away--her overwhelming prayer for him to be safe, to live a better life, to have an education or a future, to be permitted to be a proud Jewish man. And while I do not have a ready answer for the countries grappling with the steady pressures of desperate people trying to get through their borders, I feel empathy for those who risk everything to survive long enough to give their children a better future. Surely in the wealthier nations of the world, there are enough wise and well-meaning people to join together to find a solution or multiple solutions to help them live better lives, a solution other than imprisoning them or sending them back to die. Helping people who yearn for freedom and survival is the most precious legacy left to me by my Zayde.
Chazak ve ematż! Be strong and of good courage! A wish for all those who work for social justice.