A sometimes Bantry resident, mother of model Emily Ratajkowski, followed in
in her daughter’s footsteps this year – publishing her own very important and personal book
ALL three members of the talented Ratajkowski family have achieved an editorial hat-trick.
My bodythe book written by model, actress and author Emily Ratajkowski was a New York Times bestseller, while his father, John Ratajkowski, an artist and teacher at San Dieguito Academy, gave the world something he didn’t know he needed – a fabulous book of bovine illustrations called cow tuesday.
Now it’s the turn of Emily’s mother, Kathleen Balgley, a retired literature professor, who wrote a memoir titled Letters to my father – Excavating a Jewish identity in Poland and Belarus.
It begins with Kathleen’s childhood discovery of her father’s hidden Jewish identity and then goes on to explain how she discovered her own repressed Jewishness when she accepted a Fulbright to teach in communist Poland, just before the fall of the wall. from Berlin.
With three million Jews living in Poland at the start of the war – the largest concentration of Jews in Europe – it became the epicenter of suffering.
Kathleen’s trip there was not just a visit all those years later, but a full immersion that took her away from her Catholic upbringing towards the Jewish faith.
The trip also forever changed her relationship with her father, Ely.
Kathleen, as her name suggests, has Irish roots. His mother – Margaret O’Hara – loved all things Irish and that played a big role in his formative years.
But in the shadow of this light, this scholarly child questioned the English accent and the samovars in her grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn.
Later in life, Kathleen’s career took her to different places, including teaching drama in London, where she says Emily fell in love with acting. But it was in 1987 – after teaching writing and literature at UCLA – that she accepted a Fulbright in Poland to explore the place where her father was born in 1912.
She stayed there for two years to teach, but in 2012, with the help of a guide, Kathleen set out to find her family’s archives in present-day Belarus.
What she found was documentation containing the names of hundreds of people who shared her last name. The name was there on ‘page after page after page’ and they all had a ‘ghetto passport’, which Kathleen described as ‘a ticket to hell’.
“It was shocking, she said, to see everything written down.” To someone else, the documents might sound like a historical account, but she found herself metaphorically “burying the dead.”
“It was very emotional for me,” said the author, who found herself in the “killing fields” of her own family. There was only a reprieve from the emotional onslaught and that’s when she found her father’s birth certificate.
Kathleen has described her teaching experience in Poland up to the time of their first free elections, and research in Belarus, as “bashert”.
It’s a Yiddish term for soul mate or fate, but Kathleen refers to it as “unsettling coincidence or serendipity.” The word has since become a part of her, burnished into her being. She even chose the name of Bashert Press as the name of her publishing house.
After nearly a lifetime of concealing her identity, Kathleen’s journey and letters home over a two-year period sparked her father’s desire to set foot on the ground he had previously abandoned – this one. having abandoned him first.
Together, Ely, a renowned pianist, and her mother Margaret toured the country and Kathleen remembers seeing a revival in him as places – real from memory – brought him back to consciousness.
Reviewers of the book call it a “soul-renewing epic.” It deals, after all, with some of the most pressing issues of our time – identity, the need to belong, war and the persecution of an entire people. But it also does something else. He offers a lie to the truism, ‘You can never go home again.’
“He saw my investment, my emotional connection to Jewish history in Poland, and it opened the door for us to talk about this unspoken family secret, and I finally understood why he did what he did. , and I’ve come to respect it,” Kathleen said.
Ely had identified himself as “a boy from the city of Brooklyn.” He was a virtuoso pianist who graduated early – at the age of 15 – from the Juilliard School of Music in New York.
It was while working a summer job at a seaside resort – Eddy’s Farm – that he met his beautiful cailín. She was 16 and he was 21, but they were in love and together they raised Michael, Jane, Kathleen and Elise as Catholics.
Kathleen met John Ratajkowski while teaching at San Dieguito Academy as a graduate student working on her Ph.D.
“I’ve always been interested in art and had written about it as well,” she said. But there were other pairings like the fact that John’s father was Polish, a Gentile, and his mother was of Celtic, Scots-Irish descent. It didn’t hurt that he was handsome and also had a sense of humor.
As a couple, they first visited Poland in 1984, three years after John was invited to exhibit his art in Warsaw.
Kathleen’s recent return to their Bantry home has proven to be a good omen.
Just 24 hours after landing on Irish soil, she learned her book had been published. And 24 hours later, she learned she had been given the green light for cancer.
Four years ago, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and told there was no cure for blood cancer which affects the white blood cells made in the bone marrow. But Kathleen is now in remission.
Kathleen first arrived in West Cork with John 40 years ago, but it was the area’s natural beauty – and the friendships she was able to make – that ensured her return.
“I fell in love with Ireland before I came to Ireland – it comes from my mum who had a reverence for Ireland,” she said.
Kathleen was also ‘thrilled’ by her love of Irish literature and it was her paper on James Joyce that got her into her PhD programme.
“I’ve come back enough to have established a community here,” she said, although strict travel restrictions in the United States during the Covid pandemic have prevented them from visiting for the past two years.
Organized by Inanna Rare Books, the subsequent reading and book signing proved to be the perfect platform for Kathleen to tell her story.
The subject is complex and the book is heavy. The same goes for Kathleen’s almost forensic research and attention to detail. The subject demands it and nothing less would not satisfy the reader.
At the end of a long conversation about religion, war, communism, literature and cancer, at home in Bantry, there seems to be a misstep.
This happens when Kathleen is asked about beauty – her own in particular – because at 70 she still has the fresh, angular good looks of a young Liz Taylor.
There is an almost imperceptible hair, but it disappears as quickly as it appears, and is followed by a sincere little smile and the initial bet of an entirely new topic.
“I’m a feminist,” she said. “I never wanted my goals and work to be usurped by physical appearance.”
A subject for another day perhaps….