In a whimsical sermon to his extended family, the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke of Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon” states that “History is not … [Remembrance], for Remembrance belongs to the People.”
The past is typically observed from the macro level, taught and discussed in terms of nations, empires and governments. General history charts the clashing of armies, the rise and fall of states and the sweeping effects of natural events. Most individuals discussed in textbooks are Great Men and Women whose actions have altered in dramatic ways the path of the human species. Rarely are the stories of the so-called ordinary people remembered, let alone recounted.
“No One Remembers Alone: Memory, Migration and the Making of an American Family,” currently on display at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, highlights the courtship of two young lovers, Abram Spiwak and Sophie Schochelman, and their experience as Russian Jewish immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century. Curated by Patricia Klindienst, “No One Remembers Alone” is a love story told through the couple’s postcards, a batch of which were rediscovered by their family in 2008, and many of which still have their original one-cent stamps.
Between 1882 and 1924, 2.6 million Eastern European Jews came to America, among whom were Sophie and Abram. In Russia in 1905, the Jewish people were blamed for a failed coup to overthrow the Romanov dynasty. A horrific pogrom ensued, and refugees poured across the border into Europe, where they were likewise unwelcome. Sophie and Abram, who had met just months before in the Russian city of Odessa, were separated in the chaos, as Sophie and her family made the 1,000-mile journey across the Atlantic. After Abram himself arrived in New York, he found her living in an apartment in the Lower East Side and immediately set about wooing her a second time.
The exhibit begins with a postcard sent August 8, 1907 and covers their relationship over the course of the next several years. Sophie and Abram’s story is a universal one — that of two young people caught in the sweep of history, bolstered by each other’s love. The postcards illustrate their relatively difficult financial situation. They squeeze in as much writing as possible to capitalize on paper, writing in tight, compressed font and scribbling messages in the margins.
The exhibit’s chief accomplishment is in illustrating Abram and Sophie’s humanity while illuminating and commenting on their time. It treats them as they are — human beings — rather than turning them into historical monuments. Over the course of their correspondence, the pervasive anti-Semitism of the 20th century remains in the background (on one occasion Abram reveals that he has been passing as a Christian to circumvent his landlord’s policy of barring Jews). Major historical events are rarely discussed. It is easy for one to envision oneself in either Sophie or Abram’s shoes.
The exhibit also does an admirable job of highlighting their love for each other — the love that sustained them through a difficult time in a strange land and that eventually spawned a family. The poignancy of the exhibit comes chiefly from one’s awareness of the trials that they faced in setting foot on American soil. Their correspondence is a typical one. They arrange dates, passionately express their affection for each other and pester each other to write more frequently. One can always sense the emotion and feeling in every one of the words they write, even when they discuss trivial matters.
On many of the postcards, Abram and Sophie sign off “I am always yours.” Thanks to “No One Remembers Alone,” their mutual promise holds true, 100 years later.