01/13/2013 06:34 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2013

Years After His Death, Discovering a Grandfather's Stories

A few months ago, my mom called me. She said, "Did you know someone wrote a biography of Saba Shmuel?" Saba is the Hebrew word for grandfather and no, I'd had no clue that someone had written about my father's father, the grandparent I've always known the least about.

He died in 2006, so I'd resigned myself to the fact that his stories had gone with him, and that I'd never know much more about the man who raised my dad. I knew that he was in the Russian army during World War II and that the Germans had killed his entire family: father, mother, brother. And that he was a good musician. And that I loved him. But really, that was it. I guess I figured he wasn't the sharing type. Or that his experiences had scarred him so badly that he was too traumatized to rehash them. So I respected that and, against my natural journalistic impulses, didn't ask questions.

Fortunately, a co-worker of his -- fascinated at first by my grandfather's thick Yiddish accent, then by the richness of the tales he had to tell -- did ask questions. And then that co-worker spent the first years of his retirement trying his hand at writing. Writing the riveting accounts of events that my Saba did, as it turned out, have the constitution to share. In one sitting, I read about incident after incident in which, had something gone just a sliver differently, I'd have never been born.

Reading that book was the most existential experience I've ever had. And one that, though I've always been a writer, drove home the generation-spanning importance of a true story told. To illustrate that point, I'll retell an event from my Saba's biography:

Stalin, as is well-known, had no qualms about sending hordes of sons, brothers, and fathers to get mowed down. Soon enough, it was my grandfather's turn to be in that sacrificial front line. To survive, he knew, would be more than miraculous. As he marched toward almost certain death alongside hundreds of armed others, the band struck up its uplifting, patriotic repertoire.

Impulsively, my grandfather stepped out of line. He sprinted to the band conductor, ignoring his commander's yells to get back into marching order. "I'm a musician!" he yelled. "I'm a musician!" His commander threatened death. The conductor, who happened to outrank the shouting commander, held up a hand to shush the officer. "I need a horn player," he said. "Let's hear what you can do."

The mass of marching men halted. Someone handed my grandfather a horn. For a moment, all was silent. And then the air became full and jubilant with the triumphant sounds of the small-town trumpeter who, as a child, had risen above his shetl circumstances to win Kiev's most prestigious music competition. His talent was obvious to anyone. The doomed crowd broke into cheers for this infantryman who'd just auditioned, impromptu, for his life. The conductor nodded and ordered the commander to cede this man. My Saba became a vital member of the army band, a fact that saved his life many times over.

Since reading about this brazen moment of his, and others almost as Spielbergian, I've become more aware of the grand importance of biographies. Knowing about these pieces of his experience has changed the way I think about my own life and the way I see myself. I have a more informed identity, and a richer, more meaningful understanding of what enabled my existence.

My grandfather's whimsical bravery, his way of endearing himself to everyone, his stubborn habit of making sure he could always offer a legitimate service, are now a part of me. When I'm facing something difficult, I think of my Saba and feel proud that his vibrant blood courses through my veins. I was born only because of his talented toughness, and I need to live in a way that honors that.