There was no reason I should have thought so when my father, Shimon Wincelberg, a Hollywood writer, had been editing and preparing for publication my grandfather’s stories of his ‘adventures’ during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). In fact, in 1976 he and my mother published the stories from the first 16 of my grandfather’s 28 handwritten notebooks as The Samurai of Vishigrod. Then my father set to work on editing the remaining stories.
While I wouldn’t say the process was jinxed, the fact is that a lot of people died while waiting to see it completed.
First, it was my grandfather. Although he survived starvation, exposure, prison, and four death sentences by firing squad (from each of which he was miraculously reprieved), he died the very day he and my mother were to begin editing the notebooks.
Then it became my grandmother (and namesake’s) dying wish that my father, her then-future son-in-law, see to the stories’ publication.
For the last ten years of my father’s life, he was unable focus on publication though he had finished editing the later notebook. (In reality, he was still ‘tinkering’ with them, unable to let go of what had engaged him for fifty years). And before he died, my mother guaranteed that she would see to their publication.
I should probably have jumped in at that point and taken responsibility for the process, not only as a writer but as someone with business experience. But I had been focused on my own writing, which I considered a higher priority. It was only when my mother, at the age of 82, expressed her wish to see the stories shared during her lifetime that I made the commitment to drop (almost) everything else and focus on the notebooks.
For the past six months, I have been editing my grandfather’s stories along a specific story line. What I have found so remarkable is not only learning about him (as a Jew in the Russian army, the men under his command often wanted to kill him as much as the enemy did) but the humor with which he told often horrific tales of poverty, starvation and the brutality (as well as absurdity) of war. And through it all, his incredible warmth comes through in ways that make me regret even more that I never met him.
For example, here's what my grandfather says about going, at the age of 13, with his father to the magistrate of their village to obtain permission to travel:
“My father, as somber as the day he would see me off to war, took my hand. And never before or since did I love him so desperately as I did on that day.”
This is what my family, for generations, has wanted to share, the life of a man who saw humor in adversity and his intense love for his family and friends. It will also be a process of discovering what it’s like to take on a project in which personal and world history merge.