Archives for category: family mysteries

 

AN UNLIKELY BROMANCE

 

For some reason, I’ve recently been pondering our relationship to politicians.  There can be surprises.  Consider Frank Rizzo, the mayor of Philadelphia from 1972-1980. During his term, he distinguished himself for brutishness. Describing how he intended to deal with opponents, he declared, on several occasions: “By comparison, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.” For reasons I never understood, my non-threatening, mild-mannered father adored this man.

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Before he was mayor, Frank Rizzo had served as police commissioner. His reign featured continual charges of police brutality. Admittedly, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were challenging times for big-city police. Potentially violent protests bubbled up from radical students as well as from organizations like the Black Panthers. To be fair, many credited Rizzo’s aggressive tactics with keeping a lid on several situations that could have spiraled into deadly riots. Even his opponents admitted as much, though they were grudging in expressing admiration, understandable from their perspectives on the receiving end of nightsticks.

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Considering my father’s clothing store was in a neighborhood conducive to trouble, I eventually comprehended why Frank Rizzo’s “law and order” platform appealed. But his manner was so repugnant! Opponents, including my siblings, referred to him as “Ratzo.” Yet, my father, in the face this scathing skepticism and derision, remained supportive.

 

*****

My father was an active member of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. This was a robust organization in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when the street featured over one hundred stores. By the late 1960’s, however, Marshall Street’s customer base had moved away and development of malls added another challenge. In a misguided effort to revitalize the old shopping area and its deteriorating neighborhood, Philadelphia bought out and razed half the stores with the stated intention of rebuilding them. Half the remaining stores were left empty. Unfortunately, the city’s “Redevelopment Authority” ran out of money before the “redevelopment” part occurred, leaving a skeletal streetscape like a depression-era movie. By then, my father was the only storeowner willing to act as “President.” As such, apparently, each year, commencing in 1972, he received a Christmas card at the store signed: “Mayor Frank Rizzo.”

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“Look what I have here,” proclaimed my father, proudly brandishing the card when he strode into the house after work. “It’s from Frank Rizzo himself.”

“He didn’t really sign it,” said my mother.

“I don’t think he knows how to write,” said my sister.

A teenager at the time, I found my father’s worshipful attitude oddly touching. I’d rarely seen him express affection for a public figure, even an entertainer, aside from Ed Sullivan. And I’d NEVER seen him express affection for a politician. Yet, here he was, wielding a Christmas card as though it were the sweetest thing he’d ever seen. I wanted him to be right. I wanted to believe the card was truly “personalized” but, after looking at the machine-like tone of the ink, I, too, concluded someone had stamped “Mayor Frank Rizzo” onto a standard mass-produced card. I remained silent.

Certainly, I thought, my father, a confirmed skeptic, would look at the card again and agree he was mistaken. He had to know the new mayor had more to do than individually sign hundreds of Christmas cards that were sent to every club and organization in the city. Shockingly, instead, my father doubled down on his faith.

“I’m sure he signed this himself,” he said, “and I want to send him a card back. Do we have any Christmas cards?”

“We have Hannukkah cards,” said my mother.

“Can we get a Christmas card?” he asked. By “we,” he clearly meant my mother.

“I’ll get you one tomorrow,” said my mother. Not generally given to blind obedience, she, too, seemed taken aback by his fervor, and, perhaps, a little touched.

 

*****

 

The receipt of the annual holiday card from Mayor Rizzo became something of a family joke. My mother, sister and I looked forward to making fun of it, but each year, we were a little more private about our scoffing, a little less likely to do it in front of my father. His earnestness was simply too sincere to mock — openly. So proud of his personal connection to Philadelphia’s most powerful man, my father would bring the card home and place it prominently on our fireplace mantle, front and center of any other cards.

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After the first year, my mother automatically presented my father with a card to send in response, without discussion. For the next seven years, as long as Frank Rizzo was mayor, she’d even address and stamp the envelopes, a task my father somehow handled at the store, but couldn’t manage at home.

“Should I sign ‘Lou’ or ‘Louis Sanders?” he would ask, each year.

We would stifle the roll-of-the-eyes reaction and urge to say: “It won’t make any difference. He won’t read it anyway.”

“Either way will be fine,” my mother would respond.

 

*****

 

 

As the 1970’s proceeded, Marshall Street, which barely survived, continued to deteriorate. Additional store closings and robberies sapped my father’s determination to remain open. After being pistol-whipped by a thug in 1979, my father reluctantly agreed to give up his business of over fifty years. But what about the building? My father listed it with a realtor for $50,000, but no one made an offer. Hardly anyone looked. It was in a worthless location.

