Over the years as I was assembling my father’s story, I had to rely on assistance from outsiders, since Dad was not around to fill in the many pieces himself. I was surprised that no one, despite some with quite impressive resumes, denied any of my requests for help.
The first was a man named Leo Melamed, who had escaped from Poland at the outbreak of the Second World War, crossing the USSR on the Trans Siberian Railway with his parents within months of my father. He went on to a successful career, beginning as an attorney, and ultimately chaired the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He told his story in a book, “Escape to the Futures.”
When I emailed him simply to ask if his book detailed his experiences traveling across the Soviet Union and his journey to Japan by boat, he offered to speak with me of his experiences. I was grateful for his help in giving me insights into my father’s similar experiences traveling to the States at that rather precarious time. He asked me if Dad played chess, and when I answered yes, he told me that my father may have learned how to play chess on the train.
I read a book called “Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret,” written by Steve Luxenberg of the Washington Post. The book details the discovery of a “secret aunt,” who spent many years in a mental institution in Michigan. Beginning during the Great Depression and traveling to several locals—including Russia—Mr. Luxenberg searched for answers to his family story. He employed several of the same techniques as I did, such as genealogy research, to uncover the mystery of his aunt.
Reading this book inspired me to dig further for more information on my father, so I wrote to Steve to thank him. We exchanged several emails, and he answered some of my questions on immigrant travel during the time my grandmother first came to the United States.
“In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin,” by Erik Larsen, is the story of the first American ambassador under Hitler’s regime, and his daughter—William and Martha Dodd. I was quite interested in his sources, so I wrote to him, asking where I might find Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s papers. I hoped there would be some mention of my father’s family among them.
Mr. Larson responded to my inquiry, recommending a visit to the Library of Congress. In a second letter, he explained how to maneuver my way through the library, even suggesting I not arrive too early, stating that the security line is quite slow. “Have an extra cup of coffee, arrive about an hour after opening, and you won’t find much of a line.” Sadly, my several days at the Library of Congress did not uncover any information on my family, but now I am the proud owner of a Library of Congress card!
Finally, Andrew Meier, professor, journalist, and author of “The Lost Spy,” was my final author extraordinaire who agreed to answer questions I had regarding particular facts I was trying to verify. He answered my email within three days and supplied me with his phone number so we could talk further.
It was important to me that my book be as factual as possible. I learned the lesson that it never hurts to ask. I was always most pleasantly surprised.