Family Currents



Joe Lezak

 To celebrate Joe's eighty-fifth birthday in 1991, he and Marie dictated their memories and printed them in a small book entitled "After All These Years," Which they shared with their children, grandchildren, and others in the family. That book was lovingly edited by their grandson, Steve Lome. Many of their recollections, first printed in "After All These Years," have been incorporated in this Lezak family history project, to be passed on to future generations.

 Joe was fifteen when he reached America in 1921, classified as an orphan. He arrived three months ahead of his mother, brother Nate and sister Sylvia, whom he had left in Bucharest to wait for their documents. He had decided to travel alone after hearing that children without parents did not have to wait for the documents that were otherwise required of all immigrants. Once in Chicago, his first task was to become reacquainted with his father and older brothers. To do so, he lived with each of them for a short time. He did not move to the apartment Jacob had rented on the West Side until after Beila, Sylvia and Nate had arrived.

 In Russia, Joe's education had been disrupted by the wars, famine and general unrest of the previous eight years. He enrolled in school in Chicago, but the attempt was doomed to failure and frustration when school officials placed him in fourth grade. It was a humiliating experience for a boy of fifteen, and he gave up on the idea of completing his education after just a few months.

 His first job in America was working for his brother, Manny. After a few years, Joe and Nate, who had been working in a delicatessen, felt they had learned enough to become entrepreneurs themselves. They pooled what little money they had saved to go into business together.

 They also became partners in the purchase of an automobile. It was a new, 1925 Chevy, which Manny helped them select. Joe was so anxious to get behind the wheel, he couldn't even eat diner the day the car was delivered. He quickly read the instructions for starting the vehicle, then hopped in and drove around the block.Unfortunately, he neglected to read the chapter on how to stop the car. Some passersby, realizing his predicament, jumped onto the running board, pushed him aside, and brought the car to a standstill. Then Joe got back in and tried to back up. Evidently he hadn't read that page in the manual, either. He hit a fire hydrant and punctured the gas tank.

 When their store failed to do well, Joe and Nate closed it and went to work for Max before opening another store together at a new location. Through the years they liked to say theirs was a "total relationship," explaining that they were friends as well as partners and brothers. Nevertheless, in 1933 they decided to go their separate ways in terms of business. Joe then bought a store on 55th Street.

 He met his future bride, Marie Komornick, when she was on a trip to Chicago from her home in St. Louis to visit her distant relatives, the Lezaks (Joe Lezak and Marie's father were cousins). During part of their ensuing courtship she lived in Chicago with Joe's sister, Sylvia and her husband, Sam Goldberg, for about three months. Joe's business was doing well enough for him to rent a one-bedroom apartment in South Shore and ask Marie to marry him in 1934.

 Marie Komornick's family history was even more harrowing than the Lezaks' had been. Her paternal grandfather, Avrum Komornick, a contemporary of Jacob Lezak, was born in 1849 in Berdichev, about thirty miles was of Belaya-Tserkov. Her paternal grandmother was Mindel Komornick, born Mindel Kushakevitz in 1845. If the name sounds familiar, it is because she was Beila's elder sister, making her Joe Lezak's aunt. Marie remembered Avrum Komornick, a wiry man who wore a goatee, and Mindel as small in stature and always dressed in Black. Marie's father, Moishe Komornick, was one of their eight children. Echiel, their eldest child, was probably named for Mindel's father, and the youngest, Sosel, for her Mother. The other were Etta, Harshel, Etzeks, Mania and Shlaima.

 Marie's mother, Faigel, was the daughter of Reuven Golubchik, a coal merchant, and his wife Soori. Although their marriage was arranged by a matchmaker, Marie always believed that Moishe, a textile salesman, and faigel were really in love. As a child she had even heard stories about Moishe visiting Faigel prior to the wedding, behavior that most definitely was not the norm in the shtetl. In addition to Marie, born in 1908, Moishe and Faigel were the parents of Suta, Esak, Mania, Uzeek, Sarah, Isidore and Joe.

 At the age of four, marie witnessed a total eclipse of the sun in midday. It was an event so startling, she recalled, that even the chickens in the yard did not know how to behave. The year was 1912, a troubled time in the world, and some in Russia interpreted the solar eclipse as an omen of bad things to come. The first home Marie remembered was a small, three room structure where she slept in a tiny, windowless room off the bedroom. As the family, grew more room was needed, and in 1913 her parents built a larger home, closer to the communal well.

 Marie's life changed forever with the cold-blooded of both her father and maternal grandfather during a rampage by soldiers on a bright September day in 1918. She was ten years old. While her mother was out looking for two of Marie's brothers, who had not returned from taking food to Moishe's parents, several soldiers arrived at the house and shot her father and a cousin, as Marie looked on in horror. The soldiers searched from room to room until they found her elderly grandfather, and stabbed him repeatedly. Her father died instantly, but unfortunately the grandfather ed for days. For the rest of her life, Marie wondered why the soldiers did not shoot her, too.

 Marie's mother took her children to Kiev, where they lived first with her brother Harshel and then with her brother Shmilmeyer. Eventually she rented a room for herself and the children in a private home  and, with her son Isidore, sold cigarettes in the marketplace to make end meet. At twelve or thirteen, Marie went to live with an aunt who was a doctor in a town near Kharkov, where she stayed until her mother sent word that preparations for a trip to America were underway. Their journey took them from Kiev to Moscow, where they saw the Kremlin and Red Square, then to Riga, Latvia, and from there to London. The Atlantic crossing, in third class on a ship of the White Star Line, was agonizing. Marie became so ill she was not even able to climb to the deck to see the Statue of Liberty when they sailed into New York Harbor on New Year's Eve, 1922. The family settled in St. Louis, where Faigel's brother, Mendel lived.

 Marie's brother, Joe Komornick moved from St. Louis to Chicago within a year of Marie's marriage to Joe Lezak. Her husband gave Joe a job and a place to live, and subsequently helped him get started in a business of his own. Joe and Marie had outgrown their one-bedroom apartment in South Shore even before Marie gave birth to Shirley, in 1935, since by then Marie's mother had come from St. Louis to live with them, as well. By the time their daughter, Merle was born in 1939, they had moved to a bigger place in Hyde Park.

 Joe's Business had its ups and downs. Although he now owned four markets, in 1939 only the one on 55th Street was doing well, and the losses sustained by the others forced him to declare bankruptcy. He kept only the original store going, and he and Marie, along with Shirley, Merle and Marie's mother, moved back to South Shore, while he struggled to get back on his feet.

 After things turned around, he was anxious for them to own a home of their own. In 1945 they bought a three-flat, where they occupied the first floor apartment and rented out the other units. With the birth of Myron (Mike) in 1944, this arrangement was no longer adequate. they sold the building and bought a home en Chatham, where they lived for the next thirteen years.

 Joe's belief in God had been shaken by his by his experience in Russia, and he questioned how there could be a God if pogroms could occur. Yet, despite his personal doubts, there was never any denial of the family's Jewish heritage. He and Marie maintained a traditional Jewish home even in Chatham, a distinctly non-Jewish neighborhood. Shirley, Merle and Mike learned Yiddish at home with the children of their parents' friends, taught by a teacher they knew only as "Blackie."

 Often the children's bedtime stories were thinly veiled accounts of events in their parents' childhood. Merle came to know the details so well, she almost felt she had shared their experiences. Aunt Sylvia, too, related tales of life in Russia and told them what it was like to an immigrant. Merle credits their stories with the development of her sensitivity to those in similar circumstances, and her resulting efforts to help recent  Russian immigrants who have settled in Chicago.

 Soon after the beginning of World War II in 1941, Manny decided to retire from the meat business. Joe bought his store, which he knew was profitable, and made a good living there. The end of the war in 1945 brought about many changes, not the least of which was an end to food rationing, which had been the nation's way of life for several years. New processing techniques, innovative marketing ideas and advanced equipment would soon change the way the meat business operated, and Joe realized he would have to adapt in order to succeed.

 In 1948, he bought a business at 35th and Calumet Avenue, which he called Calumet Wholesale Meat Company. For seven years, with just a few employees, he sold to retail customers, developed wholesale accounts, and prospered. But then as now, location meant everything. Faced with the prospect of competition from a new shopping center at the same intersection, he moved to 3821 S. Halsted in 1955.

 Success gave Joe an opportunity to do things for others. He loved helping people and did so almost to a fault. When Marie's sister, Sarah, died, Marie and Joe helped care for her three children. Eventually, Merle's husband, Bernie Kramer, Ben's grandsons, Harvey and Barry Lezak, and Morris's grandsons, Elliot, Barry and Mort Levy, worked for joe at Calumet Wholesale, although not all at the same time. This echoed the pattern of Joe's generation, when nearly all of Jacob's sons started out by working for someone in the family who was already established in business.

