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Jacob and Beila
A Family Story -- The Lezaks Come to America
THE Jews of nineteenth and early twentieth century Russia lived in extremely inhospitable surroundings, subject entirely to the whims of the despotic Romanov czars, Nicholas I, Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II. Things worsened in 1827, when service in the Russian army, a "privilege" long denied to Jews, became compulsory. Czar Nicholas I theorized that conscription would surely persuade Jews to abandon their religion and convert to Christianity.
All Jewish males over the age of eighteen not only became eligible for the army, but were required to serve tours of duty lasting twenty-five years, a period reduced to five to ten years in the 1880s. When Jewish communities failed to meet their quota of recruits, which happened frequently, agents of the czar typically rounded out the required number of conscripts by kidnapping children as young as six or seven and delivering them to the authorities in Siberia. Often, years passed before their families saw these boys again.
The Pale of Settlement, an enormous region where Jews were officially segregated from non-Jews, was established by the Constitution of 1835. It limited Jews to the twenty-five northern and western provinces where most of them already lived. Any Jew who traveled outside the borders of these approved communities without a special permit (that is, who went "beyond the Pale"), was subject to arrest and punishment.
For a while, Jews belonging to the relatively elite group that included bankers, professionals, craftsmen, university students and wealthy merchants, were allowed to live in Moscow and other cosmopolitan cities outside the Pale of Settlement. Eventually, however, their residency privileges were withdrawn and many of the professions and trades Jews had practiced for generations were closed to them. It became common for Jews to be humiliated publicly by being described as exploiters of the peasant class, parasites, and worse, in the popular press, serious literature and especially in political rhetoric.
Throughout the Romanovs' reigns, spanning the years from 1825 to 1918, rampant anti-Semitism was fully sanctioned by government officials as well as the Russian Orthodox Church. Frequent, terrifying pogroms, resulting in death or grave injuries for countless Jews, were orchestrated by the czars and their courts to divert responsibility for social and political discontent from the real causes to an age-old scapegoat, the Jews.
Such was the milieu in which the Lezak family's recorded history begins.
NUCHEM and Hennie Yaffa Leshok welcomed their firstborn, a son they named Yankl (Jacob), in 1848. They lived in the tiny village of Vasilkov, in the province of Kiev, well within the borders of the Russian Pale of Settlement, where Jews were officially segregated from non-Jews. Both of Jacob's parents also had been born in Vasilkov, Nuchem in about 1828 and Hennie in about 1832. The family name would not be recorded as Lezak until two of their grandchildren, Jacob's sons Max and Ben, arrived in the United States in 1910. But more about that later.
Hennie gave birth to three more children, daughters Eidel and Rachelya and another son, Chaim, before Nuchem's sudden death at the age of twenty-nine, in 1857. So it was that at the tender age of nine, Jacob became the man of the house.
As a young girl, Hennie Yaffa probably had little or no formal, secular education. It is equally unlikely that she had any work experience outside her father's home prior to her marriage. Nevertheless, as the sole support of four young children after Nuchem's death, she was forced to find a job. She went to work in her family's meat stand in Vasilkov's large, open air marketplace. Supplied by a nearby butcher, the Yaffa family sold various cuts of meat that were considered undesirable by most of the supplier's regular customers. But the Yaffas' clientele was comprised primarily of those who were too poor to afford anything else.
Amazingly, the meat business would continue to provide a livelihood for many Leshok-Yaffa descendants through seven generations, over the next 140 years!
In 1860, twelve years after Jacob's birth in Vasilkov, his future bride, Beila, was born to Echiel and Sosel Brodsky Kushakevitz in the town of Belaya-Tserkov (White Church), also in the province of Kiev. The same year, halfway around the world, Abraham Lincoln was elected the sixteenth president of the United States.
Beila's mother was Sosel Brodsky, born in 1834, the only daughter of a well-to-do property owner who also had three sons. In addition to rearing their own children, the Brodskys adopted Echiel Kushakevitz, the son of an impoverished melamed (teacher), when the boy and their daughter Sosel were eight years old. Echiel's father consented to the adoption of his only child because he believed his son, who was very intelligent, would have a better life and more educational opportunities in the wealthy Brodsky home.
Echiel Kushakevitz came from a long line of rabbinic scholars. Recognizing the prestige that marriage to a descendant of the famed Kushakevitz rabbis would bring to their family, the Brodskys arranged Sosel's betrothal to Echiel soon after the adoption. While the actual marriage ceremony may have been performed at the time Echiel became a bar mitzva, he and Sosel were not permitted to live together as man and wife until they turned seventeen. Thereafter, between 1851 and 1860, they became the parents of a son and four daughters: Emanuel, Marim, Mindel, Beila and Leah.
