An Open Book: The Debts We Owe

Los Alamos

Much too late, in retrospect I realize now, I developed an interest in my family history. The immigration of my parents and my siblings from Uruguay to America is one that I was a witness to, so I could, and have, documented that story.

But every year around this time, I receive a thank you letter that reminds me that my history is richer and deeper than my own story. All four of my grandparents were immigrants themselves, in this case from Lithuania to Uruguay in the 1920’s.

Unfortunately, by the time that I returned to Uruguay 26 years after emigrating, only one great uncle remained who could share that story. This was a story with a detail that I didn’t understand until 20 years later, and which I hold in my hand a few months after the Jewish New Year.

I sat down with Tio Ruben over several evenings March of 1997 and, with a cassette tape recorder in hand, listened to his reminiscences about living in a small Jewish hamlet in central Lithuania. It was a great story. My widowed great-grandmother made ends meet running a tavern, and he would help serve the patrons, while covertly sipping the drops of vodka left in their cups. His older brothers and sisters left for Uruguay first, helped by IAS, a US-based charity that was sponsoring immigration to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and other South American countries at a time when immigration to the US was very restricted, and emigration to Palestine, then under British control, illegal.

It was one of the most enjoyable experiences of that trip, because I was not only returning to my birthplace, but also learning about why and how I came to be there; how a 15 year old, 50 years before my own similar experience as a child, came to a new world, learned a new language and a new culture, tasted new foods (in my case cream soda, in his case, an orange), and I have enjoyed re-reading that story and its parallels to my own.

That fascinating story developed in me a curiosity about that mysterious charity that had made that transatlantic trip on the vessel Formosa possible. After all, IAS had subsequently made my own emigration possible, even if they didn’t pay the fare that second time. Despite my early familiarity with the internet (remember AltaVista, Lycos, and other defunct Google predecessors?), I could not find any organization with the initials IAS.

One day, however, around the time of one of the Jewish holidays where donations are traditional, I received a request from a refugee assistance organization once known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, but now with an expanded world-wide mission and shortened name, HIAS. In front of me was the answer to my mystery. My uncle, speaking to me in Spanish, had made the “H” silent, and I had transcribed it as he had pronounced it. I have donated to HIAS ever since, in a small way repaying that transport fare that in all certainty saved my family from the Holocaust that engulfed almost everyone else in that hamlet.

One of those self-help books that I start and never finish nevertheless did leave me with a memorable lesson. As children, we feel dependent on our parents, and as youth we seek independence. It is when we reach adulthood that see ourselves not just as dependent, or independent, but as interdependent to and with others. We recognize that there are no self-made individuals, that unnamed many have helped us become who we are, and it is only right and just for us to help those who may now in turn depend on us. Thus, there is no word in the Hebrew language for Charity, the nearest equivalent is Tzedakah, or Justice.

When our traditions impel us to share our bounty, let us see that there is no charity, no free-will offerings. We should admit that we all have unpaid debts in this world. And, if we are to work toward justice, let us seek to make amends for this obligation, and repay as we can that debt that all of us still owe.