Thursday, December 17, 2009



Sunday, December 13, 2009


One day, while perusing the internet searching for a public domain map of Russia circa 1900 that I could use in this blog, I came across something different – an entire organization dedicated to the study of this war. Were it not for my grandfather, I would never have heard of this war (it certainly wasn’t in any of my history books), and even he said that few people knew about the battles (which was just as well for Russia’s reputation).

Just out of curiosity, I’m going to see if the history they’ve gathered lines up with my grandfather’s first-person accounts. I’ll also be interested in finding out about some of those individuals, such as Prince Mikhailoff, whom I haven’t found written about.

In the meantime, I'd like to welcome members of the Russo-Japanese War Research Society. I hope you will peruse this blog and contribute content. I have a few questions I’d like to ask, but also may be able to provide some answers from my grandfather’s record of the war.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Happy Chanukah!

The first day of Chanukah (to pronounce the 'ch' sound properly, imagine trying to bring up phlegm in your throat) is actually tomorrow, Dec. 12, however the first Night of Chanukah is tonight.

Celebrate with latkes (potato pancakes), jelly doughnuts, and any and all other fried items (to remind us of the oil, of which there had been only enough to last one day but that miraculously lasted eight days).

For an alternative interpretation of the holiday, see David Brooks' column in the New York Times.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Who Was Count Pototsky?

Now here's an example of how I tend to get distracted. It's a simple thing, really, that I could probably ignore but I'm curious. And I suspect that readers will also want to know what my grandfather meant when he said, upon meeting the legendary King of Thieves, "If you're a convict, I'm Count Pototzky.”

I can't find much about him that would explain my grandfather's curious retort. First of all, which Pototzky was he talking about -- Gregor, Felix, S.S., or Andreas, all of whom were Counts? Also, the name can be spelled 'Pototzky' or 'Pototsky' or completely differently. He must have been important in his time as many tours of Russian republics feature tours of his palace/museum, but none of which address who he was or why he was important.

I decided to focus on Andreas Pototzky, the Austrian Governor of Galicia, because he had lived at about the right time. This Pototzky apparently was an aristocratic pole hated by the peasants (though he probably wasn't unique in that way). He only appears in a New York Times article of Sept. 28, 1915 when the fugitive wanted in Austria for his assassination applied for political asylum in the U.S. The only seeming relevance of this crime is that it was committed for largely the same reasons that Crown Prince Ferdinand of Hungary (aka Archduke Ferdinand of Austria) was later assassinated, which led to the start of the first World War.

It's possible, however, that my grandfather had been referring to an earlier Count Pototsky, "an eighteenth century Polish nobleman who allegedly converted to Judaism in Amsterdam and was burned at the stake."

The bottom line is: I have no idea what my grandfather meant. Anyone with insight is invited to weigh in.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

The Samurai of Vishigrod, Part II

"But the other messenger, the only one who was trusted with money or with parcels of sufficient value to attract robbers, was Yonah, known even to our gentiles as "Yonah the Iron Man." Yonah, although already blessed with enough grandsons to make up a minyan in at least two synagogues, was, not to exaggerate, another Samson. Perhaps not quite as strong or as violent, but, on the other hand, also the last man in the world who would have let a Philistine wench lead him around by the hair?

"They used to tell how, one day, Eisenberg the lumber dealer sent Yonah to Warsaw with an astronomical amount of money to deposit into the bank there. Yonah tied on his two big bags of money with a rope and tucked his payess into his cap (after all, though he surely wasn't ashamed of his earlocks, why go out of your way to look for a fight with some ignorant peasant, when you were being paid to save your energies for quite another sort of trouble?), and, carrying the bag with his tallis and tefillin, two loaves of bread, and a dozen onions, set off on foot, armed with nothing but a stout stick.

