Today marks the 100th anniversary of my maternal grandfather’s graduation from the 8th grade.
Edward Sternberg, then aged about 14, had already been living in New York for about 10 years on June 29th, 1914. With his family, he came to America from the town of Chortkov, located in that region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that had also been considered Ukrainian, Polish, and Ottoman. Arriving in America when Grandpa Eddie was a 4-year old, the family did what people in a new land do: worked hard, pinched pennies, and pinned their hopes on their children.
It was an auspicious day for the transition marked by a school graduation. The headlines in that morning’s edition New York Times had read: Heir to Austria’s Throne is Slain with his Wife by a Bosnian Youth to Avenge Seizure of his Country. “It is feared”, the article continued, that the assassination “may have far-reaching results”.
My Grandfather, a life-long news hound, would have at least glimpsed those headlines. So when he walked up at the PS 62 Grade Eight graduation ceremony to receive the first-place medal for History on that June day precisely 100 years ago, the boy who was born in Austria-Hungary may have had some small inkling of the significance of the events being reported in that day’s newspapers.
Neither he nor anyone else could have imagined the full scope of what was about to happen.
By the end of that summer of 1914, the world was engaged in a conflagration that over 50 months would sweep away nations and dynasties, re-make maps, cause 16 million military and civilian deaths and another 20 million casualties, and provide a launching pad for the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that would kill an estimated 50 to 100 million more.
But on that rainy New York Monday in June of 1914, all of that was unknown and unimagined. My grandfather must have been very proud of his prize – proud enough to put the medal in a safe place, to bring it with him into his marriage, to pass it down to his daughter and eventually to me.
A century later, many of us wonder if we are not poised on the brink of some similar upheaval. The Middle East nation states that were created in the wake of that Great War are devolving into their tribal components; Russia and Ukraine vie once again for dominion over land and port access; and the vastly older Persian civilization seeks to renew the influence it once held under the great Cyrus and his heirs.
The North American genius is to always look resolutely forward, to possibilities and prospects; we lack the history and deep roots that draw us towards the past. But we should at least pause to consider the heartbeat of time that is a single century, and to contemplate the small messages from the past that can be read on the back of a grade eight history medal.