Did you feel like you really came away with an answer as to why your grandfather did it?
Well, I think I did. I think the first answer was that he had endured such poverty himself. He’d had a tough life, and I thought, well, he identified with these people. But it was only after I discovered that his documents were fraudulent and that he had escaped pogroms in Europe that I came to see that this gift was also a way of saying thanks to a country, the only country, that had opened its arms to him and taken him in and provided him a home. I think his selecting a gentile holiday was a way of saying thank you for accepting me and allowing me to be a part of you.
I think everyday probably when he walked down the streets of Canton, he saw people’s suffering and their want and their anguish and their desperation and discouragement. I am sure that when he, four years into the Depression, was in a position to do a little something for them, he was more than eager to do so.
Your other two books, The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA and Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life are about secrecy too, but in the government.
Are you suggesting that I have an obsession with secrecy? There is an attraction to the forbidden. Often times we can’t understand the motivations or actions of another, be it an individual or an institution, unless and until we know something of their secrets. That was certainly the case with my grandfather. I couldn’t really understand the nature and depth of this gift, what it meant to him, until I penetrated some of the secrecy that surrounded his life.
What do you hope readers take away from this story?
I hope that they come to respect the character of the generation that endured the Great Depression and come to appreciate what it was that they handed down to us, not in terms of prosperity but in terms of values. Their work ethic, their refusal to waste, their profound appreciation for the small things in life, their willingness to sacrifice, their recognition that we need to work together as individuals and as a community—these are all invaluable legacies of the Great Depression.