 

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“Someone offered $2,000 today for the bricks,” he reported one evening, dejected, as we sat down to dinner.

“Why don’t you call the mayor?” said my mother. “His term ends in a week. It’s now or never for him to reward your loyalty.”

It was clear to me that her tone was ironic, but my father’s expression brightened.

“Do you have the number?” he asked.

Home for the holidays from law school at the time, it occurred to me I’d never seen my father dial the telephone at home. My mother found the number for the Mayor’s office in the phone book and wrote it down for him. He went into the adjacent kitchen where there was a phone. As he shut the door I heard him pronounce:

“This is Lou Sanders, President of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. Is the mayor in?”

My father’s discussion continued for several minutes though I couldn’t make out every word.

“Who could he be talking to?” I wondered aloud.

“Who knows?” said my mother. “I guess the mayor has employees.”

“Dad’s probably interrupted their card game,” I said.

“Good thing the Eagles aren’t playing now — they’d never have answered the phone,” said my mother.

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I heard the kitchen door open, and my father returned to the dining room.

“Well?” said my mother.

“Who did you talk to?” I asked.

“The mayor’s assistant,” said my father, casually. “Is the coffee hot?”

“And what did he say?” asked my mother.

“We’ll see,” said my father. “I told him to thank Mayor Rizzo for the Christmas card, and to wish him well in his retirement next week.”

“That’s all you discussed, for ten minutes?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” he repeated.

Coyness was not a personality trait I’d ever seen in my father. Clearly, he was not going to share any other details of his conversation. When he left the room several minutes later I said to my mother: “It’s kind of sad he’s willing to humiliate himself like that. I bet the mayor’s office had a good laugh.”

She nodded in agreement.

Imagine our surprise a week later when my father received a check in the amount of $48,000 from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. A short cover letter advised that the City had chosen to purchase my father’s building “in its ongoing campaign to accumulate valuable commercial properties.”

An unknown clerk had signed the letter, but a handwritten postscript appeared at the bottom, in blue ink: “Warmest regards, your friend, Frank.”

 

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RELATIVELY SPEAKING

 

 

The recent killings in Orlando, Dallas and elsewhere thrust madmen into our consciousness. Their insanity follows a string of similar outrages.   Despite wall-to-wall media coverage few of us can begin to fathom the mindsets of these murderers. The simpleminded among us, including a candidate for president, ascribe killings solely to religion. Like most religions, Islam can be interpreted to support murderous behavior. So can Christianity. Remember the Crusades? The solution, if there is one, continues to elude mankind. Yet, to focus on faith ignores the fact that Tim McVeigh (Oklahoma City) was not a Muslim. Neither was Lanza (Sandy Hook), Holmes (Aurora), the perpetrators of the “original” Columbine massacre, or the killer in Charleston, Dylan Roof.

 

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In America, the combination of easily obtained guns and twisted minds is closer to the common denominator. Many of our politicians flail in the face of NRA pressure. A sizable portion of the population finds the simple explanation for mindless slaughter (radical Islam) appealing. They buy guns in the hopes of keeping themselves safe, ignoring the FACT that they thus render themselves and their families more likely to experience suicide, manslaughter or murder as a result.

 

*****

 

I’m not aware of ever having interacted with a murderer. Studies indicate one in 1,360 Americans will participate in a murder, with higher concentrations in urban areas and lower in rural. (Google “How many Americans are murderers?” to review the literature). Statistically speaking, it’s likely I pass one or two every time I drive on the highway. Murderers don’t murder every moment. While this in no way excuses them, for most, their crime is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Whether their act reflects uncontrollable passion or requires months of preparation, it’s only a tiny portion of the totality of their lives. Criminals they may be, but they still stop at traffic signals, still purchase and eat food, still root for their local teams. At the other end of the spectrum are mass murderers and, on a larger scale, masterminds of ethnic cleansings, genocides, holocausts.

 

*****

 

In an NCIS episode I recently viewed, Tony, the goofiest of the agents, brags that an “Ancestry.com” search disclosed his “long lost relative, the 17th Earl of Trent,” a nineteenth century English nobleman. Tony declares to his co-workers:   “Not only was the Earl rich, but also a painting shows he was handsome.” Tony affects an English accent. Initially, Tony’s co-workers refer to him as “M’lord,” and he struts with characteristic pomposity.  Days later, however, Tony’s further research reveals that the Earl became a criminal. He died shamed and penniless after being linked to Jack the Ripper, a notorious serial murderer. Needless to say, Tony loses interest in genealogy.

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“Imagine if you had such a relative,” said my wife, Katie, after the program ended.

“Well,” I said, and paused for effect. “I can top that.”

“You can?” she said.

