Somewhere in the back of my mind I had always known that, one day, I would be the one to fulfill my grandfather, Jacob Marateck’s, dream of sharing his stories with a broader audience.
Jacob Marateck began keeping a diary in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War, in which he wrote of his experiences as a Jewish soldier, later an officer, in the Russian army when the men under his command wanted to kill him at least as much as the enemy did; and about growing up in Russian-occupied Poland at a time when anti-Semitism was the official government policy. But his writing needed to be set aside to focus on surviving the war, three death sentences and Siberia.
Once he escaped to America, my grandfather began telling of his adventures with his characteristic sense of humor and optimism. People constantly urged him to finish writing his stories in order to publish them, but he simply didn’t have time — at least, not until the Depression. But in 1930, he sat down to continue where he had left off during the war, and didn’t stop for the next 20 years.
One day in 1950, my grandfather felt he was done; by then he had filled 28 composition notebooks in handwritten Yiddish. He asked my mother, his youngest child, if she wanted to help him translate the notebooks into English. She was thrilled; throughout her entire childhood, her father had read to his children the stories he had written each week. Those were among her fondest memories of childhood. They made plans to begin the next day…
But he passed away that very night.
Several years later, my mother brought my father, Shimon Wincelberg, who became the first Orthodox writer in Hollywood and whom she was then dating, to meet her mother. Hearing that my father was a writer, my grandmother whispered to my mother, “Show him Poppa’s diaries.” My father was just as enthralled as my mother and everyone else had been by my grandfather’s remarkable tone of humorous irony and optimism in the midst of poverty, starvation, pogroms and war. After my parents married, they began the lengthy process of translating the diaries, which took between years and decades. Finally, in 1976, they published stories from the first 12 of 28 notebooks under the title: The Samurai of Vishigrod. My father had intended to publish the remaining stories but he, too, passed away before he was able to complete the job. Before he died, my mother promised that she would see to the publication of the diaries.
I probably should have stepped in then to complete the job, if for no other reason than because I had been named for the young girl who had saved my grandfather from his third death sentence, but having grown up hearing about my grandfather’s adventures and misadventures I was, perhaps, a little jaded. (Hadn’t everyone’s grandfather been sentenced to death three times?) It was only when my mother, at the age of 82, expressed her desire to see her father’s stories told “during [her] lifetime” that I decided to drop everything else to publish the remaining notebooks. But I approached the task differently than my parents had, creating a narrative structure for the book instead of telling individual stories, and rewriting the first book to incorporate the important elements that made my grandfather who he was.
In working with the diaries, I have gotten to know my grandfather in a way that might not have been possible had he lived longer, because his diaries exposed the soul of a 21 year-old man who never knew if he would survive until the next day. The raw honesty and the warmth that shines through his writing makes me regret, even more, never having known him.