My grandfather’s pocket watch has reappeared behind a drawer stuffed with old photographs and letters. I had mourned its loss after moving apartments ten years ago. His name -Jacob Kurnick -is engraved on the back, making it, as far as I know, one of only three pieces of material evidence that he existed.
Embossed on the cover is a greyhound with a diamond-studded walking stick in its mouth -a foppish touch and completely at odds with the official family image of him as a selfless doctor who would go hungry before billing his needy patients.
“He’d give you the shirt off his back”, my mother said. “Even if it was custom made.” Jacob died in 1935 when my mother was thirteen, and the mention of his name still provokes a hushed reverence. I continue to picture him through the ache of my mother’s memory, our family saint, surrounded by a halo of Mittel- european brilliance and good deeds. Exhibit number two of Jacob’s life is the menu from the first-class cabin of a German ocean liner that -I had somehow got it in my head to believe -had carried him across the Atlantic in 1908 when he emigrated to New York. The menu was proof of Jacob’s distinction, and as a boy I would ask my mother to show it to me, a cherished item with silver script lettering that made it look like a wedding invitation. He was, I later believed, my tenuous link to the Europe of Kafka and Joseph Roth. If only he had lived.
He was the opposite of my other grandfather, Louie, with his welding torch and illiteracy, who sweated it out until the mid-1960s. Louie came, in Roth’s words, from “a strange and mournful ghetto world”, where thousands of “Eastern grotesques” were “welded together . . . like a landslip of unhappiness and grime”.
In the early 1920s, Jacob made a fortune investing his earnings as a doctor in a cousin’s mayonnaise factory. This must have been when he acquired his pocket watch and tailor-made clothes. My mother remembers insisting that the family chauffeur let her off two blocks from school. “I couldn’t bear to be seen climbing out of that enormous car. I knew my classmates would hate me.”