My grandfather never traveled.
After arriving in New York by boat in 1949, my grandfather, Israel Geller, barely left New York. He traveled by plane once, to visit his nephew, Josh Geller, in Detroit. Otherwise my grandfather carried on a humble life in New York until he passed away in 1997.
Over the past few months, I have traveled across the coast and across the world to interview some of my grandfather’s relatives. My relatives built up a portrait of my grandfather’s life in Podkamien, a talented grain merchant who was a patriarch to both his family and his community. Moreover, they explained how my grandfather’s presence resonated long after he emigrated to New York and his family members scattered across the world.
My grandfather wrote letters. Not only did my grandfather consistently write letters to his family from the time he emigrated, he wrote them in Hebrew. His penmanship was beautifully crafted and his use of the language was richly poetic. He would use phrases that even veteran Israelis found unique and clever.
He wrote about the simple things, about his life, his family and his eventually declining health. But the mere fact that he kept in touch across all of those miles and for all of those years is what made my grandfather’s letters special.
Every relative that I visited had something to say about my grandfather’s letters. Aviva Salomon recalled the excitement of receiving a letter during her childhood in Israel. “Whenever a letter came in, it was a holiday,” Aviva said. Aviva, who now lives in San Diego, described how her family would sit around the table while her father would read the letter, afterwards passing it around so that everyone could take a look.
Even more outstanding was how my grandfather managed to maintain a strong relationship with relatives that he would never see again and some that he never even met. While in Israel I spoke with Yocheved Sarid, whose husband Yitzchak was my grandfather’s distant cousin. Yocheved shared two letters that my grandfather had written to her and Yitzchak. She explained that through these letters, my grandfather and her husband remained friends even though the two never saw each other after the war ended.
These letters not only allowed their friendship to thrive, but also created a lasting impact on Yocheved and the couple’s four children, who viewed my grandfather as an important family friend and shared intimate war stories about my grandfather and Yitzchak during their time in hiding.
Yesterday marked 15 years since my grandfather passed away. After 15 years my grandfather’s memory shines brighter than ever. He’s remembered for the learned, warm and caring individual that he was. He’s remembered for setting the foundation for strong family relationships for generations to come. He didn’t just leave a lasting legacy- he created one with his words.