"Anyway, while he was pacing along briskly through a dark forest in the middle of the night (sleep, of course, being out of the question), refreshing himself with a piece of bread and onion, and keeping himself company by reciting the Psalms in a voice as pure as thunder, he was halted by an armed robber. What we Americans would call a holdup man. Carrying an immense revolver that seemed to be fairly bursting with large lead bullets eager to be discharged, he told Yonah to hand over all the money he was carrying or else he would shoot him down on the spot, absolutely without mercy, like a dog.

"Fortunately for Yonah, the bandit was a Jew (for what other kind of bandit would even talk about such a thing as ‘mercy?’), so that it was possible to discuss the matter in a civilized way.

"Yonah explained that he was certainly ready to hand over the money. After all, it wasn't his own. But there was his reputation to consider. Knowing him as a fearless and powerful man, his em¬ployer surely would refuse to believe that Yonah would have given up such a sum of money without at least some signs of a struggle.

"What better way to prove that he'd been overpowered by a man with a gun than to be able to display an actual bullet hole in his coat? It was, after all, a small enough favor to ask for the sake of preserving one's reputation as an honest man.

"The bandit, being, as I said, Jewish, understood Yonah's predicament perfectly and sent a large, well-aimed bullet through Yonah's coattail, which was accommodatingly open.

"You know the outcome. Jewish bandits in Poland didn't have six-shooters. The demonstration bullet had emptied the gun. At which point, Yonah felt it safe to deal the foolish bandit a small tap—which left him lying unconscious with a generously bleeding nose.

"So Yonah continued on his way, loudly resuming his recital of Psalms where he'd left off, while the poor bandit, once he recovered consciousness, yelled after him in deep reproach that he never would have believed a God-fearing man capable of playing such a low trick on a fellow Jew. (And, though I now suspect that the whole story is pure legend, this was at least the sort of thing they told about him. What I mean is, true or not, do they tell such stories about you?)

"Of course, all this is merely to set the stage, as it were, for the story I meant to tell.

"In our neighboring town of Bazenova, a rumor had gone around that on the coming market day "a little pogrom" was going to take place. I don't know how it was where you came from, but in our part of Poland, all rumors had one characteristic in common: the bad ones were never false.

"Now by a "little pogrom" I take it that they meant it was to be essentially a civilian undertaking, without cavalry support or firearms, or that sort of thing. Still, for a stallkeeper, with only a basket of eggs standing between him and total starvation, even an infinitesimal pogrom was a thing, given a choice, one would prefer to do without. No such choice being available, a delegation was dispatched hastily to our Rabbi with a plea for help. That is to say, a plea for Yonah.

"Now on market days, even in the best of times, the hordes of peasants let loose in Bazenova were something of a hazard. And not only did the people of Bazenova have no one fit to mention in the same breath with our Yonah (while we in Vishogrod actually were blessed with a number of other good Jewish ruffians as well), but their entire police force consisted of two men, the younger of whom would never see seventy again, while the other, when he had to go up one step to enter a store for the policeman's customary reason the world over (that is, with his hand open in front of him), a kindly passerby would have to seize his elbow and give him a little boost. Upon the shoulders of these two ferocious guardians of the law rested the protection of Bazenova's Jews against a mob of drunken, bloodthirsty peasants.

"On the other hand, it must be admitted that Bazenova's Jews never dreamt of protesting this situation, as it is a well-known fact that the older and feebler a policeman gets, the less energy he has left over for hitting Jews.

"So our Rabbi ordered that, under Yonah's leadership, a dozen of our "men of valor" were to drive out Tuesday morning and lend the benefit of their experience to Bazenova's embattled Jews. (In later years, when my wanderings took me to Japan, I found that this sort of arrangement used to be traditional there, too, although the defenders they used, called samurai, got paid for fighting. I never could understand why, since the Japanese villagers were not Jews, anyone should want to attack them.)

