The very nature of the trade of a professional genealogist is to undertake research into someone else’s family history. As a genealogist, one is accustomed to researching one’s own tree and generally feels reasonably confident when visualising the past and imaginatively reconstructing the lives of one’s ancestors, based upon what one knows of local history and culture, the places where they lived and what they did for a living. At least that is certainly the case when one’s ancestors come from the same country and, as in my own particular case, the same county and often the same town.
It is of course different if you live in diaspora, if you are, for example, a resident of North America or Australia or South Africa with ancestors back in the unfamiliar old world of continental Europe. When, as a professional genealogist, one conducts investigations on behalf of such individuals into their family background in Europe, one brings to bear the wide experience of one’s previous research across multiple cases, the knowledge derived from reading and, in many instances, from travel; but most of all one has to have what Keats called negative capability. This is the ability to suppress one’s own personality and to project oneself into the lives of others, to try to think and feel the world through their eyes. One might argue that this is largely spurious but I do not think it impossible to gain practical insights into avenues of research from this kind of imaginative or lateral thinking. Certainly, one often finds that one becomes preoccupied with particular individuals or lines of a family being researched, as one wonders about their lives, their motivations, what prompted them to emigrate, for example, or how they managed to survive adverse circumstances.
David Albahari published in 1998 a book called, in English translation, Götz and Meyer*. His book is an essay in negative capability, an attempt to come to terms with the experience and unknowable inner life of participants in the terrible drama of the extermination of the Jewish community of Belgrade once Serbia had been forced to capitulate to Nazi occupation. Between April and July 1941 almost 9,500 Belgrade Jews had to register with the authorities. The Jewish men of Belgrade were mostly shot in October 1941, but the women, children and elderly were taken to the Sajmište concentration camp (in the grounds of a former trade fair on the outskirts of the city) in December 1941. The protagonists of the title are Wilhelm Götz and Erwin Meyer, NCOs of the Nazi SS who operated the gaswagen that liquidated the Sajmište camp Jews between March and May 1942, using the truck’s exhaust fumes, on daily or twice-daily trips (excepting Sundays). What can one know of Götz and Meyer? Albahari presents them not as callous or psychopathic but as regular guys carrying out a perhaps unpleasant but necessary duty for the greater good. Gradually over the course of the book they are used as a means of teasing out the last days and demise of the family Albahari doesn’t know, those lost in the Shoah:
“When I first tried to sketch out my family tree, it looked like… a blade of grass, like a bare tree, without leaves.”
He interviews an ailing elderly relative living in care but still able to record the names of multiple uncles, aunts and cousins, whose lives Albahari then researches as best he can using the surviving vital records of the Jewish community of Belgrade:
“My family tree now looked quite different, it had filled out with leaves and branches, and it was sturdier… I ought to have had 67 relatives, some of them close, others more distant… in fact I had only six, including the cousin in the old people’s home.”
The cousin passes away shortly after. The other five kin, “the last kernels on a gnawed ear of corn”, lived in Argentina, Australia, Israel and USA. Their average age was 80 and all were childless.
“I was an ear of corn with nothing but a few loose kernels left on it… when all of us died off, when our kernels fell into the washtub of time, nothing would be left from my parents’ families.”
Although ironically, perhaps, the book is an easy read – you can read it in two sittings – it is a serious and sobering reflection on persecutor and victim, as well as a personal journey in discovering and attempting to come to terms with the past and realising the significance of memory. It also makes one start to think about the ones who got away, and how; what role was played by chance or luck or circumstances, and what part by the initiative, or sheer determination, or instinctive will to survive of those Jews of Belgrade who somehow came through the Holocaust years alive, against all the odds.
*published by Vintage, 2005, in translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać