Who is This?
...and the story continues
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Two of Sylvia Lezak Goldberg Ostrowsky's earliest recollections dated all the way back to 1903. The happier of the two memories involved a visit from her brother Max, home for a brief visit from Kiev, where he lived with their Aunt Eidel. Max arrived with a present for his little sister, a beautiful silk dress and shiny black patent leather shoes. Whether because ready-made clothing was still very much a novelty in Vasilkov or the fact that children seldom received gifts, let alone gifts as special as these, Sylvia never forgot them.
The second event had profoundly negative, but equally long-lasting effect. It occurred when three- year-old Sylvia went with with her mother to the marketplace, where Beila met several friends. "Oh, you finally have a little girl," one woman remarked. "Yes," Beila replied, "but she is not as good looking as my boys."
As young as she was, Sylvia headed straight for the mirror when she got home, convinced that what she saw there was an unattractive girl with a very large nose. As an adult she acknowledged that her mother probably never dreamed she would be so hurt by the comment. In any case, the resulting insecurities affected Sylvia for the rest of her life.
At four, Sylvia contracted diphtheria. Initially the doctor offered little hope that she would survive. Although she did recover and was otherwise healthy, her right eye was permanently damaged, causing her to appear cross-eyed whenever she looked to the right. Her brothers teased her and she became self-conscious, she refused to play with most other children, fearing they, too, would make fun of her.
In spite of this lapse, most of the time her brothers were very protective. Once, when she was about six, she slipped and fell on her way to school, dropping pencils, books and papers on the icy path. Ben, who worked at a store along her route, witnessed what happened and ran to the rescue. After collecting everything she had dropped, he took her hand in his and walked with her all the way to school.
Morris, the eldest brother, was away in the army when Sylvia was born in 1900, so he literally was a stranger to her when he came home for good in about 1905. Although later she described him as tall and handsome, she was quite afraid of him when he returned to Vasilkov after his tour of duty ended.
The most important person to Sylvia outside the immediate family was her good friend, Yankl Polistuck. In her memoirs, she said she loved very much from an early age. Full of life and fun, Yankl was an orphan who lived in the other half of her family's duplex with his grandmother, an aunt and a young uncle, all of whom were devoted to him. He spent so much time with Sylvia and her brothers, he began to think of their house as his second home.
In most families education was not a priority for daughters, who were expected to become good wives and mothers, and learn all there was to know about following the laws of kashrut. Boys, on the other hand, went to cheder every day to learn Torah and Hebrew prayers. Parents believed that for sons, becoming observant Jews was as important as eating, perhaps even moreso.
Despite local custom, Beila was determined that Sylvia would be educated beyond the traditional expectations. She wanted her only daughter, who was every bit as bright as her sons, to know everything, including Russian, to ensure that Sylvia would never know the kind of poverty that Beila's sister, Marim experienced as the wife of a poor Torah scholar. But despite the fact that Sylvia studied and passed the local school's entrance exams, she was denied admission. The Jewish quota had already been filled.
Somehow Beila scraped together enough money from her household allowance to pay the tuition at a private Christian school, where Sylvia and her friend, Chaya Wallack, were the only Jews in their class. The girls could not understand why they were expected to pray and cross themselves, and never told their parents about this requirement. Only later did Sylvia learn that one of the school's missions was the conversion of Jewish children to Christianity. Their enrollment came to a humiliating end one morning when the teacher yanked them out of their seats, pushed them toward the door, and threw them out of the building, all the while spouting anti-Semitic remarks. The reason for their sudden expulsion, they later learned, was the murder of a high government minister named Stolipin. In truth, Sylvia and Chaya were lucky to get out alive. Typically, at such times, the government instigated pogroms or decided to make an example of some unfortunate Jew who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Since Beila did not know Russian, she taught Sylvia to read and write in Yiddish ("Jewish"). Beila purchased every one of Sholom Aleichem's short stories, sold in paperback for a kopeck a piece, and insisted that Sylvia practice by reading aloud to her. She imparted history in terms of her own childhood experiences and well-known historical events. A wonderful story teller, she often related tales of their ancestry, and other lessons, through songs and poems she had learned as a girl. Clearly these collective lessons made a vivid impression, because it is on Sylvia's written memories of Beila's stories that much of this family history is based.
