Monday, December 22, 2008

Obsessed with the News

For the Holidays, some stories about my family. First, my paternal grandfather.

I am obsessed with the News. I got that from Grandpa.

Every morning I listen to the news. I read the newspaper on the train. I get a dozen Google news alerts every day in my e-mail. Am I obsessed with the news? Probably, but I have a good reason. My parents were daily news junkies. In my father’s case, his devotion to the news came from avoiding the mistakes of my grandfather, whose ignorance of world events led to the worst year of his life.

Grandpa started his life in the Ukraine more than a century ago; he trapped ermine so he could make enough money for the bribes and the one-way ticket out of Tsarist Russia. He was one of the fortunate few poor Jews who escaped the slaughter of a million Jews by the Cossacks in the 1890s. In America he met my grandmother Esther, and together they started both a fruit business and a family. By 1910 the business grew and Grandpa had dealers in Egypt, Palestine, and Southern Europe.

COSSACKS



In the spring of 1914, Grandpa decided to visit his business associates. He sailed to Europe in much better accommodations than he arrived in two decades before. Grandma was nervous about the trip. She would be raising six boys by herself while Grandpa sailed to Europe. The boy’s names showed how comfortable the couple had become in America. The oldest were named Abraham and Emmanuel. The next four were named Ralph, George, Lewis, and Harold.

While in Egypt, Grandpa decided to visit his old home near Odessa in the Ukraine. He arrived in August 1914, and, as usual, was not paying attention to the news. Shortly after he arrived, war was declared across Europe. The Jews in Russia who had survived the pogroms of the previous century were now drafted into the Russian army. Jews were not given any training as soldiers; they were simply dressed in Russian uniforms and sent into battle ahead of the “real” Russian soldiers to explode mines and make the Germans use up their ammunition.

With the help of some old family friends, Grandpa escaped, but not by sea. The only way he could get out of Russia was through Finland. He walked more than 1,000 miles north across Russia as winter fell on this most forbidding of countries. Months later he reached a bridge to Finland and crossed at night under a hail of machinegun fire. Many others died around him, but Grandpa reached Finland sick and freezing.

Back in Boston, Grandma had waited frantically for nearly a year before she got a terse telegram saying that her husband was alive and on his way back to America in a cargo ship. Grandpa lived 17 years after his escape from Russia until 1932. He never traveled again. My father and all my uncles became news junkies during the year Grandpa was missing and remained well informed on national and international events for the rest of their lives.

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