A Torah scholar like his father, Echiel was highly educated for his day and was certified to impart both legal and rabbinic advice. Then in 1864, at the age of thirty, he collapsed and died while chanting the evening prayers, his siddur (prayer book) propped open on a table in front of him. The tragedy left Sosel, also thirty, a widow with five children. Little Beila was barely four years old. Echiel's sudden death was an ironic parallel to the death of Jacob's father, Nuchem Leshok, in Vasilkov in 1857.
The family was still grieving when they suffered yet another catastrophe, a raging fire that destroyed their home and its contents as Sosel and the children watched helplessly. Miraculously, no one was injured, but Sosel's struggle to keep her little family together was just beginning.
Because Russian law assumed women would be provided for by their husbands, daughters were not permitted to claim an inheritance when their parents died. Nevertheless, the law did not prevent the sons from sharing their inheritance with Sosel voluntarily. Even so, for reasons we will never know, the brothers divided the father's estate three ways, rather than four. Sosel, now both homeless and destitute, was totally excluded from inheriting any portion of her father's substantial estate.
Little is known of how she provided for her children or where they lived following this turn of events, although life certainly could not have been easy. In later years Beila referred often to the hardships and extreme poverty of her childhood.
At about the same time, a different type of struggle for survival was raging in the United States, where North and South were engaged in the Civil War. President Lincoln, who had been reelected in 1864, was assassinated at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. in 1865.
By 1868, the city of Chicago, with a population of nearly three hundred thousand, was being described as part bustling metropolis and part frontier town. Its thriving downtown business area was comprised mainly of frame buildings fronting on unpaved streets. Both the Union Stockyards and the Armour meat packing plant, located south of the business area, were fully operational by the end of the decade.
In Russia, 1871 marked the first recorded use of the term pogrom ("thunderstorm"). It was used to describe a vicious attack upon the Jews of Odessa. Later that year, a conflagration that became known as the Great Chicago Fire began on DeKoven Street, just a short distance from the area housing the greatest concentration of the city's Jews. The date, October 8, 1871, happened to coincide with the eve of Simchat Torah. It probably was due to this fortunate coincidence that many torahs were saved from the flames by members of the seven synagogues in the area who were in shul that night, celebrating, when the fire broke out.
Among the hundreds of buildings destroyed by the blaze was the city's only Jewish hospital, established in 1868 by members of the United Hebrew Relief Association. It would be replaced ten years later by a new institution, Michael Reese Hospital, the birthplace, in 1915, of Leonard Lezak, Jacob's first American-born grandchild.
In the Russian shtetl (small Jewish village), courtship was unacceptable. Marriages were "arranged," and love, at least before marriage, was not a consideration in one's choice of a mate. Jacob's first marriage, arranged according to local custom by his mother, Hennie, and the matchmaker of Vasilkov, was to a young woman he did not meet until just before the ceremony. To everyone's surprise, the marriage ended almost as soon as it began, with Jacob's discovery that his pretty bride was clearly mentally impaired.
Obviously the match was a mistake; he could not, and would not, spend his life with her. But divorce was virtually unheard of. What could he do? Persuading the girl that they were just playing a game, the two traveled to a nearby town where Jacob instructed her to tell the local rabbi that she did not like her husband. Apparently she was convincing, because whatever she told the unsuspecting rabbi was enough to result in dissolution of the marriage.
Jacob married a second time, but the woman died in childbirth, delivering a child who was severely disabled. Jacob's mother, Hennie, came to take care of the infant.
A few miles away in Belaya-Tserkov, Beila Kushakevitz's prospects for marriage seemed dismal because, as the daughter of an impoverished widow, she had no dowry to offer a suitor. To be an unmarried woman in a Russian shtetl was a fate one sought to avoid at all costs, and so, by the time she was eighteen, both Beila and her mother were resigned to the fact that she could not afford to be too choosy in seeking a husband.
Her circumstances presented a challenge tailor-made for the local matchmaker, who concluded that the poor-but-pretty girl from Belaya-Tserkov would be perfect for Jacob Leshok, the handsome young widower from Vasilkov. Jacob agreed to the marriage, but somehow neglected to mention anything about his three-year-old child. Although Beila was hurt and angry when she learned of Jacob's deception, apparently their relationship did not suffer because of it. The issue became moot with the child's death, soon after their marriage.