 

*****

 

Lazar Kaganovich was my father’s cousin, the son of his mother’s first cousin. The name may be unfamiliar to most readers, but cousin Lazar was Stalin’s right-hand man throughout the 1920’s and 30’s. More than any other Soviet official, he shaped the agricultural policies that effectively caused famine throughout Ukraine and neighboring Soviet republics. Tens of millions died as a result. Kaganovich clothed his intentions in virtuous language but extensive literature shows little doubt he intended to cull the population.

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Kaganovich was sufficiently cunning to survive the countless purges for whch Stalin was famous. In fact, Cousin Lazar lived well into his nineties, just months shy of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Throughout his life, Kaganovich remained an unapologetic champion of Stalin and his policies. While still a powerful member of the government after Stalin’s 1953 death, he engaged in shouting matches with Premier Khrushchev whom he thought too liberal. Just months before his death, he decried the weakness of Gorbachev and complained the Soviet Union lacked the will to crush dissenters.

How do I feel about my tenuous relation to a man who deserved to join Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot in the pantheon of twentieth century agents of death? Not good. It’s disturbing. I suspect my father felt that way, too, because he never mentioned his connection to Kaganovich in my presence. After my father’s death, I found a trove of newspaper articles he’d saved and confirmed the connection with older relatives who also had never spoken of it.

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*****

What would cousin Lazar think of modern suicide bombers? All evidence indicates he was a tough SOB, belligerent and merciless. But he definitely was not suicidal. His will to survive was his salient feature. Killers who see death as their own salvation would probably have disgusted him. Long-term programs, not spontaneous shooting, were Kaganovich’s specialty. The phrase: “Five Year Plan” was his contribution to twentieth-century history. Though the results of his collectivization schemes were disastrous (“Famine” is the word most connected to Lazar Kaganovich) his emphasis on central planning shaped all of Soviet history and still influences the ruling party in China.

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*****

 

I’m not concerned I contain an “inner Lazar” who is going to emerge. I confine maniacal ruthlessness to the tennis court. And my agricultural plans don’t extend beyond a modest backyard garden.

In case I haven’t been clear enough, NONE of Kaganovich’s horrors are excusable or laudable. But he is somehow easier to relate to, and not just because he is actually a relative of mine. He had a purpose. He persisted. He achieved a lot, all terrible.

My cousin raises huge questions. Was Kaganovich outside the realm of “normal” human experience or were his superhuman powers of perseverance and determination merely at the far end of a continuum? Was he insane in his tolerance of mass suffering or merely a master of organization gone awry? Are his descendants in any way implicated in his actions? Perhaps, if I had a PhD in psychology or sociology I could delve deeper into these questions, but I still would not find a definitive answer. The issue is too complex. As an obvious example, the debate on the issue of guilt among Germans, as individuals and as a society, continues seventy years after the end of the Nazi era.

To conclude, I can state that Kaganovich was a significant historical figure; he left an imprint on human history.  The modern mass killers, domestic and foreign, share the characteristic of being no-bodies – insignificant, contemptible scabs on the human experience.   There’s no honor in being related to Lazar Kaganovich. I merely observe that his evil has stood the test of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


MYSTERY FAMILY

When I was little, there were no photographs of my father’s relatives in our house. My mother’s “side” was the only one that existed. My three siblings, all more than a decade older than I, had experienced limited contact with my father’s family in the period that preceded me, but the flames of kinship were almost extinguished by my early childhood.   This pullback occurred even though my father’s family contained just as many aunts and uncles as my mother’s, and a full set of cousins, most of whose names I never learned.

To my recollection, my father, who died in 1994, never uttered a word about the subject. When I was four or six or eight-years-old, I took relationships for granted. I didn’t ponder the absence of my father’s family. From occasional remarks, the unanimous impression I gleaned from the rest of my immediate family was that I wasn’t missing anything by not meeting the other half of my relatives.

To my knowledge, my father and his siblings rarely spoke. I recently considered this subject, after five decades, when a wedding provoked the question of how the couple would divide holidays between their respective families. We’d never had that issue.

My father absolutely had a right to privacy. He may have had perfectly valid reasons for his silence. But I’m still entitled to wonder, at least: “What happened?”

*****

I knew this from overhearing conversations as a child: my father had been fond of his older brother, Nathan, who lived in New York City until his multi-pack-a-day smoking habit hastened his death. The habit persisted after a cancer diagnosis. My father was neutral about a younger brother, Harry, who lived above his own corner store in a rundown section of Philadelphia. And my father disliked a younger sister who lived in New York City. My mother sometimes referred to her as “Shitty Shelley.” This made an impression; my parents never swore.

