He was eighteen when his family heard he would be drafted. Stuck in freezing barracks, getting up every day at the crack of dawn. Digging ditches, building roads? He was supposed to be playing the bugle; maybe he was. Most young men were in the Russian Army for a few years, but they kept Jews forever. How long would they keep him here?
In 1827, Czar Nicholas I decreed that Jewish boys between age 12 and 18 should be conscripted by the army, where they would be forced to serve 25 years. During this time they were also supposed to be converted to Christianity. Many boys did not survive the brutal conditions in the Siberian military camps and some Jewish families even cut off their sons’ index fingers so they could not fire bullets and would be exempt from service. Others tried bribery to get their children out.
My grandfather Josef was the youngest boy in his family and they scrimped and saved to smuggle him out of the country. Brothers, sisters, mother, father, who? I want to know but don’t. All I know is Josef’s last place of residence was somewhere called “Srezpe” in Russia. I don’t know how the money came or who got it—but somehow they were able to pay someone to spirit out their boy, from safe house to safe house, so he could get to Germany.
His ship was in Bremen. Called the Havel, it brought him to Ellis Island on the last day of June, 1897. He walked off the boat with five dollars in his pocket, maybe the bugle too. He was a Klezmer musician, playing weddings and other celebrations in his youth. Clarinet, clavinet? I have no idea. Dark hair, eyes, spectacles, looking more like a scholar than a musician. They paid him in whiskey, giving him a taste for it at an early age that led to addiction and early death.
He changed his name to Julius, perhaps to make it sound more American. And hearing about him now feels like he is reaching out his hand in the dark.
It was my sister who found him, the only passenger with our name on the Havel manifest. People used to ask me (and still do sometimes), “What kind of a name is Zark?” I usually smile and say, “My name.” They ask if it was shortened, changed from Zarkowitz, or Zarkofsky, or even Zarkh. But according to the records at Ellis Island, my grandfather’s name was simply Josef Zark.
I smile to think how his ship has the name of one of my favorite playwrights. My grandfather must have been in steerage, weaving and bobbing with the waves. Sickly? Strong? No idea. My parents were quite a bit older than me, so I never met my grandparents and heard only vague details of their lives. My grandfather walked off the boat and made his way, somehow, to Bayonne, New Jersey. He later met a young woman from Byelorussia, Esther Kaplan, with long red hair she could sit on and skin like a porcelain doll.
I am told that Julius had a grocery store and performed at various parties when he could find work. He and my grandmother had three sons—Sam and a set of twins named Max and Harry. Max was my father, and says he and Harry ran around like “wild animals.” At one point Julius made illegal whiskey on the roof, and my grandmother had to entertain the G-men while he tried to get rid of it. They found it though, and brought him to jail instead; but he had connections who got him home.
Josef/Julius, lucky Julius, where is your family now? I cannot think what must have happened to them, but believe they must have perished, either in pogroms or the Holocaust. Mother, father, sisters, brothers, cousins? Vanished now, like smoke.
I heard about my grandfather’s arrival in this country this week, when my sister called to share her findings on the Ellis Island website. We talked about him and I tried to visualize him, but the man I see in pictures is much older and I know he was still a teenager when he came over here.
Tonight I walked down the street crying, knowing I must be scaring children who would stop and stare. I was thinking of this young man, having no chance to say goodbye to his family, hiding in basements or attics and finally reaching the ship that would take him to safety. He would never see his family again. Did he write them? Did he dare?
In his play Angels in America, Tony Kushner talks about the great journeys taken by our ancestors from the Old World to the New, and how we will never make those journeys. When I saw the play I remember standing on a crowded line in the lobby at intermission and hearing someone say they were stuck on line. Then I heard someone else saying, “You’re only stuck if you have somewhere to go,” and the words have stayed with me.
My grandfather had somewhere to go.
Without his journey I would not be here, writing. My father would not have fought in World War II and come home to build a business in Jersey City. My son would not have grown up to be a singer and musician; my sister, with her sculptures and artist’s eye and my cousins would be gone too.
My dad used to tell me one story about my grandfather, over and over. “This is America!” he would say. “Everything will work out!” It always made me laugh but tonight, I thought about it in another way—because the journey to get here also cost my grandfather something. For the first time, I can begin to understand what it was.
If we ever met, I would call him Zayda, the Yiddish word for grandfather.
He didn’t know about us and will never know us. But I am sitting here with his name and my grandmother Esther’s hair color. I am looking at the green Minnesota parkland at the end of my street, pretending he is with me for a minute, on the road.
My son has some of your music inside him and maybe I do too, I say. And had you not risked your life to escape from the Tsar’s army and come to America, neither one of us would be here. I owe you everything and will never know you. But I feel your hand, Zayda. Reaching out for me in the dark.