Over the years, the story of Jacob and Beila's wedding in January 1880 assumed a legendary aura. It was a constant source of fascination to their children, who never tired of hearing Beila recount the details of the celebration. The ceremony took place in Belaya-Tserkov, in the home of Beila's older sister, Marim. An unusually severe blizzard stranded many of the guests from Vasilkov before they could reach their destination. Some turned back; others became lost en route or were forced to take shelter wherever they found it until the snowstorm blew over. Many of the travelers were almost frozen by the time they arrived and opted to witness the ceremony from the large, flat space atop the home's huge, built-in brick oven.
Beila once explained to the children that she "was very young at the time and did not know exactly what to expect." Of marriage? At the ceremony? Of her wedding night? No one will ever know for certain what she meant; perhaps it was a little of each. But the details of that wedding day were forever stamped upon Beila's memory and, in time, on her children's, as well.
Before their first anniversary, Beila and Jacob would celebrate the birth of a son, Morris (Maishe), the eldest of twelve children borne by Beila over the next twenty-six years. But there can be little doubt that the joy of parenthood and the quality of life in their village were severely impacted by the terrible events taking place elsewhere in Russia.
In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated by six revolutionists, one of whom was soon identified as a Jewish woman. Seizing an opportunity to capitalize on the deep-seated anti-Semitism prevalent in the region, the government blamed all Jews for the assassination. Soon vicious pogroms erupted near Vasilkov, in the cities of Kiev, Odessa and many other parts of the Ukraine. The Interior Minister, Count Ignatiev, incited additional attacks by blaming the riots on Jewish exploitation of Russian peasants and the Jews' alleged "control" over commerce and industry.
It is understandable, then, why an 1882 decree granting permission for Jews to leave Russia was followed by the first wave of what was to become a massive emigration to the West. But this seemingly lenient attitude was short-lived. Within the next ten years, numerous additional restrictions were imposed on Russia's Jews. Quotas were established in schools and universities, Jewish lawyers were forbidden to practice without special permission, and all Jews were expelled from Moscow.
Beila's second child was a daughter whose name and date of birth are unrecorded. The child's death at the age of two and one-half, probably caused by diphtheria, was but the first of several personal tragedies Jacob and Beila would endure.
Max (Mendl) was born in Vasilkov in 1886, the year that the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York Harbor and a bomb in Chicago's Haymarket Square killed eleven. Echiel, named for Beila's father, was their third son; the precise date of his birth is unknown. Three years later, Baruch was born. When Echiel was about six and Baruch three, both they and a cousin, the daughter of Jacob's sister Eidel, died of scarlet fever. The childrens' deaths occurred within a period of just two weeks. In 1892 Beila gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Jacob and Beila named the boy Ben (Beryl). The girl, who was unnamed, died at birth.
Emanuel (Manny) was born three years later and, in 1898, Sam (Zurach), the ninth child, arrived. This was a year after the establishment of the Bund, the first socialist workers' organization in Russia. Founded by Jewish workers, the Bund was the nucleus of Russia's Social Democratic (Socialist) Party, established in 1898.
With the birth of Sylvia (Sosel) on March 15, 1900, coinciding with Purim, Jacob and Beila finally had a healthy daughter. They named her for Beila's mother, who had died just a few months earlier. Nathan (Nuchem) was born in 1904, followed two years later by Joseph (Yossl), Beila's twelfth and last child. Morris, the eldest son, was already a soldier in the Russian army by the time Sylvia and Nathan were born.
The revolutionary movement spearheaded by Russia's intellectuals, inactive since the assassination of Alexander II, had resumed its activities in the mid-1890s. In 1903, the Socialists split into two factions, the radical Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, and the opposing Mensheviks. Hundreds of Jews were killed or seriously injured in a vicious pogrom that year in Kishinev, which was even worse than any of the infamous attacks of the 1880s.
The country was paralyzed by widespread social unrest and general strikes in the aftermath of Russia's disastrous defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Revolutionary leaders organized councils of workers, called "soviets," that stood ready to assume power if the government fell. Czar Nicholas II promised a constitution and allowed elections to the first Duma, a representative assembly, in 1906. However, he dissolved the Duma when it failed to support government policies.
In the United States, 1906 was marked by upheaval as well, but here it took the form of a severe earthquake and subsequent fire that rocked San Francisco, destroying most of the city's central area and killing nearly 700. On the literary front, the publication of Upton Sinclair's novel, "The Jungle," replete with its revelations of appalling conditions in Chicago's stockyards and packing plants, shocked readers and led to passage of both the ground-breaking Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.
