THE BLOG
01/30/2015 01:38 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2015

Kin

For years, I mean years, I'd see faces as I drifted off to sleep, faces contorted in agony, twisted in pain, mouths open as in a scream, the images morphing into one another in swift succession, women with wild eyes and streaming hair, men, children, too, their features vivid, no two alike, nobody I'd ever seen, strangers, all. If they had been wired for sound, they'd have been howling; if they had been dreams, I'd have been howling too. But hypnagogic images, images that dance on the inside of your eyelids in the liminal stages between wakefulness and sleep, are strangely affectless; they float like bubbles on the mind's eye, no feeling attached to them -- unlike dreams, which are hooked into the deepest emotional centers of the brain.

At times, the images were wild, wacky, hallucinatory: a friend sprouts the trunk of an elephant, a tree blossoms into human hands, then I'd be hovering over a giant cathedral or gliding down a river canyon. The elephant, the cathedral, appeared only once, dissolving into the darkness from which they came; the river canyon was recurrent; the faces came nearly nightly. I assumed everybody had such visitations as sleep came on. But no, I read later, researching a book about insomnia, only about a third of the population experiences this phenomenon called hypnagogia. Nobody knows a thing about it, why some people get it and others not, why it becomes less intense with age. Just one of sleep's many secrets that it guards so well.

Sometime in the early eighties, I read D.M. Thomas's The White Hotel. This was the first I ever heard of Babi Yar, where Jews were rounded up and herded into ditches outside Kiev, 33,600 slaughtered in two days, September 29-30, 1941. It was talking about this novel with a friend that I first mentioned the faces. (I didn't then know the word hypnagogia.) "I could almost believe I'd lived through something like Babi Yar," I said; "You know, like in a former life." She looked at me like I was on drugs. Here in California, one does meet people who believe in former lives, but not among the hard-nosed academics I hang out with; so I never mentioned them again. Even when I came to write about hypnagogia in my book Insomniac, I mentioned only in passing the "crying and raging faces" I'd see. And no, they were not the cause of my insomnia; on the contrary, when visuals start appearing in my mind's eye, they signal sleep is near.

Some years ago the faces stopped, and I thought nothing more about them.

Until the other day, when a friend, a former student and genealogy aficionado who has been researching my family, sent me a link to the town my father's family came from. My father's father, his mother, and his three siblings immigrated from the Ukraine in 1903. "You might not want to look at this," she warned--so of course I clicked on the link. Kamianets-Podilskyi is an ancient city in the Ukraine. About a month before Babi Yar, August 27 and 28, 1941, 23,600 Jews were rounded up and massacred in forests outside this town.

I knew it, shot through my mind.

Knew what? I'm a thoroughly secular person, not prone to visions or seeing ghosts. There were 38 years between the time my immediate family left that place and the slaughter in 1941. I didn't exist in 1941, not for another two years. My father never set foot in in Kamianets-Podilskyi; he was born in New York City, the first of his siblings to be born in the new land; he had no first-hand experience of the horrors that drove so many Jews to leave the Ukraine.

He married a "shiksa," moved to California, drew a curtain down over the past. When I was ten, after he and my mother separated, she changed our name from Greenberg to Greene. I had no sense that this had to do with anything Jewish, I just assumed she didn't want his name; in the California suburb where we lived, I had no sense of "Jewishness" at all. The Holocaust was never discussed in our family or even mentioned, as far as I recall. I came to an awareness of it the way I learned about most things as an adolescent, reading novels, though I never connected books like Exodus and The Wall to our family, about which I knew nothing. The break with the past had been that complete.

Then came that jolt of recognition. It was strong. There would have been family who ended their lives in those mass graves, there would have been kin.