"So on Monday night, the eve of market day, Yonah and his men set out, with God's help and the Rabbi's blessings, in two wagons drawn by teams of horses furnished by our town's richest Jews. As people in those days were usually too poor to own rifles or machine guns, their entire arsenal consisted of stones, clubs, and fists.

"If I go into such detail over an incident at which, as far as can remember, I was not even present, it is perhaps to explain by, much as I loved my father, the person I most aspired to resemble when I grew up was Yonah, our "Samurai of Vishogrod."

"The men stopped overnight at a very decent inn on the outskirts Bazenova, and on Tuesday morning, Yonah and his band, after putting away a respectable breakfast of roast duckling and plum brandy, betook themselves, glowing with good humor, to the Market Square, looking to all the world like jolly merchants out for a nice bargain on a horse or a bushel of potatoes.

"The market was already crowded with peasants, and every-with the possible exception of the policemen, could sense that something was in the wind.

"Yonah sized up the situation in a moment. Like a good general, he divided up his little army into four companies, so that they could never all be surrounded at the same time, for the techniques of street fighting in those days were already beginning to outgrow the primitive methods of an earlier age.

"Yonah himself set up his command post in the attic of Shmuel the scribe. From here he was able to survey the entire square and gauge the exact moment at which an accumulation of "normal" incidents would flare up into a concerted, if still reasonably small, pogrom. As a strategist, he knew the importance of not putting your cards on the table too early.

"Here and there, little incidents had already begun to erupt. Some loaves of bread snatched from a baker. A basket of eggs robbed from Sheindel the midwife. In the widow Yetta's little store, some peasants broke the windows and emptied a sack of flour. When she protested, they beat her and told her that today they meant to finish off every Jew in town and take over their property, because the priest had told them Sunday morning that everything the Jews owned had been stolen from the peasants, anyway.

"Thus far, as you can sec, everything was quite normal, and someone less shrewd than Yonah might have suspected the whole thing had been a false alarm. But he knew from experience that a Polish peasant, unlike, say, a Ukrainian, has to work himself up to a real pogrom by gradual stages. And so, after listening cold-bloodedly to the dispatches coming in all morning, it took a little while before he decided finally that the time had come for his men to go back to the wagons and, in a manner of speaking, arm themselves. Favored by nearly all of them were clubs of plum-wood, hard as iron.

"However, since it was close to lunchtime now, and there was no telling how soon they would get to eat, they digressed long enough to take aboard another round of schnapps. Following this, with the cry, "Jews, for kiddush ha-shemn!" Yonah committed his little army.

"By this time, the pogrom had erupted in earnest. Goods were being looted by the armful, and even failure to protest didn't save stallkeepers, women and children included, from being beaten right and left. The noise was fantastic and the entire market boiled with flailing arms and clubs, collapsing stands and flying things, from bloody feathers to paving blocks.

"It took Yonah and his four companies some time to fight their way into the eye of the storm. By this time, the peasants had been gripped by the excitement of the thing, and their leaders were no longer bent so much on plunder as on the pure joy of bloodshed.

"Yonah himself had entered the market barehanded. Up till now, in fact, he had even retained his customary air of calm good humor. Until he saw one of his men go down with a spurting head, struck from behind by a paving stone. At this, he leaped up at an approaching wagon whose peasant driver had been running cheerfully over a row of stalls. He seized the peasant by the throat and flung him into the crowd. Then, with a voice like thunder, he identified himself as Yonah the messenger from Vishogrod, and warned the peasants to clear out at once.

"Those who knew him or had heard of his reputation instantly took their legs on their shoulders and fled, but the majority simply laughed at him.

"Yonah, still determined to give them one more chance (since by our law, even the owner of a rampaging ox is entitled to one warning), jumped down, tore the back wheels off the wagon, and lifted up the axle. However, those peasants who had remained were, by this time, far too flushed with vodka and thirst for blood to be impressed even by this performance. And so he began laying about him with the axle of the wagon. His little army, heart¬ened by his example, contributed their own modest share in his wake.