Beila made no secret of the fact that she was embarrassed by her last pregnancy, believing that at 46 and 58, she and Jacob were too old for babies. In all likelihood, it was for this reason that she even considered the startling proposal made by their next door neighbor, Mr. Berdichevsky, a leather manufacturer.
Berdichevsky and his wife had only daughters. Desperately wanting a son themselves, and aware of Beila's distress over her "condition," they offered to give her a substantial sum of money to adopt the child if it happened to be a boy. For a while she actually thought it might be a good idea. However, she bonded with Yossl immediately after his birth, and then condemned herself for ever considering the Berdichevskys' suggestion.
The turn of the century found Jacob and Beila living with their children in a modest house, nestled amid beautiful scenery in an area of sand dunes at the edge of town. In the summer, the children played barefoot in the deep, white sand surrounding the house and waded in the clear, cool water of a nearby river (possibly the Dneiper). The family washing was probably done there, as well. Trees lined the riverbanks on either side.
The older children and their friends were allowed to swim in the river. No one owned a bathing suit then; boys swam in the nude in a spot a little downriver, while girls each took along an extra smock to wear in the water.
The home's large kitchen doubled as an all-purpose room that resembled an enclosed porch with many windows. It was dominated by a large, built-in brick oven with a roomy space, about six feet square, between the top of the oven and the ceiling, where the children climbed to read and to play. During Russia's bitter winters, it was the warmest, and thus the most popular, spot in the house.
Often the family spent summer evenings outdoors, to escape the heat inside, in much the same way that years later, in Chicago, they congregated on front steps or patios. Adults and children alike took pleasure in the company of neighbors, singing together and counting the stars. Moonlight provided the only illumination. Summer also was a time for preserving the fruits and vegetables that grew in the region, and for making other preparations for winter. One activity Beila's children especially enjoyed was helping their mother make jams and jellies.
In the middle of Jacob and Beila's yard, a large, deep copper pan sat on an iron stand over a slow-burning wood fire. Into the pan, Beila poured the fresh fruit, whether berries, plums or cherries from a nearby orchard. She stirred constantly, from time to time skimming bubbles off the top to insure that the jelly would be clear. The children "helped" her by hovering nearby with slices of bread in their hands, waiting expectantly to have the sweet, skimmed froth smeared onto their bread. It was a delicious treat.
Grandmother Hennie Leshok lived with Jacob and Beila for many years. Sylvia later remembered her as a small, kind and loving woman whose wrinkled face broke easily into a pleasant smile despite the hard life she had known. She usually dressed in a long, wide skirt and loose-fitting blouse, with a kerchief tied on her head and a shawl around her shoulders.
One of Hennie's pleasures was taking Sylvia to the community bath house, where small, hand-sized brooms were used in place of washcloths or sponges. As she washed the child's back she would remind her, almost like a mantra, "You should listen to what your mother tells you. You should listen to your father..."
Often the two trudged together through long stretches of deep white sand to visit Hennie's daughter, Rachelya. Invariably, Rachelya's mouth-watering kreplach, rich with the best butter and cheese, awaited them in the kitchen. Although her husband, Isaac Praisman, was poor when they married, he became a wealthy man and, eventually, the sole owner of the Vasilkov stockyard.
The busiest day of the week in Vasilkov was Monday, when peasants, farmers and villagers went to buy, sell and trade goods and provisions at the town's marketplace. Many farmers arrived in large, open wagons loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables, wheat or barley. Others carried baskets laden with chickens, eggs, butter or cheese. Some drove cattle, horses, sheep, geese and ducks. With the proceeds of their sales, they bargained for sugar, salt, kerosene and other necessities. Beila and the other local women bought their supplies at the roadside, as the peddlers passed by on their way into town, or at the marketplace.
There were no restaurants in Vasilkov, but there were plenty of taverns, and by late Monday afternoon all of them were usually filled with farmers and peasants. Those who couldn't get in congregated outside. By evening, empty vodka bottles littered the ground around men who were drunk or "sleeping it off." Often the wives and children who had come with them in the morning were left waiting by their wagons until the men were ready to return home.
Vasilkov's central area also had its share of businesses which, while not comparable to those in Kiev, about thirty kilometers away, seemed to thrive nonetheless. Among them were two small grocery stores, a yard goods shop, a tailor, a dressmaker and a cobbler. Ready-to-wear was a concept yet to come; in Vasilkov, everything still had to be custom made. Besides women's clothing, dressmakers fashioned ladies' undergarments and nightclothes, as well as men's shirts and underwear.