To round out Sylvia's education, Beila bought fabric and yarn remnants whenever there was a little extra money, and taught her sewing, embroidery and knitting.
Sylvia was seven when Jacob decided to move the family to Kiev. He lied about her age, enrolling her at the school on Alexandrovskaya Ulitza (street) in a class for nine-year-olds because students as young as Sylvia were not admitted. Since parents without other credentials were granted residency in Kiev only for as long as they had a child attending this school, Sylvia became their "ticket" Kiev. On her very first day there she was so frightened and shy, she went to the washroom, locked herself in a stall and then, unable to open the door, had to wait until the next recess for someone to rescue her.
Her brothers, Max and Ben, left Vasilkov for America in 1910. Over the next four years, Manny, Morris, Sam and her father joined them. Sylvia, her mother, Nate and Joe expected to follow shortly, but they were stranded by the outbreak of World War I. It would be eight years before the family was reunited. For the rest of their lives, a special bond, forged during those difficult years, existed between Sylvia, Nate and Joe, who felt closer to one another than to any of their siblings.
"The Americanization of Sylvia" occurred quickly after her arrival in Chicago in 1922. She became proficient in English (later she would say, "If you have to, you can learn anything fast!") and landed a job as a cashier at Marshall Field's. Always anxious to succeed, she was extremely conscious of modern styles of dress and took great pains to avoid wearing anything that might brand her as being from the "old country."
Sylvia was still single at the age of thirty, and her parents actively encouraged her to marry and have a family. After she and Sam Goldberg were introduced by mutual friends, he began calling on her at home and impressed the pious Jacob and Beila with his knowledge of Yiddish and his familiarity with Hebrew prayers.
Sam was shy and introverted, with little or no drive to acquire material possessions, in contrast to Sylvia, who was very much an extrovert. She wanted nothing as much as to become an American success story. When they married in March 1932, everyone expected Sam to be able to support her , but to their surprise he never really made much of a living. Nate and Joe tried to help him open a small grocery store on the South Side, but it did not succeed.
When Harold was born in 1935, Sylvia made a conscious decision to give him a name she considered distinctly American. She adored her baby, but was less than enthusiastic about marriage. they divorced after five years together.
Sylvia's life as a single parent was fraught with hardship. After the divorce, she and Harold moved in with Jacob and Beila at 5512 S. Ingleside in Hyde Park; today this address is the site of a tennis court at the University of Chicago. Since she could not work outside her home and care for a baby, too, she was dependent on her brothers' financial help and her parents' small pension for support. In an attempt to repay her brothers, she helped with the book keeping in their stores whenever she could.
She and Jacob shared the cooking at home, but Jacob did virtually all of the marketing. Their economy-minded menus generally included a variety of soups with some meat or chicken thrown in, as well as Sylvia's wonderful kugels, kreplach and blintzes. In defense to her parents, Sylvia had always kept kosher. But when Harold developed scarlet fever, her sister-in-law, Pearl insisted on serving him bacon would make him strong and healthy again. One can only wonder what Jacob's reaction must have been. Yet, today Harold cannot remember ever hearing his grandfather question, or openly criticize, any of his adult children's decisions.
With the exception of a case of pneumonia in his nineties, Jacob remained hale, hearty and extremely active. His regular routine included laying tefillin every day, going to shul, and on Fridays, visiting the kosher butcher to select a live chicken for Shabbos dinner. Because he was an observant Jew, he always wore a hat, even in the house. Often, he took long walks with Harold, whose first language was Yiddish and who, therefore, was able to converse with him more easily than any of his cousins could. On Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, the two frequently took the bus to the old Orthodox shuls on the West Side.
The core of the belief shared by Jacob and Beila was that G-D would solve any problem and help them weather any crisis, if only they had faith. To them, religion was a source of comfort and security. Jacob was convinced that stress and worry accomplished nothing but shortening one's life.
His attitude had a tremendous influence on Harold during the child's formative years. The atmosphere in the home he and Sylvia shared with his grandparents, was religious and tranquil, in contrast to the competitiveness Harold witnessed at school and elsewhere in the "outside world." To an only child with many insecurities and a struggling, single parent, this environment provided a much needed sense of stability and security.
Jacob was unfailingly attentive to the frail and fading Beila, twelve years younger than he, who spent her days sitting quietly in her chair, reading in Yiddish. She seldom left the house anymore, except to attend occasional family affairs, and died at home in 1944, at the age of eighty-four.
