A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kind­ness– and a Trove of Let­ters– Revealed the Hid­den His­to­ry of the Great Depression

Ted Gup
  • Review
By – October 31, 2011

The week before Christ­mas 1933, a news­pa­per ad offered a gift of cash to res­i­dents of Can­ton, Ohio. The appli­cants nev­er knew the iden­ti­ty of Mr. B. Vir­dot,” their pseu­do­ny­mous bene­fac­tor. In June 2008, Ted Gup’s moth­er hand­ed him a suit­case that had belonged to his grand­fa­ther, Sam Stone, con­tain­ing a cache of let­ters and can­celed checks labeled Per­tain­ing Xmas Gift Distribution.” 

Gup, a for­mer inves­tiga­tive reporter for the Wash­ing­ton Post and Time mag­a­zine, and cur­rent­ly chair of Emer­son College’s Jour­nal­ism Depart­ment, seeks to solve a mys­tery sto­ry in reverse. Why had Stone done it? Why had he kept it secret? Why had he saved the let­ters? Gup search­es for the descen­dants of the let­ter-writ­ers to learn: Did the recip­i­ents sur­vive? Pros­per? Did their prog­e­ny know about the secret gift and did it make a dif­fer­ence in their lives? Even­tu­al­ly uncov­er­ing his grandfather’s hid­den iden­ti­ty as a Finkel­stein from a Roman­ian shtetl, Gup comes to bet­ter under­stand his own com­plex fam­i­ly her­itage. And using the mis­sives’ mov­ing sto­ries of hope and suf­fer­ing as impe­tus to learn what sub­se­quent­ly hap­pened to the fam­i­lies, Gup cre­ates a poignant per­son­al por­trait of the Great Depres­sion. Inter­weav­ing the two strands, Gup pow­er­ful­ly reveals the sur­pris­ing com­mon­al­i­ties between donor and recip­i­ents, and how a seem­ing­ly small act of char­i­ty rever­ber­at­ed across eighty years. Index, pho­tographs, timeline.

Jim Van Buskirk, co-author of Gay by the Bay, Cel­lu­loid San Fran­cis­co, and co-edi­tor of Iden­ti­ty Envy and Love, Cas­tro Street, worked as a San Fran­cis­co Pub­lic Librar­i­an and Book Group Coor­di­na­tor at the BJE Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Library. His writ­ing has been fea­tured in var­i­ous books, peri­od­i­cals, web­sites, and radio broad­casts. Jim’s grand­fa­ther changed his name after arriv­ing from Rus­sia and hid his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, a recent­ly revealed secret that he is cur­rent­ly explor­ing in a mem­oir enti­tled My Grandmother’s Suitcase.

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