The Conversations We Never Had, by Jeffrey H. Konis, tells the tale of a grandson who had taken his grandmother for granted, but didn’t realize it until it was too late. It is a memoir/ historical fiction novel based on the authors own relationship with his grandmother.
“My father remembers nothing about his real parents. They were dead by the time he was nine. Olga, his mother’s younger sister, not only survived the Holocaust, but was able to find my father at his hiding place – a farm in Poland – and later brought him to America to raise as her own. In all that time, he never asked her any questions about his parents,” says Jeffrey. “Years later, I moved in with Olga for a period of time, but I allowed history to repeat itself – a classic mistake – and failed to ask her the same questions my father avoided. Olga has been gone for more than twenty years, along with everything she could have told me. I am left with a sense of guilt and profound regret, wishing so badly that I could go back and have a second chance to get to know her better and learn more about my family from the only person in the world who knew them and remembered them.”
The Conversations We Never Had is a chronicle of Jeffrey’s time spent with his Grandma “Ola” and an imagining of the stories she might have shared had he only took the time to ask the questions. It is a heartwarming story that will leave you eager to spend time with your family and learn more about them before it’s too late.
Excerpt from Chapter 1
Grandpa Bonya – his anglicized name was Benjamin – died a month or two before my arrival at the apartment. My family periodically visited my grandparents over the years and they sometimes visited our home. My relationship with Grandpa, an engineer by training and profession, was derivative of my father’s relationship with him, which never seemed to be one of much warmth and affection. I, rightly or wrongly, followed my dad’s lead on this front and returned Grandpa’s distance with some distance of my own.
Though Polish-born, Grandpa struck me as more Germanic; he appeared to be aloof, overtly proud with a touch of arrogance about him. It was this picture that dissolved so rapidly as Alzheimer’s slowly but surely extracted his identity like a wisdom tooth that has outlived its usefulness. Shortly before he died, my family and I checked on Grandpa Bonya at Roosevelt Hospital in the city. I will never forget the look on the face of this once-proud man sitting in a wheelchair fighting back the tears of recognition, not of us, but of his utter and complete helplessness.
My mom told me that he had shown her a softer side, a side however, I don’t recall witnessing. I perhaps judge my grandfather too harshly for I never really knew him well. Grandma Ola married him, loved him and stayed with him throughout their lives. She must have had good reasons for doing so.
Grandma Ola was a fascinating lady and a lady she was. She always held her head up, carrying herself with dignity, pride and a certain elegance while also appearing aloof, judgmental and supremely self-confident. Given her life story, I couldn’t begrudge her any of these traits.
Grandma, Grandpa and Us
My family, by way of the Bronx, ended up in Orange County, N.Y., some fifty miles northwest of New York City. My parents, Edward and Lisa, occasionally took us into the city to see a play or a museum, but also to visit Grandma Ola and Grandpa Bonya. I don’t recall doing anything particularly noteworthy with them. Mom and us would typically go into the smaller bedroom and watch television while dad and my grandparents would speak Russian to each other about God-knows what. They would sometimes make small talk with us to see how we were all doing, generally. The interesting thing, though, is that Polish was my dad’s first language. At the time when Grandma Ola was born in Vilna, or Wilno, Poland, the city was controlled by Czarist Russia. The Czars practiced a policy known as Russification whereby conquered ethnic groups, such as Poles and Jews, were forced to act, think and speak Russian. In fact, my grandfather’s name on his birth certificate was Chaim, meaning life in Hebrew, and my grandmother was born with the Hebrew name, Sarah. Owing to Russification, however, they took on the names, Efim and Sonia, distinctly Russian names. Yet by the time my dad was born in the same city some thirty years later, Vilna was again in Polish hands. Consequently, Polish, rather than Russian, was the language my dad grew up speaking. To complicate Vilna’s tortured history further, Vilna became Vilnius during the second world war, Lithuania’s restored historical capital, and remains so to this day. In any event, though Grandma Ola and Grandpa Bonya spoke Polish, both were more comfortable speaking Russian.
I do recall two specific instances of going out with Grandma Ola: we, my parents and I, once had dinner with her at a local coffee shop. I remember also seeing a movie, The Odessa File, a great movie starring Jon Voight, at a theater on the east side of Broadway at 83rd Street. This theater was later destroyed to make room for a new apartment building.
I don’t remember much warmth and affection from either grandparent when I was younger, though Grandma Ola was more approachable; Grandpa Bonya didn’t exactly set the bar all that high. But Grandma Ola was my father’s flesh and blood and, therefore, mine as well. Indeed, but for her, my father would likely have ended up in Israel and found, at some point, some members of his extended family, now living in Haifa.
This family consisted of Nacham Senitzki and his wife, Doba, who both had survived Vilna. Vilna is known as Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Doba’s and Nacham’s survival was particularly miraculous given that some 90% of the city’s Jewish population perished during the Holocaust. Doba had attended my bar mitzvah in New York, presenting me with a beautiful yarmulke from Israel that I proudly wore that day. Nacham’s mother, Malka, was the sister of my dad’s grandfather and namesake, Eber Berenstein. She had been a dentist before later becoming a teacher.
In 2005, my parents took me to Vilna, my father’s first time back in sixty years. Upon learning of our trip, one of the Senitzki children, Moishe, and his wife, Tamar, joined us. Moishe had been to Vilna before, and he was very helpful and terrific company. For me, it was a great joy to spend time with my father’s second cousin, a rarity given that his relatives have, for all intents and purposes, vanished thanks to the Holocaust. There was also a surprise on this trip: my father met with another second cousin, neither of whom knew of the other’s existence. This cousin’s grandmother was another sister of Eber Berenstein’s. She had married a man named Zukowski, who was not Jewish. For having done so – “marrying out” – this sister found herself estranged from her own Jewish family. I have a photo of the three, Moishe, my dad and their new-found second cousin; there is a strong resemblance between my father and this gentleman. Each was intrigued but also somewhat wary of the other. Regrettably, they didn’t have enough time to have the conversation I wish they had. I so wish, as does my father, that they discussed how each had made their respective ways during and after the war. Most regrettably, I wish my father had gleaned from this gentleman as much family lore as he could share.
About the Author:
After practicing law for many years, Jeffrey H. Konis left the profession to embark on a career as a high school social studies teacher. His first book, From Courtroom to Classroom: Making a Case for Good Teaching, offers a unique perspective for teachers who seek to inspire their students to learn for the sake of learning. His latest work, The Conversations We Never Had, was released in May 2016.
Jeffrey loves reading, collecting fine art photography, soccer – especially Liverpool F.C. – travel, and his family most of all. He currently resides in Goshen, New York with his wife, Pamela, and sons, Alexander and Marc.