Jacob found work as a shochet (ritual slaughterer) in Vasilkov's marketplace, thus maintaining the family's link to the meat business. It was always difficult for him to provide for his growing family, and at least this was steady work, since "keeping kosher" was a way of life for all the Jewish households of Vasilkov.
It was acceptable, even expected, for a woman in the shtetl to contribute to the family income, especially if she was married to a scholar, since this would enable her husband to spend his days in the study of Torah. But there is no record of Beila's having worked outside her home. She had a full-time job running her household and caring for so many children.
Then, as now, Russian winters were long and cold; usually the snow stayed on the ground well into spring. Valenkis, high boots made from heavy felt, were a necessity to help ward off the bitter cold. Since socks were not yet mass produced, much of Beila's time was spent knitting so that she, Jacob and the children would have extra layers of warmth to insulate their feet and protect them from frostbite. People who had no socks typically wrapped their feet in rags before putting on their boots, to protect them from the cold.
On many a winter day, Jacob returned from work with ice coating his thick brown hair, mustache and beard. Too young to appreciate his hunger and exhaustion, the youngest children clamored for him to pull them on their sled across the frozen field behind the house. He didn't disappoint them. But before removing his heavy outerwear, Jacob routinely filled two pails with water at the communal well for the next day's needs. Without fail, Beila greeted him with six glasses of steaming hot tea when he finally came inside. With a twinkle in his eye, Jacob would empty his pockets onto the heavy kitchen table before he sat down. Then, making himself comfortable, he drank glass after glass of tea and ate his only meal of the day while watching the children gleefully count the coins from his pockets.
Observance of the Sabbath was the highlight of the week in Jewish homes throughout eastern Europe, and the home of Jacob and Beila was no exception. In fact, Jacob worked only half a day on Fridays, in order to have time to help Beila prepare for Shabbos.
Typically, marketing, cooking and baking for Shabbos were done on Thursday and homes were cleaned on Friday. Somehow even the poorest families managed to transcend their poverty and deprivation, and welcome the Sabbath with fresh-baked challah, a special meal and clothing that was not worn on any other day of the week.
One of the family's Friday rituals was bathing in the tub Jacob had made by sawing an enormous barrel in half. First, he filled the tub with cold water. Next he immersed irons and stones that had been heated in the oven, to warm the water for Beila, who always bathed first. Sometimes the younger children climbed into the tub with her. Jacob bathed last. When everyone was finished, the tub was emptied into the yard. In winter, of course, the water was frozen by morning and the children could skate or slide on it.
At some point in time Jacob and his brother, Chaim, became business partners. Yet despite the partnership, they did not enjoy an equal measure of success. Chaim lived in a fine home and seemed able to provide his family with the best of everything, while Jacob struggled constantly to make ends meet.
Nevertheless, Chaim's wealth was no guarantor of happiness. His wife died when the youngest of their five children was just a year old. Moving from her son Jacob's home to Chaim's, Hennie helped to rear Alleck, Label, Newman, Gussie and Bassie, the baby, until Chaim's marriage to Mary Lombard.
Chaim lived quite a distance from Jacob and his family, but Hennie returned to visit them every Saturday, despite the distance. Since one was not supposed to carry anything on Shabbos, she wrapped whatever she wanted to take to the children in a white napkin and tied it around her leg, just below the knee. Although birthday presents were unheard of in those days, on special occasions or around Chanuka or Pesach, Hennie was likely to arrive for her Shabbos visit with a treasured silver coin for each child. This creative delivery system enabled Hennie to obey halacha, Jewish law, and still follow her heart. Technically, she "carried" nothing.
Despite his best efforts, Jacob simply could not earn a decent living in Vasilkov. Finally, in about 1907, he decided he might improve his lot if he moved the family to bustling Kiev, where Max had already gone to live with Jacob's sister, Eidel, and her children. And so Jacob set out alone to investigate the possiblity of obtaining a residency permit and finding work. Only then would he uproot the family.
In what might best be described as an early Russian version of "Catch 22," Jacob was quickly picked up by the local police for being in Kiev without a permit and was forced to walk all the way back to Vasilkov. While this set-back may have discouraged him temporarily, it definitely did not deter him from trying again. Bear in mind that Jacob was nearly sixty years old at the time.
It didn't take long for him to discover that anyone with a child enrolled in the Alexandrovskaya Street gymnazia, a preparatory school, was allowed to live in Kiev for as long as the child was a student there. He decided that Sylvia would be the lucky one, and registered her for the nine-year-olds' class. Poor Sylvia was only seven, but children younger than nine were not accepted in the school. The family's residency in Kiev was short-lived, however. Jacob was unable to find meaningful work and the family had no choice but to return to Vasilkov.
