Ben by Tyler Mendelsohn

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, January 16th, 2020

"'It’s possible I crossed paths with the ghost of my grandfather, whose blood is mine but whose life I can barely fathom."

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Personal essay by Tyler Mendelsohn

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In the late 1800’s and early 1990’s, 97 Orchard Street was home to many of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to the Lower East Side of New York. Now, no one living lives there.

When I went on a tour of what is called The Tenement Museum, I couldn’t shake the sense that someone else was in the building. Our tour group were the only people there. The only people who are ever there anymore are tour groups. Before it was turned it into a museum, the building had been vacant for 53 years. In 1988, it was turned into The Tenement Museum—it was the perfect venue because the apartments had been untouched since its tenants were forced out.

The guides describe tenants’ lives based on research. I was in the apartment of an Orthodox Jewish family from Lithuania. They ran an at-home sweatshop. I kept trying to put myself back in time. Being in the room didn’t immediately transport me; there is an enormous gap in life experience, culture, perception.

Small details stuck out to me—like how there’s a window in the center of the unit, between the kitchen and the main living area. The tour guide explained that this was to reflect natural light from the one window that faced outside. Otherwise there was very little in the way of light.

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My paternal grandfather’s immigration certificate hangs on the wall of my parents’ house. He died before I was born. The only real details I know about him are: he came from Poland; he spoke seven languages; my dad seems to have been afraid of him.

The certificate in the bathroom says he came to Brooklyn, but I wondered if 97 Orchard Street was similar to his building. After the museum visit, I told my dad about the tour. He said his father actually came first to the Lower East Side in the early 1900’s.

It’s possible he lived in that same building. It’s possible I crossed paths with the ghost of my grandfather, whose blood is mine but whose life I can barely fathom.

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My paternal grandfather’s name was Ben.

In Scotland, the word “ben” means the inner room of a parlor. The tour guide at 97 Orchard Street kept telling us to gather in the parlor. It was one of few times I’ve ever heard that word spoken.

In Hebrew, Ben means “son of”. It forms part of surnames, for example: Abraham ben David, meaning Abraham, son of David. Ben is a small part of something larger and the necessary connector.

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I recently read a book called The Girl in the Green Sweater by a Holocaust survivor, Krystyna Chiger. Her family ultimately survived by hiding in a sewer. They were from Lvov (now Lviv), which was part of Poland but became Russian territory during the war. They were among the only Jewish families in their entire city who survived.

I was talking to my dad about the book—how upsetting it was, how the Chiger family’s country of origin changed while they were underground—and he casually mentioned that Ben was also from Lvov. I was stunned by the connection.

I had the haunting thought: if Ben hadn’t left Poland, he likely would have been killed. My dad wouldn’t exist, my sisters wouldn’t exist, I wouldn’t exist. I hadn’t thought about it exactly like that before.

I remember learning about the Holocaust in elementary school. It felt so far away.

If Ben had been killed, our family lineage would be forever changed. My mom would be living an entirely different life. All because Ben never left Poland.

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Throughout the tour of 97 Orchard Street, I wondered: were we encouraged to make connections to the present?

On Ellis Island—where Ben would have entered America—people considered “healthy” were held and questioned for two to five hours. They were sent off then to uncertain lives, but they were sent off. Eugenics influenced immigration policy; anyone who had a disability or who was deemed mentally or physically sick was detained and sent back.

Two-thirds of the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island were from Europe, and over time became white in America. But not all of them—the Emergency Quota act of 1921, only a few years after Ben came to America, allowed in a higher quota of Northern and Western European immigrants than Eastern and Southern European immigrants. Americans saw Northern and Western European immigrants as having “similar values” to Americans (read: they were considered more white).

This is one reason why, in 1935, 97 Orchard Street shut down. New codes were put in place to protect tenants from unlivable conditions; the owner refused to adhere to them. Our tour guide said this was in part because American attitudes towards Eastern and Southern European immigrants–who made up the majority of 97 Orchard Street tenants–were worsening.

Today, thousands of immigrants are detained indefinitely at the border and separated from their children, who are kept in cages. Children held by ICE have been left to die through neglect of medical care. Thousands are deported. These are non-white immigrants. I looked at a map showing country of origin for immigrants detained by ICE in 2018; the president speaks most loudly and violently about Latinx and Muslim immigrants, and while the largest number of people detained are from Latin American countries, those held by ICE are immigrants of color from all over the world.. American immigration policies have always upheld the power structure.

Ben didn’t have an easy life by any means, but he was given a chance at life.

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In the apartment we toured, there was an iron, an artifact from the family’s life. People passed it around the room to see how it felt to hold it in their hands.

There was an opening, almost like a little door, at the top. This used to be where people—maybe Ben, but probably his mother—put hot coals. Without the coals inside, the iron felt oddly cold. It was the beginning of September and still hot outside. Even more so in the un-air-conditioned apartment.

I was the last to be handed the iron. While the guide was still talking, I tried to quietly pass it toward the front of the room. Everyone was distracted. Eventually I gave up, and stood for the rest of the tour with the iron in my hands. It was heavy. You had to be very careful with it. I held onto the iron tightly, afraid of breaking a connection to the past.

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Header image courtesy of Joshua Zirschky. To view his Photographer Feature, go here.

Tyler Mendelsohn is a writer and editor living in Baltimore, MD. Their creative writing, essays and book reviews have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as 3:AM Magazine, The Establishment, Little Patuxent Review, JMWW, BmoreArt, Baltimore Fishbowl, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. Their book Laurel was published in August 2019 by Ink Press Productions. Tyler lives in a Baltimore rowhome with their partner Trish and cat Cosmo. Some of their favorite activities are playing the drums, petting cats, and eating snacks.
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Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.