Since the beginning of time, in every culture, across every continent, one thing connects us all: the deeply human need to convey what is important to us from one generation to the next.
The telling and retelling of the stories of our lives is essential to the creation of our identities. Stories are the bedrock from which our lives are built, the source of our sense of belonging and the vessel that preserves our values and traditions.
But stories, like water, are fluid. Each time one is told or repeated, something is changed. Memory fades; emotions color the retelling, affecting not just the details but the soul of the story itself.
Does the fact that our stories change over time diminish their value? Does it matter that they might not be “true?” Perhaps not, for even when we are telling our “truest” stories, at best they can only reflect our perceptions of what the truth might be.
When I began researching my family history more than a decade ago, I wanted to know the facts — the who, what, when and where of the generations that came before me. But there were so many gaps and questions that I quickly found myself digging beneath the surface for answers to the bigger question of why.
As I slowly unraveled my family’s story, I found that what mattered most were not the historical facts themselves but the deeper emotional truths that the stories revealed. In the end, I find myself wondering, why has this experience or relationship in my family history been preserved and what is it meant to teach me today?
My story begins with my great- grandmother, D’Jamila Danino. (D’Jamila is pronounced Jamilla, which means “beautiful” in Arabic.) Born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1883, D’Jamila was forced into an arranged marriage at the age of 12 to a man three times her age. Abram Danino was a Syrian Jew who lived in Palestine with his first wife. In 1895, D’Jamila sailed from Egypt for Haifa and became Abram’s second wife, the one who would hopefully give him the son he so desperately wanted. She never saw any of her family again.
At the age of 13 and still a child herself, D’Jamila gave birth to a baby boy, Albert Danino. Albert was my mother’s father, my grandfather. Whenever baby Albert cried, so did D’Jamila — so young and unequipped was she for mothering. But mother and son grew up together and for the first few years of Albert’s life, D’Jamila was safe and protected under Abram’s care.
When D’Jamila’s was 16, Abram suddenly died and she was left with Albert and a small inheritance. Within a year or so, she married a man named Chalom Nahmani, with whom she had a second child, a son named Felix.
Things did not go well for D’Jamila with Chalom and at 18, she did the unthinkable: She sought a divorce in the rabbinical court in Palestine. But Chalom refused to give D’Jamila a get (the Jewish divorce decree that a husband must give his wife for her to obtain a divorce) unless she gave him her second son, Felix. Without the get, she was a prisoner, trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage. But with the get, she would have her freedom in exchange for her second-born son.
And so, the story goes, D’Jamila gave up Felix and fled with my mother’s father, Albert, to Smyrna, Turkey, where they lived while Albert grew up. There, Albert met and fell in love with Jeanette Franco, a beautiful girl from a prestigious Turkish family. Because Albert came from a poor family, Jeanette’s parents disapproved. D’Jamila helped them keep their love a secret and in 1920, Albert and Jeanette eloped to America. Several years later, they brought D’Jamila to live with them in their small apartment in Long Beach, N.Y. Jeanette gave birth to two daughters: Emily in 1923 and my mother, Elise, in 1925.
One summer, when my mother was two years old, her family rented a cottage on the beach for a family vacation. On July 1, 1928, Albert went into the sea for a swim after lunch. His wife, Jeanette, stayed indoors with the children that afternoon because she was eight months pregnant and not feeling well. D’Jamila was busy cooking dinner in the kitchen when the doorbell rang. She opened it to find two policemen in uniform outside.
In her broken English, D’Jamila asked “What is it that happen?” She knew without them telling her — her son Albert was dead.
Although a tremendous swimmer, Albert had drowned. D’Jamila collapsed on the floor and Jeanette, unable to recover from the shock, died one month later in childbirth, as did her baby. That was the day my mother and her sister became orphans.
There was no other family that could take the girls except D’Jamila. At the age of 43 with an old-world, Sephardic background and no education, she became mother, father and grandmamma to her little granddaughters.
