I visited my dad's zaida Ansel and bubbie Tillie Levine on Victoria Street, down the street from the Brown Derby, a dozen or so times as a child. In my mind's eye, I can still see the building's doors with the round windows and the long terrazzo-floored entrance. I can smell the old-people scent wafting down the empty hallway. Inside their unpretentious apartment, I remember Ansel's stubbly, bony face, white shirt and black trousers, the yarmulke perched on this bald pate. I can taste the plate of Manischewitz crackers tiny Tillie offered my brothers and me to munch on.
Ansel died in 1979 at the age of 97. I wish he had lived a little longer or that I had been born earlier. He had an amazing story to tell but no one, not any of his six children nor their own kids, nor this then 10 year-old great-grandson, ever got him to open up entirely before he passed away.
And in the 35 years since he died, only a scant few tantalizing but slippery morsels have bobbed about, like matzo balls in chicken soup.
Based on recent email chats comparing notes with a few of my cousins, we believe Ansel was born in Bereslov, Russia, now called Beryslav, Ukraine, in 1882. His last name was probably Kapusta, his father was Jacob and his mother's maiden name was Kublanov. In 1904 or 1905, either fearing pogroms or a Russian army draft or being arrested for counterfeiting, Ansel acquired the passport of someone named Levine and made his way alone across the ocean to Montreal. We don't know if he stole the papers from a dead soldier or whether he killed the man to get them. We don't even know if Ansel's name was really Ansel. Maybe "Ansel Levine" was simply the name printed on the documents that helped him escape, becoming his alias for the next 75 years of his life, as well as his family's name, in perpetuity.
Recently I was in touch with a genealogy researcher in Ukraine who may be able to uncover family records, more than a century old. I'll know shortly, I hope. But pogroms and revolutions and holocausts later, the pickins are slim.
Aristotle wrote: "All men by nature desire to know." Will my own desire matter? Will what more I discover, if anything, make a difference? I'll still be me, of course, no matter whether my ancestor was a killer, a counterfeiter, a Kapusta, or all the above. But I still need to know, I still want to learn what I can about a life and a world that, had a frightened 22 year-old not fled forever, might be mine today.
If I needed that quirk of fate to be further driven home, this and this happened last week. Even if I won't entirely ever know who Ansel Levine was, a century later, his decisions, courage and life inexorably impact mine.