-Joseph, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo
Sarah Abrevaya Stein is the author or editor of many books, including, most recently, Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019), which was named a Best Book of 2019 by the Economist, an Editors' Choice Book by the New York Times, and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist. She is a 2010 Winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
Sarah Abrevaya Stein
Determining when a book is done is a struggle for any writer. Realizing that a work of history is still unfolding is a revelation. It is in such a state that I find myself two months after the publication of my most recent book, Family Papers: a Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2019). Now published, the book seems to be creating a new future.
Family Papers traces the modern history of a single Sephardic family from Ottoman Salonica over the arc of a century, seven generations, and through various waves of global migration. It is also a meditation on the letters they exchanged and saved, and how these letters came to hold the family together as time, distance, and world conflicts tore them apart. Reconstructing the family history has taken me into the living rooms (and private collections) of family members from Rio de Janeiro to Kolkata, Thessaloniki to Manchester--people who today cannot read the various languages of the documents they hold, but who still have a palpable connection to their deep past.
The book also contains within it the discovery of an astonishing trauma unknown to living descendants until now--that a family member was a Nazi collaborator who turned out to be the only Jew in all of Europe executed by a state after the war for his complicity with the occupiers. The family never wrote of this terrible trauma, not in letters, memoirs, diaries, or testimonies. They even excised their disgraced relative from family trees. In time, the facts the family buried became unknown to their descendants, including the war criminal’s own daughter; unknown, that is, until the publication of Family Papers.
I came upon this family history while finishing another book: an English-language translation of the first Ladino memoir ever written (Sarah Abrevaya Stein and Aron Rodrigue, A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica, with Isaac Jerusalmi as translator, 2012). The author of that memoir, Sa’adi Besaelel a-Levi (1820-1903), spent the last years of his life writing a Ladino-language memoir to air a lifetime’s worth of grievances. Extraordinarily, the sole copy of this document, written in soletreo (the unique handwritten cursive of Ladino), outlived wars; the collapse of the empire in which it was conceived; a major fire in Salonica; and the Holocaust, during which Jewish texts and libraries as well as Jewish bodies were targeted by the Nazis for annihilation. The manuscript passed through four generations of Sa’adi’s family, traveling from Salonica to Paris, from there to Rio de Janeiro and, finally, to Jerusalem—somehow eluding destruction or disappearance despite the collapse of the Salonican Jewish community and the dispersal of the author’s descendants over multiple countries and continents.
Having spent years considering Sa’adi’s account of nineteenth-century Salonica, I was left wondering how his handwritten memoir came to travel such a circuitous path, and what had become of Sa’adi’s descendants. These questions launched me on a decade-long quest to tell the collective story of Sa’adi’s branching family: a journey that took me to a dozen countries, thirty archives, and into the homes of a Sephardic clan that constituted its own, remarkable global diaspora.
The publication of Family Papers signaled a kind of closure for me. For the globally-dispersed descendants of the Levy family, it marked a beginning. One young woman, a descendant of the Portuguese-branch of the family who was (until the publication of Family Papers) all but ignorant of her family’s story, wrote me that the book “makes me redraw the map of my identity.” “I have to keep reminding myself that a lot more people and factors go in the mix of what makes a person,” she admitted: “but I suppose I do feel like "a Levy". Other members of the family (from England to Brazil and the United States, and well beyond) have written to tell me what it has been like to uncover hitherto hidden truths about their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. For some, these disclosures have been magical, for others, poignant, for others still, a nightmare.
Perhaps the most astonishing result of the book’s publication is the catalyst of a family reunion across continents and far-reaching branches of the extended Levy family tree. The gathering took place just before New Year’s in Manchester, in a home where I had earlier pilgrimaged to talk history and view family documents with Alan Salem, one of the most historically-informed of his generation (at least when it comes to family lore). The grandparents of those gathered around the table at this home in Northern England were cousins—but they themselves had no previous relationship to one another, and even their parents had fallen out of touch with their extended family. The family resemblance endures; perhaps more astonishingly, they do feel like family, one bound together both by the past and by my book. The email I received notifying me of this joyous occasion bore the subject “One person missing,” which touches me to no end.
When it comes to Family Papers, one writer’s end point is another family’s beginning. History doesn’t really draw to a close, it would seem. We writers conclude our stories, and time (and our readers) breathe into them new life.