"Within a few minutes, the Market Square was a wilderness.

"Some of the peasants who were still on their feet escaped in such haste that they left horses, wagons, and even livestock behind them.

"By midafternoon, the Bazenova "hospital," that is, the Russian doctor's barn, overflowed with casualties. There were countless fractures, but no dead, as Jews, I may have mentioned earlier, are children of mercy. The defenders, too, carried back their share of wounds, both major and minor, but all agreed that the whole expedition had been very worthwhile.

"And who, by the way, do you suppose turned out to have been one of the first casualties? It was the younger of the two ancient gendarmes, who had stopped half a brick with the back of his head while running away.

"That was not quite the end of it. A few weeks later, an investigating commission arrived from the office of the provincial governor. Yonah, his fellow "samurais," and several dozen peasants were placed under arrest, on some trumped-up charge like disturbing the peace or "causing willful and malicious damage to cattle, property, and subjects of the Czar."

"But they were never brought to trial. The peasants were far too frightened for their lives to testify against Yonah. He, for his part, pressed no charges; he probably felt that they had already been punished adequately, and besides, the only pogroms in which the governor could be expected to take a meaningful interest were those which he had incited, himself.

"But for as long as I can remember after that, not even a very small pogrom ever took place again in Bazenova. The peasants must have passed on to their children and even their children's children the wisdom of not starting up with such a barbaric people as the Jews."

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Samurai of Vishigrod, and The Very Small Pogrom

One of the challenges of editing the diaries is deciding what to omit so that the book can be of an appropriate length. As I've decided to focus the story line on the many occasions on which my grandfather got into trouble and/or sentenced to death, that leaves several chapters/stories that I will not be able to use in the book but have other value of their own, so I have decided to include in this blog certain stories that won't make it into the published version of the book.

Below is one chapter that gives a feeling of what it was like to grow up in the (largely Jewish?) town of Vishigrod, Poland during the 1890s. The story is probably a little long for the blog, which should feature much shorter entries than I have been providing, so I will break it up into two entries:

"One of the legendary heroes of my childhood was Yonah the messenger. At that time, he was already in his sixties, yet a man of such vigor still that I can hardly begin to picture what he must have been like in his youth. "Being a hero, at least in our corner of the world, was not exactly a full-time job nor, even on a part-time basis, a profession on which a man could feed his family. And so, in his everyday existence, Yonah was simply a part of our "postal service," which, in its own way, was as curious a feature of life in Vishogrod as the man himself.

"For ordinary mail we had an ordinary letter carrier, a man named Yudel, who could neither read nor write, and therefore cruel tongues, quite overlooking his more serious infirmities, called him "Blind Yudel." But we also had two special messengers available for the delivery of telegrams, money, or urgent communications which, you will be surprised to know, often happened more than once a year.

"Of course, even the regular mailman came so rarely that one day, when my brother Avrohom and I were locked in alone in the house and heard a sharp knock on the door, we crawled under the covers in terror and, unaccustomed to the sudden warmth, fell asleep.

"The next day, in case evil spirits should come knocking again, our mother stayed home with us, keeping warm by sitting huddled over a bucket of live coals between her feet and looking, may she forgive me, less like a mother than like a pile of rags.

"Sure enough, in the midst of howling winds, there was that knocking again, only embellished this time with a dry, ghostly cough.

"My mother shrank with fear, and my brother and I covered our heads with the blanket. Only Itteleh, the butcher's wife, who was visiting with us, held on to her wits. She picked up a cleaver, went to the door, and screamed, "Demon! Unclean Spirit! Back to your resting place!" (As you can see, in Vishogrod we knew how to deal with the Powers of Darkness.)

"Only this time, a plaintive voice outside replied, "I'm Yudel the postman. Let me in, I'm freezing."