Their next home, closer to the center of town, was in an old structure that had been divided into three apartments. It was surrounded by a low, white fence and faced the main road to the city and the fairgrounds. A workshop for processing leather from raw skins had been set up in its large yard.
The landlord, Mr. Wallack, was an old man who lived in one of the apartments. Velvl, the eldest of his three sons, occupied the second unit with his wife and eight children. Velvl converted his front room into a small grocery store. Jacob and Beila rented the third apartment. Chaim Wallack, another of the landlord's sons, eventually built a house in the center of the yard. He and his wife, who became Beila's close friend, had three small daughters.
Across the road from the Wallack property was a large field, which was overgrown with tall grasses and wild flowers. It was there that Jacob's sons Max and Ben, and their good friend, Chaim Diamond, would meet to fashion their plans for leaving czarist Russia and seeking their fortune in America, the Land of Opportunity.
Saying goodbye was very difficult, both for those who were leaving and those staying behind. Many were seized by the overriding fear that they might never see one another again. Travel routes were indirect, long delays were commonplace, and sometimes months went by before word came of the emigrants' safe arrival.
In 1910, the year Max and Ben came to America, most emigrés from eastern Europe disembarked at Ellis Island in New York Harbor. But Max and Benarrived at theport of Galveston, Texas. How did it happen that their trans-Atlantic voyage took them from Russia to a port on the Gulf of Mexico? Their destination may well have been determined by the Galveston Plan, an interesting footnote tohistory.
Throughout the Northeast and Midwest, the influx of Jews around the turn of the century led to growing overcrowding in the major cities. Between approximately 1880 and 1910, the Jewish population in the U.S. increased from about two hundred fifty thousand to more than two million (and would reach nearly four million by 1920). It was no coincidence, then, that these conditions alsocoincided with increasing demands for restrictions on immigration.
Successful German-born American Jews, led by philanthropist Jacob Schiff, believed the best way to discourage legislation supporting immigration quotas would be to stem the flow of refugees to major population centers and encourage Jews to settle, instead, in smaller towns in other regions of the country.
Their 1907 proposal, known as the Galveston Plan, enlisted the help of Jews in London and Germany who agreed to gather Russian emigrés, finance their passage and direct them to Galveston, where they would be guided to locations west of the Mississippi River by American Jews.
While sound in theory, the plan was essentially a failure because the well-intentioned philanthropists neglected to consider either economic realities or the immigrants' desire to settle near others with similar backgrounds. While there certainly were some success stories, the plan deflected only about ten thousand immigrants from ports in the Northeast, and it was abandoned in 1914. After a short time, Max and Ben eventually settled in Chicago anyway.
As for what became of the Leshok name, family legend has it that an immigration official in Galveston probably misunderstood Leshok for Lezak. Equally plausible, though, is the possibility that Max and Ben changed their surname even before they left Russia, in an effort to escape conscription. It was a common practice, because once a young man adopted a new name, he effectively became "invisible" to the authorities. History is replete with countless stories of similar such transformations.
In Galveston Max and Ben quickly found employment as railroad laborers, but because they were physically small and unable to lift the heavy railroad ties, they quit (or were fired) soon after their arrival. Needing work and familiar with only one other trade, they took jobs in the meat industry paying anot-so-princely sum of $6 per week. Meager though it was, from this they wereable to save enough to pay for their brother Manny's passage to America a yearlater, in 1911.
Within a year of Manny's departure from Vasilkov, Sam made up his mind to join his older brothers. It was 1912, the year the supposedly unsinkable Titanic went down in the north Atlantic after hitting an iceberg while on its maiden voyage. More than 1,500 passengers and crew members were lost.
Max, Ben, Manny and Sam had already moved north, from Galveston to Chicago, in 1913 when Morris left Vasilkov to meet them. By the spring of the following year, Morris -- with his brothers' help -- was able to purchase steamship tickets and bring his wife, Chana, and their children Jeanette, Freeman and Ruth, to the United States.
Jacob, the patriarch, was the next to arrive, although he had to make the trip twice before being admitted. The first time, he had become so violently ill aboard ship that he was sent back to Europe immediately upon his arrival in New York. The U.S. Public Health Service was vigilant when it came to "protecting" America from immigrants who might be diseased, and the rejection of anyone appearing sickly (which could even include a misshapen fingernail!) was common at all U.S. points of entry.
Then sixty-six, Jacob intended to send for Beila and the three youngest children, Sylvia, Nate and Joe, within a short time. Tragically, World War I,the Russian Revolution and a devastating civil war intervened, separating them for another eight years.
