Gideon, an elderly man with a wide, open face, looks at my application form and reads my last name out loud. Then he fixes his gaze upon my eyes from across his desk and asks: “Where is your father from? Do you have relatives in Bacau?”
If you only met me since I live in Canada, you most likely think that my last name is Saler, pronounced something like ‘sales’. But in my native Romanian, there is a little sign which resembles a comma, a ‘sedila’, under the letter ’s’ which turns it into a ‘sh’. A Jewish Ashkenazi name, my last name must have been once written Schaller, the changed its spelling and kept the Germanic pronunciation. And in the whole of Romania, there has been only one family with this last name – my father’s family.
“My father is from Bacau” I tell Gideon.
“Who is your grandfather?” He raises his eyebrows in expectation.
“Doctor Mendel Saler, the obstetrician”
Gideon throws his arms into the air in excited revelation: “I knew your grandfather! I’m from Bacau, and I lived a couple of streets away from your grandfather’s home!”
I came to the Embassy to register my application to migrate. Gideon works for the Embassy, and still speaks Romanian. I never met my grandfather, he died when Dad was only twelve, and all I have of him are old sepia-coloured photographs, and family stories. Gideon, visibly moved, opens his drawer and offers me a blue translucent mint hard candy, a reward for being the doctor’s granddaughter.
Shaking his head, eyes pointing down to drown in memories of long-gone times, Gideon whispers: “What a man your grandpa was – a mench! What a kind, generous, extraordinary man. You don’t know the kind of person your grandfather was”
I then hear stories of how all the Jewish babies in the shtetl – the little town – were born with Dr. Mendel Saler’s help. How he was nicknamed the Doctor of the Poor, how he treated people who couldn’t afford medicine, so he would gift the medicine from his own briefcase. I heard from my father that grandpa was not a great businessman – while he lived and worked, my grandmother as his assistant in his home-based practice, the family made do but were never wealthy. I wonder if my own struggles with money and business is somehow inherited. My grandfather had two sons, my father, who became an engineer, and his older brother who became an obstetrician himself, stepping in his father’s footsteps. My uncle was as famous in Bucharest as my grandfather was in Bacau, and I heard a number of people say that they came into this world brought by my uncle. I, too, came into this world brought by my uncle. And I was asked many times if I were a relative of Doctor Saler – my uncle – and only once was I asked if I was related to the engineer Saler, my dad. The person who asked was my Latin teacher in school, and Dad had been her technology teacher some years before. I prayed he had treated her well…
Grandpa Mendel lived through war and antisemitic persecution. He was insulted by some of his colleagues for being Jewish, and he was dearly loved by his numerous patients. When he died of a stroke, he left behind a beloved memory of his kindness and a family and household without an income. My father was twelve and took on hard labour jobs to provide for his family, losing his father, his childhood, his health and his mood at a too young an age. I often look at personal history beginning long before conception: all that which shaped my family system and imprinted in my own psyche. I pray that I carry with me some of my grandfather’s kindness which etched so vividly in Gideon’s memory, as well as many others.