Soon after Beila's death, Sylvia's brothers helped her buy a small business, a grocery and delicatessen on 55th Street. But what they had hoped would be a good opportunity turned out to be an impossible undertaking.
Sylvia wrote in her diary, "Getting up at five a.m. when the milk and bread were delivered, cooking corned beef...it was lucky that it was not a busy business. But never resting, living in the back of the store, being terrified of rats, worrying constantly about the child and the old father. Store being open late, including Saturday and Sunday, and it never failed, when you closed the store late or on a Sunday afternoon, someone would always come knocking, demanding service. Besides, after paying bills, there was nothing left..."
The store failed, and Sylvia and Harold returned to live with Jacob. Within the year, with returning servicemen having trouble finding decent housing, Sylvia did the only thing that made sense to her: she offered their apartment on Ingleside to her newly married nephew, Norman, and she, Harold and Jacob moved to a smaller place near 71st and Cottage Grove.
Around the same time, a neighbor who had bought milk and rolls from her every morning at the store introduced Sylvia to Frank Ostrowsky, whom he knew from Zionist organization meetings. Frank, who also was divorced, was impressed by her efforts to support herself and Harold. During their courtship, he promised to be a father to her child and vowed to make life better for her. Frank seemed to be a good person, despite a stubborn streak. Eager for a second chance at happiness, she married him in 1947.
Jacob hardly ever consulted a doctor, and when he did, he was not likely to heed his medical advice. On one memorable occasion when the family prodded him to see a physician, he humored them by going first to the doctor's office and then to a pharmacy, where he picked up medicine the doctor had prescribed.
"Did you take the pills?" he was asked when he returned home. "No, I threw them away," he responded.
"Why did you do that?"
"Look, I went to the doctor and I paid him, so he should live. Then I threw away the pills, so I should live!"
Although his body began to fail him as he neared 100, Jacob's mental faculties were as sharp as ever and his sense of humor remained intact. In the spring of 1949, when he was 101, the Vasilkover American Society invited members and friends to enjoy a ten-course dinner at the Oriental Restaurant on Roosevelt Road in honor of "Yenkel Lezak, our oldest landsman of Vasilkov." proceeds from the event supported the one-year-old State of Israel.
When Jacob played card games, dominoes or checkers with his grandchildren, a practice he enjoyed until shortly before he died, he won as often as they did (even though he always gave back any money the children lost).
Near the end of his life, a nurse was called in to assist him. He waved his cane at her as she approached his bed and shouted, "Get away from me, you angel of death!" Jacob died in August 1951 at the age of 103.
Over a period of many years, Sylvia's penchant for writing served as an important outlet for her. She wrote of her longing for happiness, her disappointments, and later, her very real fears of growing old and being abandoned. Some of this apparently stemmed from the guilt she felt for having been unable to care for her father in his last days, despite having been devoted to him for so many years.
In her grief following Jacob's death, she tried to understand this "failure" on her part, but could not. She wrote, "I am the daughter, I can explain it only on way. I must have lost my mind. I can't imagine; how could I be so cruel as to agree to send him away in his condition. He trusted me so much, he wanted so much to be near me... It seems I will never be happy again."
Sam Goldberg came around to take his son, Harold, out for dinner every six months or so and occasionally he gave him a few dollars for spending money. Other than that. they had little contact and Sam provided no financial support. It was Sylvia who took Harold ice skating on the Midway near the University of Chicago, to sporting events and the library, and made sure he had music lessons and learned to swim at the YMCA.
Harold remembers his mother spending hours poring over old photographs, perhaps in an unconscious effort to cling to family history and traditions. There is little doubt in his mind that this influenced his lifelong interest in photography and his own strong feelings for his "roots."
Harold was a sensitive child who spent most of his time with adults. He felt awkward around his cousins when they met downtown or went to a baseball game, and was never sure if they enjoyed being with him or just felt sorry for him. Even though they were poor, it was important to Sylvia that he have the same new toys, books and experiences that other children had. Harold was the first kid he knew of to have his own ball point pen, although he never did find out how she managed to obtain it for him.
Frank Ostrowsky was prolific writer, but although he published several books in Yiddish, most of which dealt with biblical themes, he earned a living as a house painter and wallpaper hanger. After their marriage, he, Sylvia and twelve-year-old Harold moved to a dilapidated building that he owned at Wilson Avenue and Broadway. It didn't take Harold long to discover that, contrary to Frank's earlier promises, he was more interested in his own son, Bernie, than in his stepson. In fact, hi paid little attention to Harold.
From Uptown they moved to Logan Square, and eventually Frank sold the Uptown property. With the proceeds, he and Sylvia, both ardent Zionists, moved to Israel. Although she loved Israel, the move was a source of inner conflict for Sylvia. She wanted to satisfy Frank and make a life with him, but at the same time she was unhappy at the prospect of being separated from her son and the rest of the family.
The marriage turned out to be a disappointment. As he aged, Frank became increasingly uncommunicative, ignoring all but his writing. The relationship with his son also deteriorated and after the move to Israel, they rarely communicated.
Sylvia was dismayed when she heard that Bernie had had a child and he had not even let his father know.
In sharp contrast, she maintained a steady stream of correspondence with her brothers, whom she missed desperately. Later, in her diaries, she described their letters, many of which she saved, as "a lifeline."
Sylvia's memoirs, spanning more than seventy-five years from her childhood in Russia to old age, reveal a sensitive, articulate woman who was thoughtful and caring, honest and spirited, and often philosophical. But her letters, poems and other musings, some written not long before her own death from cancer in 1982, also reflected many of the insecurities that she blamed on her mother's early comments about her appearance, the harrowing experiences in Russia during the war and revolution, and other shortcomings she perceived in herself.
Of life in Israel, Sylvia wrote to Nate and Jeanette in 1962, "It is a healthy life for the young... both physically and mentally... People in general are optimistic. The social life is more social here. Telephones are rather scarce, but one can install a phone and many do, who can afford it. It is acceptable for people to drop in at any time, but not between on and four p.m.; this is the time when people sleep.
"[Frank and I] have acquaintances in Holon. We meet every Friday in each other's houses [to] talk, eat, sing, listen to the news... We are most interested in each other's happenings in life, whether it be sorrow or gladness. We live in a fairly nice home... Concerts, operas, plays, nightclubs, movies are popular, but we don't attend many because Frank is not interested. He spends his entire time at his desk. But when a troupe of artists comes to town I insist that he buy tickets and we go...
"I am now about the age Mother was when she arrived in the states. I look at my hands and I can see Mother before me, talking to me , saying, 'Look at my hands.' I am getting old. I remember her hands so well at that time. Mine are now just like hers. I owe many letters of reply and I am grateful to everyone for writing to me. These letters keep me going... I always feel lonely and isolated and not wanted..."
Perhaps because letters, by their very nature, replace face-to-face confrontations, she occasionally used them to take risks, as when she chastised Manny for his parenting skills, comparing him to their brother Joe:
"You were playing cards on evening at Nate's. Roselle was there, too. She told you it was late, she had to go to school the next day and it was time to go home. I remember you saying to her, 'Well, what's keeping you? why don't you go home?' SHe came to the kitchen and, in spite of herself, she began crying bitterly... [and] said, 'He does not care, he is not worried. He wants me to go home all by myself at this time of night.' ...Joe would not only leave everything to take Merle home, he would watch the time carefully so Merle would not stay longer than is good for her... This is just on little example; [but] I can recall such incidents time and again..."
As a child, Harold occasionally helped Nate by doing menial jobs at his store. But neither Sylvia nor his uncles encouraged him to make a career of the meat business, and Harold never considered himself suited for it, anyway. He learned more toward intellectual curiosity and interests in the arts, especially music and photography.
He credits his uncles' support and encouragement with helping him complete his education at the University of Illinois, where he studied accounting. Thanks to the drive and tenacity he inherited from his mother, he passed the CPA exam on his first try. He has had a successful accounting practice in Chicago for many years.
On an extended trip to Israel to visit his mother when she lived there, Harold met Dvora Greenwald, a sabra, whose family emigrated from Poland in the 1930s. They were married in 1964 and are the parents of three children, Robert Melissa and Elana. Harold and Dvora were divorced in 1995.
Although only eighteen when he arrived in America in1922, Nate had acquired more knowledge of poverty,illness and war than anyone should ever have. At fourteen he had joined the Red Army and was assigned to the supply department,where it was his job to deliver requisitions to the front. Two years later he was sent to a field hospital after contracting typhoid fever. Several patients were assigned to each bed, and one morning he awoke to find that the soldiers on either side of him had died during the night.