With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Beila and the children were trapped in Russia, cut off from all contact with Jacob and the rest of the family. Little could any of them have imagined all that would transpire before they were together again. Starvation, sickness and the fear of pogroms became the constant companions of those stranded in Russia. Newspapers in the United States categorized the suffering of Jews in the eastern European war zones as "indescribable" and "unspeakable."
The youngest boys, Nate and Joe, tried to find work in Vasilkov but, at ten andeight, they were too young to earn enough to make a meaningful difference in thefamily's existence. Beila was reduced to begging for food to feed her children.
By 1917, probably around time that his brothers Sam and Manny enlisted in the U.S. Army, Nate (then about thirteen) was wearing the uniform of the Red Army.After two years, though, he was sent home suffering from typhoid fever. The disease was already at epidemic proportions when he reached Vasilkov, and it wasn't long before the others in the family also became desperately ill.
Nate, Joe and Sylvia were among those who felt enthusiasm and relief after the Russian Revolution in 1917 led first to the abdication and then, in 1918, the execution of the czar. The revolutionaries promised to put power in the hands of the proletariat. Lenin, who had left Russia after the revolution of 1905, returned and was appointed Chief Commissar. Leon Trotsky was named Commissar of Foreign Affairs. Food supplies suddenly became more available and were distributed to people in need. Beila used her family's entire ration to rebuild Nate's health, because she, Joe and Sylvia were still too sick to eat. Mary Lombard, the second wife of Jacob's brother, Chaim, brought food to them daily.
The Peace of Brest-Litovsk, signed with Germany in March 1918, ended Russia's involvement in World War I. With the signing of the armistice on November 11,1918, the war also came to an end for all the other nations. The land Russia gave up under the terms of this treaty included Poland, Finland, the Baltic States and the Ukraine. But just when it seemed that peace was at hand, opposition to the treaty led to the outbreak of a civil war that raged until 1920.
Soon after enlisting in the United States Army, Jacob and Beila's son Sam was sent to Camp Lewis and then to France, where he fought with the 361st Infantry of the 91st Division. He was wounded in action several weeks before the armistice was signed and died in Belleme, France two months later, in January 1919. Beila never saw him again after he left Vasilkov for America and did not learn of his death until after she herself arrived in Chicago early in 1922.
The press had made Americans well aware of the need for relief in post-war eastern Europe. In Russia alone, millions died of starvation between 1920 and 1922. Charitable organizations were established in major American cities to provide large-scale financial, medical and social relief for Jews suffering in the aftermath of the war. Even American Jews who could scarcely afford it sent money, food and clothing to assist those who had just barely managed to survive.
On a December night in 1921, Chicago's Drake Hotel was the scene of the Foodless Banquet, a unique fundraiser attended by eight hundred relief-campaign workers. The surprised guests were informed on their arrival that the thirty-five hundred dollars it would have cost to feed all of them would instead be used to provide food for their starving brothers in Europe.
At that time, a modest contribution to the American bureau of a Russian relief agency purchased a substantial assortment of foodstuffs, which would be delivered to individuals in Russia designated by the donor, if they could be found. Ten dollars bought fifty pounds of white flour, twenty pounds of rice, ten pounds of grits, ten pounds of sugar, ten pounds of fat, three pounds of kosher corned beef or five cans of salmon, three pounds of cocoa, five pounds of soap, and ten tins of sweetened condensed milk. In addition, for each such order the agency assigned forty pounds of foodstuffs for general relief. The money was returned to the donor if the designated recipient could not be located.
Chicago's two Yiddish newspapers were major sources of information to the immigrant population; one or both were read by most of the city's Jews. The Daily Jewish Courier, published in the Maxwell Street area, was directed primarily at the Orthodox community. The Jewish Daily Forward was a socialist-labor paper. Although printed in New York, the Forward had offices on the West Side and began a Chicago edition in 1920.
These newspapers reported on the terrible conditions and continuing anti-Semitism in eastern Europe, as well as emerging anti-Semitism in the U.S. Despite their rivalry, they were effective in helping to build a sense of community among immigrant Jews, instilling pride in their common heritage and keeping them abreast of conditions in Europe.
In the summer of 1920, a man by the name of Podelsky arrived in Kiev, having been hired by Russians in America to find their missing relatives and arrange their transportation to the United States. Among those he was searching for were Beila, Sylvia, Nate and Joe.
