Escaping Czarist Russia

    November 2011          
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My Grandfather

By Mark Levine

I'd like to tell you a short story about my family- specifically my grandfather. My maternal grandfather, my mothers father. First though, I need to give you a little background. My parents were both first generation Americans. Their parents were the immigrant generation, part of that mass of Eastern European Jews who came to America in the 20 to 25 years before the First World War - about two million people in all.

My grandfather, Barney Lass, a butcher, came to the U.S. around 1905-1906, the exact date seems uncertain. In Russia, his name was Beryl Lazar. When I would ask my parents about how and why their parents came to the U.S., they would respond with the usual reasons; Pogroms, poverty, persecution, etc. All true enough. If you've seen Fiddler on the Roof you know the story. BUT, the story about Puppa- not Zayde- my mother insisted, disdaining that more widely used Yiddish term for grandpa was different. Puppa had to flee Russia for a specific reason. He'd been conscripted in to the Russian Army. At that time, the term of enlistment for those conscripted into the Czar's Army was twenty years /for gentiles. For Jews, it was an additional twelve years, thirty-two years in all. Not a good career move for a young Jewish guy. But more importantly at this time, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 was raging, and the Russian army was hungry for conscripts.

I knew something about Russian History, and realized that this war had put great pressure on the Russian government, and in turn, on Russia's Jewish population. There are two interesting things about that war. It was the first time in modern history that an Asian power, Japan, defeated a European power, Russia. The second interesting thing, was that it was ended through mediation by President Theodore Roosevelt, who received a Nobel Peace prize for is efforts in 1906.

Fortunately, my grandfather's family, who lived in Petersburg, had the means to provide for his escape. My great-grandfather, was a Shochet - a Jewish ritual slaughterer. He knew how to kill animals in a kosher way. He was also a commercial butcher and he had a contract to supply meat to the Russian Army. That contract, allowed the family a degree of financial security unusual for Jews in Russia at that time. And also the means for my grandfather to flee Russia. So, my great-grandfather made some discrete payments in the proper places, and my grandfather was on his way to America. That was the family narrative I grew up with.

I didn't really know my grandfather. I was only four when he died. And he had been spending winters in Florida for a while already. But we did have, courtesy of my mother, a number of family photographs taken over the years. Growing up, I'd looked at those photographs from time to time, and one photo of my grandfather always stood out. In it, he is striding through the front door of our beach house with a watermelon on his shoulder and broad smile on his face. He looks happy, strong, and full of life. He was about the same age as I am now. That was the image of my grandfather that I grew up with.

During my Junior year of college, I was home for vacation. This was 1970. Protests and demonstrations, political unrest, and assassinations had roiled the country for years. And I, was doing my best to push whatever buttons I could to provoke my parents. This was all good, clean fun for me. Suddenly, my mother exploded.

"You're just like your grandfather! A revolutionary!"

I was stunned. Puppa? A revolutionary? Puppa was a butcher! He'd had a small neighborhood grocery store. My mother, her sisters and brothers had grown up working in the store. How could he be a revolutionary? I pressed my mother for the story, though gently, and with real interest.

Most of the family narrative I had received was correct. Puppa did need to flee Russia, and his father did pay off the right people. But, the motive for fleeing was different, much different. It had nothing to do with being conscripted into the Czar's army. It seems that Puppa was quite active politically, and belonged to one of the many social organizations and political parties advocating for change in Czarist Russia. His particular group was penetrated by an agent of the Czarist Secret Police, the Cheka. If no one acted, this agent would report all the members of the group, with dire consequences. So, my grandfather eliminated him. He shot and killed the agent before he could make his report. And that was what drove him to America.

I never thought of my grandfather the same way again. He wasn't only the butcher Barney Lass, he was also the Revolutionary, Beryl Lazar.


from the November 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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