 When a salesman suggested that Joe might attract more customers by advertising that Calumet sold "Wholesale to the public," he agreed to try it. Later he wrote, "Business increased so rapidly, I had to hire ten more workers to prepare and package merchandise for the retail customer. The place was so crowded, we had to pass out numbers. Long lines of people formed outside the store because there wasn't enough placed inside. We let them in five at a time. There was a time when when I had to hire two policemen to control the crowd."

 The great- nephews who worked for joe respected his entrepreneurial spirit and hard work and he, in turn, provided the support, opportunity and encouragement they needed to learn how to operate a successful retail business. After Joe's retirement in 1976, calumet Wholesale became Lezak & Levy Wholesale Meats, operated by his great-nephews. It was soon renamed Moo & Oink, a very, successful ethnic food business with three retail locations in Chicago.

 Joe's exceptionally close relationship with Nate and Sylvia was an outgrowth of their shared experiences in Russia at a time when they were often dependent on one another for their very survival. Having seen the ills of society in Russia first-hand, Joe tended to support left-wong, socialist causes all his life.

  Joe was small, but the adjective refers only to his physical stature. A very bright man with big ideas, he never needed an adding machine to do mental calculations. Often customers rattled off long lists of what they needed, and without making a single notation, Joe could tell them, to the penny, what their total would be. This demonstration invariably left people speechless. As a businessman he seemed fearless, willing to take chances that others might not. But he recognized his shortcomings and was always self-conscious about his education-related deficits. On the plus side, however, he was and excellent chess player, and engaged in an ongoing competition with Nate and Danny for the title of family chess champion.

 Joe's son, Mike, remembers his father as "reality-based," but not one to share his dreams. Mike suspects that Joe's outward image of a successful, assimilated Jew masked the absence of true acculturation. Some of his basic fears probably stemmed from the and uncertainties about the future that marked his last years in Russia. Mike grew up feeling that his parents' insecurities, as well as genuine undercurrent of sadness, were transmitted to him without their even knowing it. It was not until Joe retired and moved to Florida, Mike believes, that he developed a feeling of equality with others. His native intelligence, expertise in business and ability to interact with retirees gave him a clearer understanding of what he might have accomplished if he had been better educated.

 Joe's children and grandchildren all obtained the higher education he wished he'd had. In addition to academic accomplishments, his descendants demonstrate a high degree of artistic ability, as well.

 Today, Joe and Marie's daughter Shirley is a hospice nurse in Marin County, California. She lives in San Anselmo with her husband, Terry Busch, an occupational therapist and counselor. Hiking and art are two activities that give her pleasure, and she even reports having sold some of her art. She has a son, Steven Lome, and two daughters, Debra and Kristin Everson from two previous marriages.

  Because of the value Joe placed on education, he daughter, Merle always knew he would go to college; the only matter to be determined was what she would study. She attended the University of Illinois and became a teacher. She married Bernard Kramer and, as they reared their children, Cynthia and David, Merle always remembered Joe's advice, to "let your kids grow, trust them, respect their opinions and don't parent too much."

 Bernie, who at one time worked with Joe, left the meat business after many years and is now in retail furniture sales. Merle works part-time in real estate and as a teacher's aide in a Skokie public school. They own a sailboat and both enjoy scuba diving. Eventually they hope to move from Skokie to a warmer climate where they can focus on those interests.

 Mike and his wife, Nancy (Divine),his high school sweetheart, are parents of a son, Kevin, and a daughter, Joanna. After twenty-five years as a gastroenterologist with a traditional medical practice, Mike decided in 1994 to make a dramatic change in his life and work. He left San Diego with Nancy, after throwing his pager into the Pacific Ocean, and the two set off in their new motor home on a year-long, cross-country odyssey.

 The trip proved to be an inner journey as much as an external one. After months of sightseeing and reconnecting with relatives and friends, they settled in Naples, Florida. Mike shifted his professional focus and now practices holistic medicine, emphasizing an approach to wellness that involves mind, body and spirit. Although they had never affiliated with Jewish institutions when they lived in California, Hawaii or New Mexico, they have joined a congregation in Florida and report feeling very "connected" and at home there.

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