The Ghosts of Ancestors

Lisa Furmanski - Etna, New Hampshire
As heard on This I Believe Podcast, April 28, 2014
Lisa Furmanski

Lisa Furmanski has lived since childhood with the ghosts of family members she never knew, but who live on as guides and advisors, helping to direct her life.

Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: family, Holocaust

I believe in ghosts. By ghosts, I don’t mean the shape of my son, weaving and moaning across the living room with a blanket over his head. And not the figures of Christmas past, howling over the bed of Uncle Scrooge. I believe in ghosts that gently steer me in directions I wouldn’t otherwise choose, that quietly guide decisions I wouldn’t otherwise make. I have spent much of my life working with illness and poverty, all because of this murmuring in my ear.

I believe in the ghosts of my great-grandparents who died during the holocaust in north-western Poland. There is a single photograph of my great-grandfather with his bare head and grim face. It is not clear why he thought to have the photo taken, or how it found its way to the camps of Siberia where my grandmother and her siblings survived. I know almost nothing about my ancestors, but one was a shoemaker and one was a barber. I don’t know how they died, but I assume death came amidst terror and cruelty.

When I was a child, my grandmother refused to speak about her parents, so I learned about them indirectly from the hollow-faced concentration camp survivors who stood along fences in the grainy Holocaust films we saw in elementary school. I grew up with the sense that the world had already failed us and shouldn’t be trusted. I envied the thick photo albums and rousing family legends that grounded my friends with strength and purpose.

I have worked in refugee camps and dilapidated clinics in Africa and Asia. Far from home, I felt more connected and rooted the further I traveled; the more difficult the circumstances, the more remote the location, the more content and at ease I felt. Yet, I am not and never will be a hero. I am devoted to pleasing and appeasing my ghosts—to avenging in a moral way my ancestors who were abandoned to a terrible fate. This is not as selfless as I would hope. I’m justifying my own existence. Then, my ghosts remind me that I am human.

In my darkest moments, the ghosts test me: if the world collapsed around you, could you survive? Or, more important, could you be good, even useful? I pass and fail this test in small ways each day, forgetting kindness and patience, and then with effort picking them up and draping them over me again.

I wish that I didn’t need the ghosts, that the impulse to serve and witness was purely my own. I do not like to think that my actions are driven by guilt or anger. But I depend on the demanding rumble over my shoulder, something like the cadence of a cantor, musical and mysterious and ancient, to connect each day to any history of myself.

I believe in ghosts, and I believe they are helping me to revive the history my family lost in the holocaust.

Lisa Furmanski is a physician and writer living in New Hampshire. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry Magazine, the Antioch Review, and other publications and she is currently working on her first manuscript.

This essay was recorded by Vermont Public Radio. The podcast was produced by Dan Gediman for This I Believe, Inc.