The bout with typhoid led to his discharge from the army, and he was sent back to Kiev in an open cattle car. There was no money in the pockets of the over-sized soldier's coat he wore to ward off the frigid cold. From Kiev, he walked most of the way to his village, where his house stood vacant. A passing neighbor informed him that all the Jews of Vasilkov had been killed. Panic-stricken, he searched until he finally Beila, Sylvia and Joe in another part of town.
Their experiences in Russia after Jacob and their brothers went to America turned Nate, Joe and Sylvia into early supporters of the Bolsheviks. This, the explained, was a result of their observation that whenever Bolsheviks were around, Jews were usually safe from the anti-Semitic White Russians, who claimed it was their mission to kill Jews in order to "save" Russia.
Throughout his life, Nate retained vivid memories of his escape with Sylvia from Russia to Romania in 1921, and their illegal border crossing with the help of agents hired by the Vasilkov verein in Chicago. Carrying forged papers but no passports, they hid in trenches and bomb craters by day and a farmer's attic by night, waiting for the opportune moment to cross the river into Romania under cover of darkness.
Even in America, Nate sympathized with left-wing causes. Sylvia and Joe still held similar political views, too, and sometimes, in Chicago, they got together to sing songs about the party. Nevertheless, despite his early leanings, Nate quickly learned to appreciate capitalism and developed an avid interest in U.S. politics. He became a patriotic citizen, proud to identify himself as a Democrat who hated senator Joe McCarthy with a passion.
Nate's first job in Chicago was in a delicatessen, where he earned $7 per week. He worked there for about a year to repay the cost of his passage to America. Since at the time he spoke only Russian and Yiddish, his brother Morris's daughter Jeanette, who, at fourteen, was four years younger than Nate, volunteered to help him with his English. later she acknowledged that she was attracted by his wit and personality, which were very much like Jacob's, and the fact that he had the chutzpah to stand up to his brothers, in contrast to what she perceived as her father's passivity. She thought people tended to take advantage of Morris because he was so quiet, and she was sure people would never do that to Nate.
In a long reminiscence videotaped on Thanksgiving Day in 1979 or 1980, Jeanette said she was originally named Annette, but had changed her name to Jenny after enrolling in school in Chicago. She decided Annette was "too fancy" for the West Side, among so many Sadies, Bessies and Mollies. She attended Webster School, where she participated in the Campfire Girls and other extracurricular clubs, until Morris and Chana moved to Indiana for two years when she was about twelve.
In January 1930, friends and family gathered at Baron's Banquet Hall on Roosevelt Road to celebrate Jacob and Beila's fiftieth wedding anniversary. No one expected the announcement, soon after, that Jeanette and Nate intended to marry. After all, Nate was her father's brother. Morris and Chana were unhappy, to put it mildly, and when the word got out, the entire family was violently opposed to the idea.
But Nate and Jeanette were in love and determined to go forward with their plans. They had already consulted the family physician, since they were concerned about the possibility of genetic complications because of their relationship, and the doctor had given them his blessing. Besides, at twenty-six and twenty-two, they were old enough to make the decision without parental consent.
However, the State of Illinois would not recognize the marriage of an uncle and niece, regardless of their physician's opinion. Nate and Jeanette were not to be deterred and went to Valparaiso, Indiana where they were married in a civil ceremony on March 16, 1930. Later, Rabbi Benjamin Daskal of Congregation Rodfei Zedek, Where Morris was a member, agreed to perform a religious ceremony.
Their first home was at 45th and Drexel. At the time of their marriage, they were committed to having a kosher home. But Marvin, born in 1931, was a sickly baby and their physician, Carl Cohen, told Jeanette to feed him bacon. She was very conscientious when it came to caring for her children, and would have done whatever Dr. Cohen recommended. Even Beila seemed to concur, telling Nate, "Your son has to have meat on his bones!" That was the end of their kosher home. Danny, their second son, was born in 1933; a daughter, Bobette, did not arrive until 1945.
Nate proved to be a hard worker and a good provider. Like his brother, it was not uncommon for him to work seven days a week, from seven in the morning until nine or ten at night, with shorter hours only on weekends. His practice was to take over market and eventually turn it around by dint of long hours and hard work. At various times he had stores at 91st and commercial and 51st near Indiana, as well as at 35th and South Park.
