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Visiting professor relates family history in 20th century

| Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Professor of anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, Alisse Waterston addressed a crowd at the Geddes Hall Auditorium on Monday night, discussing her new book, “My Father’s Wars.”

”My Father’s Wars” chronicles the life of Waterston’s father, who was born in Poland, survived The Great War and immigrated to Cuba, New York City and finally San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Waterston said her book was multi-layered and personal with a strong foundation in social history.

“My Father’s Wars” is a journey through family memories that are interwoven with some of the key historical events of the 20th century, Waterston said. It is a daughter’s account of a Jewish father whose life was shaped, framed and torn apart by the upheavals on his age.

Waterston said because her father’s story is so heavily rooted in the major historical events of the 20th century and the resulting massive reconstruction, “My Father’s Wars” is hardly a narrow narrative memoir of Menachem Mendel Wasersztejn.

“‘My Father’s Wars’ is a hybrid work, making it difficult to place in a single genre,” Waterston said. “[It] is a work I see as firmly centered in anthropology even as it is intensely interdisciplinary.”

Waterston, along with her friend and colleague Barbara Rylko-Bauer, coined the term “intimate ethnography” to describe “My Father’s Wars.” Waterston said she believes this term suits the “two inseparable roles” she took on as she approached this project.

Waterston discussed the research process that went into the book as a daughter and an anthropologist.

“Like my father’s life, his perception of it and his narrative, my motivations are layered, complicated, involving who I am as a daughter and as an anthropologist,” Waterston said. “Who was this man with whom I had such difficulty? I [came] to this project not just as a daughter, but also as an anthropologist seeking to understand violence in its various forms and how it is implicated in individual lives.”

Waterston said she was guided in her work by questions and statements posed by other authors, such as Eva Hoffman, who asked, “Why remember? And why not just remember, but remember strenuously?” She said she was also inspired by Howard Zinn, who said “The most crucial issue with regard to writing is: “Why am I doing this?”

“As an anthropologist, I am also concerned about how to bring scholarly knowledge into the public conversation on the critical issues of our times,” Waterston said.

Waterston said that her father would often repeat stories from the Great War, which she thinks is a sign of the trauma caused by the war.

“War shaped his first perceptions, dead bodies and ruined houses.” Waterston said. “The repetition has meaning. It underlines the shock he experienced at a tender age and the fear that would always haunt him. Telling the story over and over again highlights the destructive trauma that is caused by war.”

The book follows the life of Wasersztejn who fled his hometown of Jedwabne, Poland, before WWII and the Jedwabne Program, a massacre of 340 Polish Jews in 1941, Waterston said.

Wasersztejn immigrated to Manguito, in the Cuban province Matanzas, where he changed his name to Miguel Waserstein. He later changed his name two more times, to Michael Waterston when he moved to New York and ultimately to Don Miguel in Puerto Rico.

“At the intersections of my father’s complicated journey, he created, adopted and adapted to multiple identities across time and place, identities shaped by larger structural and political forces,” Waterston said. “[‘My Father’s Wars’] follows my father’s reflexive attachment to the experience of Jewish suffering, the way he viewed his life as if it were always being lived under the sign of extermination.”

“My Father’s Wars” is a vertical slice of life in the 20th interconnections across the masks and illusions of culture, race, nation, society, citizenship and civilization, Waterston said. To end the lecture, Waterston quoted American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s sorrow and suffer enough to disarm all hostility.”

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