Somehow, I always knew that I would become responsible for getting my grandfather, Jacob Marateck’s, diaries published, even though I was not the first to work with them. My grandfather began his chronicles during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) but was distracted by the very real need to survive. For many years thereafter, he retold his adventures, but it wasn’t until the Depression that he finally had time to record what had become the “oral tradition” in my family. His adventures ultimately filled 28 handwritten composition notebooks.
When he finished, he asked my mother, his youngest child, if she wanted to help him translate the diaries from Yiddish into English. She was thrilled, and they were to start the next day, but he died that very night.
Several years later, when my mother brought her then-future husband, my father, Shimon Wincelberg, who was the first Orthodox writer in Hollywood, to meet her mother towards the end of her life, my grandmother whispered to my mother, “Show him Poppa’s diaries.” And so began the lengthy process of translating, structuring and editing my grandfather’s diaries.
In 1976, my parents published stories from the first 12 of 28 handwritten notebooks as The Samurai of Vishigrod. Then my father set to work on the remaining stories in between his bread-and-butter job writing for television. But he passed away before he was able to complete the job. Before he died, my mother promised that she would see to the publication of the diaries.
At that point, I should probably have volunteered to take over the process, but I had grown up hearing about my grandfather’s adventures and was, perhaps, a little jaded by the stories. It was only when my mother, at the age of 82, expressed her wish to see the stories published “during [her] lifetime” that I made the commitment to drop everything else and focus on the notebooks.
In working with the notebooks, I have gotten to know my grandfather in a way that might not have been possible had he lived, because his diaries exposed the soul of a 21 year-old man who never knew if he would survive until the next day. The raw honesty and the warmth that shines through his writing makes me regret, even more, never having known him.