D’Jamila loved my mother and her sister with all her heart. But she suffered terribly, because she had lost Albert and Jeanette so tragically and had given up her second son Felix, whom she never saw again.
D’Jamila died in 1944 when my mother was 18 years old. Once again, my mother was orphaned, with only a few relatives left that she could call family. Or so she thought until six months ago, when I received something that changed all of our lives, forever.
On a warm April day in 2012, I opened my e-mail and found this note from a woman I did not know:
“I am the 7th daughter of Felix Nahmani, believed to have been born in Smyrna, Turkey in 1905, whose mother was D’Jamila. I found you looking on our family tree. Are we searching for the same family? My father Felix never talked about his family, we could not ask about it at all. I am looking to find who he was. I live in Canada and await your reply. Daughter #7”
My fingers trembled as I punched in my mother’s telephone number. “Mom, are you sitting down? Because you need to be when you hear what I am about to tell you.”
Through my research on Ancestry.com for relatives in Egypt, Palestine and Turkey and the creation of a family tree, the seventh daughter of Felix Nahmani, D’Jamila’s son whom she’d relinquished, had found me! Felix, the half-brother of my mother’s father, Albert. Felix, the uncle my mother had never met. Felix, the father of 10 children — all of whom were my mother’s first cousins and lived in Canada, France and Corsica!
I called the seventh daughter and a beautiful voice with a French accent answered the phone. Yes, Farida assured me, Felix was her father. And yes, she knew she had a grandmother named D’Jamila but her father never permitted them to ask any questions about her. There had been 10 children and none of them had known anything about their background or family.
My mother didn’t sleep that night, or the next. She couldn’t believe that after all these years of feeling so alone, so abandoned, that she had so much family. And they all wanted to meet her!
Over the next several months, tears were shed, photos and letters exchanged, and phone calls carried family history across the continents as we arranged a reunion at my parents’ home in New Jersey. The warmth and love of this newly discovered family toward my mother, their only link to their father’s family, was overwhelming.
The October day we all met was brilliant with fall colors. My mother had spent weeks getting the house ready, making sure that everything was “just so” for her family. They flew in from Toronto, Paris and Corsica, with gifts, pictures, and family letters. We spent a magical afternoon at my mother’s elegantly set table. My brother and cousins, from California to New York, also joined us, so that our group totaled 16 in all. It was a day that we will all remember forever.
But some of the stories that were shared were not easy to hear and my mother had a very difficult time, at first, believing them. D’Jamila had told her a story that most probably was not true, even though it is understandable, coming from a proper grandmother raising her two grandchildren in the 1920s.
It seems that D’Jamila was never married to Chalom Nahmani but had his child out of wedlock. Was it a terrible family secret? A torrid love affair? A night of indiscretion? A rape? We will never know. But what Farida and her family supplied were details that suggested D’Jamila had been sent to Turkey to give birth to Felix, where she stayed with Albert after baby Felix was born. And Felix told his own family that Chalom gave him away to a sister to raise him because his mother, D’Jamila, had abandoned him.
It was a terrible secret that D’Jamila took to her grave, one that must have plagued her every day of her life, especially after Albert died.
And so I ask myself: Why was this story preserved and what is it meant to teach me today?
When I was growing up, whenever we heard something shocking or out-of-character with what we knew about a person, especially when that person was a family member, my mother would nod her head and comment judiciously: “Everyone has a public life, a private life and a secret life.”
I wonder now if perhaps somewhere deep inside, my mother knew there were secrets in her own family that she had yet to discover. And that someday, these words would comfort her, knowing that we all have places deep within us that harbor the darkest moments and choices of our lives.
Perhaps too, we can learn that secrets are as much a part of our family stories as those tales that we tell proudly and publicly. In our lives, we may be called upon to open our hearts and minds to forgive the secrets that for reasons varied and untold, were withheld from us. For in the end, even secrets can lead to great things. Anyone who experienced the love that enveloped my mother on that October afternoon bore witness to this truth.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at amyhirshberglederman.com.