Though I’ve been blessed to come from a family where money was never an issue, I proudly have peasant blood running through my veins.
My mother’s side is Polish Jewish and emigrated to America in the 1920s, just in time to escape the Nazi menace. Her father Hyman grew up deeply poor in Brooklyn, so much that his family was forced to sell fruit in order to make a living, much like the impoverished immigrants we see on the side of the road in Santa Clarita.
Yet he was the lucky one — every one of his aunts, uncles and cousins who stayed back in Europe were murdered by the Germans and buried in a mass grave. I sometimes wonder about that side of my family that was lost. Did they have my eyes, sense of humor, or love of language? I can feel their ghosts within me, as keenly as my own thoughts.
As an adult, Hyman went on to fight in the Korean War, then he came back and joined the labor force, working a series of back-breaking jobs to support his children. By all accounts he was a prince of a man, devoted to his family. A true idealist, he imparted to his children the vast importance of justice and decency, despite living in a world that had dealt him some tough circumstances.
His reward for such noble living was the breaking down of his body and death by cancer at 45.
I never knew this grandfather of mine, yet I’ve read his writings from time to time, beautiful stuff, largely poems and essays. Better than anything I’ve ever done. He was never far from my thoughts during my years at UCLA. As I walked that lush campus, my books and financial aid money in hand, I’d often ponder about the responsibility I had to these lost ancestors.
When fate places an individual in prosperous circumstances, in such stark contrast to those who lived before him, what is the proper way to proceed?
The closest I’ve come to an answer is this.
The Germans looked at the Jews and saw human beings unworthy of survival. Mid-20th century America looked at poor boys like Hyman and saw wage-earners to be exploited like cannon fodder, even at the price of an early death. There’s nothing I can do to combat those tragedies. They are in the past.
But I can earn the privileges I’ve been given by dedicating myself to creating the opposite of a holocaust, to bringing about a world where every soul is exalted, none are forgotten, and those currently in the shadows can fulfill their potential and become who they deserve to be.
A large part of that effort is advocating for the right laws. Our current social ills like persistent racial inequality, poverty, and the migrant crisis are not forces of nature, out of our control. They were traumas generated by bad policy written by bad men. The cause of my next 50 years is to do whatever I can to rectify this.
For there is nothing more powerful in our world than law. Whereas the words a novelist writes have an impact only on the page, a statute creates the raw material from which we build our lives. A well-written piece of legislation can shatter the misery of our current status quo into a thousand pieces, and leave a society worthy of Christ in its wake.
Somewhere in this country there’s a young man like my grandfather.
Perhaps he’s in a jail cell, reading a biography of Martin Luther King. Or maybe he’s taking the bus from the ghetto to the city college, tired as hell after a 10-hour shift. Though I’ll never meet him, I know he’s there.
It is of the utmost importance that he have the chance to grow and prosper. He may be of a different skin color, ethnicity, or creed, but I can feel his dignity, as keenly as my own thoughts.
Josh Heath is a Santa Clarita resident.