Thanks to his strong work ethic, his family never went without, even during the Depression when many people were hungry or lost their home. Sometimes he returned home so exhausted that he carelessly traipsed sawdust from the store into Jeanette's clean house. On those occasions she never failed to let him know of her displeasure. But all he wanted to do when he got home was eat and go to sleep.
In the mid-1930s, Nate and Jeanette became the first in the family to buy a home of their own. They purchased the house at 5348 Drexel for $3450, with the help of an FHA loan, and sold it in 1951 for $17,000.
One of Marvin's longest lasting memories related to an incident that occurred when Jeanette took her children shopping at Herzog's on 55th Street. Her purchases totaled $45, which she planned to pay off at the rate of $5 per month. When Nate heard this, he became furious at the thought of buying his son's clothing on credit, insisting that she should never buy anything she could not pay for on the spot. It became an object lesson that Marvin never forgot.
Jacob and Beila lived with Jeanette in the house on Drexel for several years, during which the family always welcomed Shabbos by kindling candles and making a motzi over Jeanette's home baked challah. Although they observed Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, Nate seldom took time off from work, even for the holidays. In those days Jacob often davened (prayed) at the Mushkin shul at 53rd and Greenwood. Both Marvin and Danny remember being reared with a strong Jewish identity and positive Jewish experiences. Like most of their cousins, they attended cheder and each became bar mitzvah.
From the time Joe purchased their first automobile together in the 1920s, Nate always owned a car, but somehow automobile travel was never his forte. In the late thirties, with Jeanette, Marvin and Danny (Bobette was not born yet) in tow, he drove to Florida in his 1936 Plymouth. Max, who had bragged that he knew the to the Sunshine State, accompanied them. But family lore has it that every time Nate followed Max's directions, they got lost. On another excursion, Nate and Manny made the same trip, taking only Marvin this time. It was their misfortune to be pulled over for speeding while driving through Georgia. Later they told the story of how the local police officer and a justice of the peace, who seemed to materialize from thin air, held court at the side of the road, found them guilty, and collected a fine on the spot.
Family relationships were of utmost importance to Nate and Jeanette. Their home was a popular gathering place for the Lezak's, especially on Sundays when serious chess games, accompanied by lox and bagels, were the order of the day. It seemed that everyone in the family played chess, and a strong rivalry existed for years, particularly between Nate and Joe. Yet, despite having their share of disagreements agreements, the bond between the two was so strong there was never a permanent rift.
Marvin and Danny knew Yiddish to communicate comfortably with Jacob and Beila, and had many recollections of Jacob as warm and loving grandfather, in spite of his shtarker (tough guy) image. One very cold day, after returning home from ice skating on the Midway, Jacob taught them how to rub snow on their hands to prevent frostbite. Looking back as adults, they realized that although he wanted to be "grandfatherly," he came from a different time and place, and found et difficult to show his feelings.
Jacob was fiercely independent and worked as a shochet for Dubowski's at 55th and University until he was ninety-two. After he "retired," he developed a pattern of making the rounds of his sons' stores, asking them to give him something to do.
Jacob could be very demanding of all those around him. Pounding on the dining room table to let Jeanette know he was waiting to be served, or indicating by a wave of his hand that the salt and pepper shakers were in the wrong place on the table, were but two of the ways Jacob might convey his demands. More than once, he used his cane to bang on the ceiling of the basement apartment at Nate and Jeanette's home, for no apparent reason. "Why do you do that?" they would ask. "I want you should know I'm still alive," he replied.
During the last years of Beila's life, even when she showed evidence of senility, Jacob was caring and devoted to her. The marriage that had been arranged by the matchmaker of Belaya-Tserkov had lasted nearly sixty-five years. The first time Marvin ever saw his father cry was when Beila died in October 1944.
Bobette, who was born three months later, was named for Beila. With a roll of nickels between them, her big brothers waited impatiently beside the pay telephone in their home for news of her arrival so they could call to relay the news to the rest of the family. From then on, Bobette was known affectionately as "the nickel baby."
In 1948, on Jacob's 100th birthday, Marvin and Danny accompanied him to a neighborhood Sears store known for its contest to identify the oldest person in the store each day. Certain that they had a winner, the boys eagerly sought out the manager, who asked Jacob to verify his age. To the Boys' complete mortification, Jacob looked the manager in the eye and said, "Nu, what do you think? Do I look like I am one hundred?"