Time was of the essence for two important reasons. In Russia, drought and severe shortages of water, fuel and food threatened the survival of those already weakened by the effects of war and disease. And in Washington, Congress was debating the issue of immigration quotas. If the anti-immigrationists won and strict quotas were imposed before Podelsky's mission was completed, eastern European Jews would most definitely be affected. Then there would be no way of predicting when the Lezaks might be reunited.
After being located by Mr. Podelsky, the families received travel instructions and boarded a train for the day-long ride to Kamenka, a small Russian town on the Dnestr River, near the Romanian border. Another agent was to meet them there and help them cross into Romania. Unfortunately, the second agent didn't appear for six months, and when he did, he announced that he was unable to transport the entire group.
By this time Beila had no money left for food or lodging, let alone for bribing the man to take her family across the river. Recognizing that it was better for some of them to go while they had the chance, she sent Sylvia and Nate ahead and decided to wait with Joe for the agent to return. She heard nothing from the children for several months, and Beila had no way of knowing whether they had made it safely across the border, or where they were.
Seeking help from anyone other than Podelsky's agent was out of the question, since what they were doing was illegal. At first, the group of about twenty that had been left behind stayed together in one small room. Later they found shelter in an old synagogue. By day, Beila begged for food; at night she and Joe slept on a cement bench and a window ledge inside the shul.
The deplorable conditions took a heavy toll on Beila, who soon became feverish and acutely ill. Joe could do little but sit nearby, watching helplessly. Somehow, after two weeks without proper medical care, she recovered, but the high fever had left her in extremely weakened condition.
Finally the agent reappeared, and although it took several trips, he ferried everyone in their group across the river in his small boat. By the time it was their turn, Beila could hardly walk unaided; at times Joe, then about fourteen, had to carry her. A horse and wagon waited for them on the opposite bank. The weary refugees piled into the wagon and were taken to a farmhouse in the countryside where, for four days and nights, they hid together in a single attic room without plumbing or adequate ventilation. On the fifth day, they were discovered by a neighbor, who reported them to the authorities. Their next stop was the police station.
Joe, quite ill himself by this time, collapsed before entering the station and had no memory of what transpired until, days later, he awoke in a hospital bed. He could not understand the local language and had no idea where he was. One thing was certain: he was alone and had no idea what had happened to his mother. When he was released from the hospital two weeks later, he was met by a stranger who fed him and gave him a place to sleep. After a short stay, another stranger put him aboard a train for a destination he later recalled as Kishenod (possibly Kishinev), some twelve hours away.
After a separation of seven months, Joe was overjoyed to be met at the train station by Sylvia and Nate. But joy turned to near-panic when he learned that local authorities had sent Beila back to Russia. He refused to eat or even allow his sister and brother to buy him some badly needed clothing until they determined what had happened to their mother.
Although they were told that Beila soon would be allowed to rejoin them, it was three months before they saw her again. When at last she arrived, they were shocked by her appearance. Having despaired of ever seeing her family again, Beila had lost a great deal of weight and had nearly lost her mind, as well. She constantly asked God to explain why all her children had been taken from her.
Soon they were contacted again by the mysterious Mr. Podelsky, who was re-assembling the original group of families in Bucharest, Romania. They would leave for America as soon as they could obtain the necessary papers. When Joe heard that children without parents would be permitted to depart for America immediately, without documents, he seized the opportunity and sailed for New York identified as an orphan. Nate, Sylvia and Beila had to wait for their papers. Aboard ship the children were taught "God Bless America" and other patriotic songs. The crowd that greeted them at the dock in New York in November 1921 must have been astonished at the sight of immigrant children marching down the gangplank, singing in English and waving their small American flags.
Arrangements had been made for Joe to go to Chicago by train for a reunion with his father and brothers. He was only four years old when Max and Ben left Vasilkov; would he even recognize them? There was a better chance that he would recognize his father, who had not left Russia until Joe was eight.
Jacob had been notified which train Joe was on, but he was too impatient to await its arrival in Chicago. Instead, he boarded the train in Gary, Indiana, accompanied by Max's wife, Pearl. They walked through the cars until he spotted the boy, asleep, and sat down opposite him, waiting for Joe to awaken. When he opened his eyes, Joe wrote decades later, Jacob's first words to him were, "Why did you leave your mother?" Without missing a beat, Joe responded, "Why did you leave her?"
Beila was sixty-two years old, Sylvia, nearly twenty-two, and Nate, eighteen, when at last they were reunited with Jacob and the rest of the family early in the winter of 1922. Beila was so weak from her long ordeal that she fainted from all the excitement. But finally they could go home together to the apartment Jacob had rented on Chicago's West Side.
Welcome Home and keep up the tradition!