|Ted Gup dug deep into a suitcase of Great Depression-era letters in search of his family history in “A Secret Gift.’’
Professor uncovers secrets of a caring grandfather
Ted Gup is a journalism professor at Emerson College and former investigative reporter at the Washington Post. Yet the most dramatic story of Gup’s life was a deep mystery hidden for generations within his own family.
One day Gup’s mother gave him an old suitcase filled with his grandfather’s letters and some canceled checks, triggering the investigation that would become this absorbing and inspiring book. Inside the suitcase were hundreds of letters from residents of Canton, Ohio, all sent in December 1933 to someone named B. Virdot. These letters “spoke of hunger and cold, of endless searches for work, of dead ends and growing frustrations,’’ writes Gup. Each letter asked Virdot to send financial help to lessen the ongoing ravages of the Great Depression.
Gup discovers that Virdot had placed a notice in the Canton newspaper offering $10 (a considerable sum in 1933) to 75 Canton residents experiencing financial hardship. He invited residents to send letters describing their need. Virdot apparently received so many compelling requests that he cut the gifts to $5 and helped twice as many families.
Gup also learns that “B. Virdot was my grandfather. His name was Sam Stone.’’ Gup’s grandfather owned a clothing store in Canton. As Gup probes deeper into the mystery, he discovers that his grandfather had other secrets.
Gup’s book interweaves two narrative threads. He sets off to discover the personal history of his grandfather and to explore the stories of the recipients of the gifts and their descendants — a quest that sends him off to visit surviving family members, libraries, historical societies, and cemeteries, and results in hundreds of interviews.
Gup initially finds researching his own family history the most frustrating part: “I could find nothing of my own grandfather’s past.’’ What Gup’s research ultimately reveals is that his beloved grandfather had long been lying about his past.
Gup learns that the mild-mannered, civic-minded clothier Sam Stone had been born Sam Finkelstein in a shtetl in Romania, not in Pittsburgh, as he’d always claimed. Why, asks Gup, would his grandfather seek to conceal his origins, risking federal prosecution for lying on his passport? Gup blames horrifying anti-Semitism in Romania, governmental persecution that forced the Finkelstein family to flee to the United States. Fearing anti-immigration backlash in his new country, Finkelstein changed his name and buried his past.
Poverty and the fear of discovery would define Stone’s character, Gup writes, compelling him to work tirelessly to secure his family’s place in the world. But these anxieties also made Stone compassionate about the suffering of his community.
Gup focuses on letters from business owners gone broke, factory workers laid off and unable to feed their families, wives who wrote on behalf of husbands too proud to seek help, and children who simply wanted food. Gup encounters only one surviving letter writer, 90-year-old Helen Palm, who, as a hungry 14-year-old in 1933, received money from B. Virdot to buy her family food and herself a pair of shoes.
“A Secret Gift’’ is a wonderful reminder that economic hardship can bring suffering but can also foster compassion and community. Sam Stone, a Jewish exile, fought hard to conceal his past but also felt deeply the pain of others. As Gup writes: “To the suffering of his fellow townspeople, the act had brought relief and hope. But to Sam, it signaled a personal triumph in which he could finally believe that he had escaped the persecution, rejection, and poverty that had defined his past.’’
Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer in Dorchester, can be reached at email@example.com.