I didn’t know many details about my New York cousins. But Uncle Harry’s daughter in Philadelphia had the unfortunate name of Rhea, a source of hilarity at every mention by my siblings, who couldn’t resist adding “Dia.” He also had a son who fled his non-religious upbringing to become an ultra-orthodox rabbi in Israel, where he fathered fourteen children. Unable to support his brood, for years he begged my father, his uncle, for money. I never saw the letters, nor did I know my father’s response to them. From time to time, I’d hear him tell my mother, “I got another letter from the lunatic in Israel.”

*****

On a culturally historic evening, the night when Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles on his variety show, I accompanied my parents on my only visit to Uncle Harry’s home. I would have been six or seven. After parking the car on a dark, dismal street, my father pounded on a door in an alley. I heard footsteps descend inside and the door creaked open. A bald man appeared who was so slight that my five-foot-seven father looked huge by comparison. Harry led us upstairs where we sat in a dim, cramped living room on plastic lawn furniture, and watched a tiny black-and-white television. I don’t recall what we ate but Uncle Harry and his wife, Celia, bustled around to try to make us comfortable. My father and uncle agreed the Beatles were “animals” and represented a threat to western society.

After the show, Celia took me downstairs to their store and handed me a pack of baseball cards from behind the counter. I opened them immediately. I couldn’t believe my luck. The first one was my favorite player, Ernie Banks. This act of generosity impressed me so much I recall it fifty years later, but I recall absolutely nothing else about my aunt, who I never saw again. My cousins were not present that evening.

*****

Then there was Aunt Shelley. One day, when I was a teenager, we received a family tree in the mail from a distant, unknown relative, with a request that my father complete our branch. My mother noticed that Shelley had listed 1911 as her year of birth.

“How can that be?” she asked my father when he came home. “You and Shelley aren’t twins, and you always said you were born in 1911?”

My father declined to respond, except to sigh: “Eccch, a business with Shelley.”

My mother dialed Shelley’s number for the first time in decades.

“Why did you say you were born in 1911?” she asked. “Aren’t you younger than Lou?”

Shelley rasped, with all the charm that may have inspired her nickname: “He’s a liar. He’s older than he told you.” With that, she hung up.

Confronted with this information, my father said: “1911, 1907, what difference does it make?”

*****

When my parents married in 1941, my father was likely over thirty and my mother had just turned nineteen. My mother didn’t learn for seven years that my father’s father was still alive and living nearby in Philadelphia. After she discovered this, my mother, who didn’t drive at the time, tracked him down and took my two oldest siblings, who were around three and five at the time, on a bus to visit. A grey-haired, brilliantly blue-eyed man opened the door then rushed to a closet in his tiny apartment and returned with a piece of candy for each grandchild.

My mother was shocked by her father-in-law’s terrible cough. Concerned the children had been exposed to tuberculosis, she insisted on taking him, by bus, to be checked at a hospital where they admitted him. He remained hospitalized for three weeks before dying from what the doctors concluded was a fungus, not TB. My father showed no emotion at the news.

*****

My father demonstrably loved his grandchildren and burst with pride at his own children’s accomplishments. He warmly welcomed a step-grandchild into the family. Friends and business associates found him engaging. So what happened with his family?

I can only speculate. The most plausible theory is that a rupture occurred when my father’s father came to America from Kiev before World War I. The plan was that he would quickly send the means for the rest of the family to follow.

Instead, nearly a decade passed before my father’s mother and the four children arrived. After several years in Cuba awaiting visas, they reached Philadelphia in the mid-1920s. My grandmother chose to live separately from her husband. My father lived with her until her death in the mid-1930s. Harry apparently lived with his father when he first arrived. Nathan and Shelley, in their late-teens or early twenties, settled in New York City.

Had my father’s father failed to provide as promised? If he did fail, was it his fault, or did World War I and the Russian revolution make it impossible? Did the siblings divide over their parents’ split?  Asked to explain, both before my time and in my presence, my father always declined. “It’s not important,” he said.

In the late 1960s, my father made a tape describing his emigration from Kiev. In it, he relates with gusto the time he slept in a safe house somewhere in Poland. Several ultra-Orthodox smugglers had charged a vast sum to shepherd my father’s family through the area. Feeling overcharged, my father awoke in the middle of the night, found a scissors, and cut off the forelocks of the sleeping men before fleeing. What priceless passive-aggression! I listened to the tape several times, smiling each time at the thought of the smugglers’ fury; he never mentions the roles of his other family members, though they must have taken part in the adventure. Why not?

I’ve fundamentally failed to solve the mystery.   When my son was born, it seemed natural to make “Nathan” his middle name, after my father’s favorite brother. Characteristically, when I told my father on the telephone, he didn’t react. I choose to believe he was pleased.