Until a short time before his death at 103, Jacob played a mean game of checkers with his grandchildren. during one of their last games together, while Danny's head was turned for a moment, Jacob began jumping checkers all over the board. "Zayde, what are you doing?" Danny asked. "This is the way we played in the old country," he answered.
In partnership with Jeanette's brother, Leonard, Nate established L & L Provisions at 2908 Cottage Grove in about 1950. Leonard knew the boning trade, while Nate knew how to successfully approach a bank for start-up money. With a loan of ten thousand dollars, they were on their way.
At about age five, Bobette had her tonsils removed. Following the surgery, Danny brought her a toy car that was operated by remote control and Aunt Pearl gave her a little tea set. she still remembers the gifts as "the best ever received by a five year old." Later, when she was old enough, Bobbie went to the L&L plant with her father, who had promised to pay her a quarter to add up columns of figures. She remembers how good she felt when her Uncle Leonard, having witnessed how hard she had worked, topped her father--and paid her fifty cents. She often played number games with Nate and Jeanette, competing to see who could add figures the fastest.
Jeanette, who claimed to have been attracted by Nate's outgoing, aggressive personality,tended to be passive, like Morris, and often found it difficult to make decisions. She was passionate, though, about the arts, especially ballet. (Her interest may have been genetic, since a first cousin of Chana's was said to have been music director of Russia's famous Bolshoi Ballet.) Consequently, she insisted that all three of her children study music and dancing, and she took them to performances at the theater and ballet. Bobette grew to love the arts as much as her mother did, but the boys hated every minute of their lesson, and today claim to exhibit no musical talent whatsoever.
Instead, both boys inherited their father's work ethic and held various jobs from the time they were very young through their years at Hyde Park High School. Marvin's first job, at the age of seven or eight, was as a "go-fer" in Uncle Manny's store at 43rd and Vincennes, where he worked for twenty-five cents an hour.
After a two-year stint in the army during the Korean conflict, Marvin returned to Purdue University to earn a degree in electrical engineering. In 1956, he took a job in California, where he met Sylvia Ring, a native of Oklahoma, and fell in love both with Sylvia and her three-year-old son, Brian. Following their marriage in 1968, Marvin adopted Brian. Their son Michael was born in 1969. Today, Marvin is in the real estate investment business in Los Angeles.
Danny's work experience in Nate's store at 35th and South Park, plus the positive influence on him of his father's accountant, motivated him to study accounting in college, first at the University of Illinois and then at Roosevelt University, where he received his degree. In 1956 he married Kay Cohen, and two years later they moved from Chicago to California, having decided there was no reason to wait for retirement before settling in a more pleasant climate than Chicago. Their sons, Jeffrey, Gary and Scott, were all born in California.
Nate experienced his first epileptic seizure in 1960 at the age of fifty-six. He was certain he was suffering from a terminal condition. Convinced that he could make a living anywhere, he sold his share of L&L Provisions to Leonard, sold their house, and moved with Jeanette and Bobette, who was then fifteen, to California to be closer to Marvin and Danny.
Danny and Kay were divorced in 1983. He and Cheryl Corol were married in Los Angeles in 1984 and have one son, Blake Nathaniel, born in 1986. Today, danny and Cheryl work together in the Lezak Group, a crisis management firm specializing in turning financially distressed companies into profitable enterprises.
Bobette's aptitude for numbers, surely inherited from Nate, led a twenty-five year career in banking. She now is a full-time homemaker living in Canoga Park, California, with her husband, Leon Cooper and daughter, Nicole. Bobbie and Leon met in 1981 on a blind date, and something about him immediately convinced her she had met him before. Suddenly she realized they had known one another in high school, twenty years earlier! They were married a year later. Leon, whose interests include skiing and tennis as well as radio-controlled airplanes, is a certified public accountant, currently a CFO in private industry. In addition to Nicole Joanne, named for Nate and Jeanette, their family includes Leon's sons, Jeremy and Adam.
Nate and Jeanette were diagnosed with cancer within six months of one another. She died in Los Angeles in 1982; Nate died on February 19, 1983, a year to the day that Jeanette was laid to rest.
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 loved 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 murder 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 lingered 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 violence 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.
Welcome Home and keep up the tradition!