"As it turned out, the letter he'd been trying to deliver to us for the past week was actually for someone else. But no one, of course, held that against him—an illiterate Jew, after all, being as uncommon and as deserving of pity as any other kind of cripple.

"Yudel got no salary from the government. Recipients paid him two kopeks for a postcard and three for a sealed letter, and sometimes even four, if it came all the way from Warsaw. A letter from Warsaw normally took several weeks, during which time Ignatz, the Pole who drove the postal wagon with its two dying horses, plodded staunchly through oceans of mud and somehow crossed rivers largely lacking in of such conveniences as bridges or ferries. Thus, who could blame Ignatz if sometimes he decided to make a little stop for recuperation at a wayside inn, empty a bottle or two, dally with one of his mistresses, and, as often as not, return to Warsaw without delivering the mail because he'd forgotten in which direction he was headed?

"Anyway, when God helped and the mail finally did arrive, Reb Yudel would put on his uniform, consisting of a shapeless cap with a green band, proudly pin his father's medal (from the Russo-Turkish War) over his breast, and commence to march (that is, marching with one foot and dragging the other) down the main street with an air befitting a man who was, for the moment, not only an arm of the government, but also entitled to the respect due the son of a decorated soldier; for Vishogrod, like any other little Jewish town, not only had its share of otherworldly talmudists and starving merchants, but its heroes as well. About one of whom, I will have more to say in a moment.

"Now since Yudel, through no fault of his own, almost invariably misdelivered the mail, some well-meaning people suggested that my father, who was at that time without employment, and not only could read and write Yiddish and Hebrew but also knew Polish, Russian, and a bit of German, should become the town's letter carrier.

"Others, however, quickly pointed out that the job had not only been in Yudel's family for generations, but why should he be penalized for the undeserved misfortune of being illiterate?

"The question actually was academic, because my father would never have violated the biblical command against trespassing on another's territory for any amount of money. He was, in fact, far too proud a man to have accepted such a menial position for pay; nor would my mother have wanted him to. (When there was no hot food in the house for Shabbos, and we seemed in imminent danger of having one of our neighbors share their meal with us, my mother would leave a large pot of water boiling in the kitchen Friday afternoon, so that no passerby, God forbid, might suspect the Maratecks were going hungry.)

"But what was to be done? People did like to get their own mail, even though, more often than not, it was bound to contain only more bad news. Didn't a letter go through enough suffering and uncertainty before it reached town without also being abandoned to the incompetence of Blind Yudel?

"But leave it to Jews to find a solution. A clearinghouse was established in the synagogue and, by common agreement, whenever anyone received a letter addressed to someone else, instead of returning it to the uncertain fate of Reb Yudel's dubious mail pouch and perhaps hurting his feelings besides, he would bring it with him to evening prayers and place it on the pulpit. Any time a few letters accumulated, my father would mount the pulpit after the final kaddish and read off the correct names. This satisfied all factions, although of course it overlooked the fact that this brought my father not one kopek closer to making a living.

"But what about telegrams, packages, rabbinical documents, or letters with money inside? For this responsible job we had, as I said, not merely one messenger available, but two.

"The lower-grade "special deliveries" were made by Moishka, a little man with a scraggly, sulfurous beard and, between us, a man of middling intelligence, that is, neither a great genius nor a small fool. (They tell that once he was sent with an urgent letter from Vishogrod to Novydvar, an all-night journey, and he came back with the letter undelivered because the man to whom it had been addressed was still sleeping when he arrived.)

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Monday, November 30, 2009

A Relative of the Czar Saves My Grandfather's Life

When I was in Russia this past summer, I asked people whether Czar Nicholas II (he of Nicholas & Alexandra fame, or infamy) had a cousin or relative named Mikhailoff and was told that he did. But for some reason, I can find no references to him in history, only in my grandfather's diaries (in which he plays an important role). And Prince Mikhailoff is the historical figure I'm most interested in learning about.

I recall hearing my father say that some names had been changed (from the original ones in the diaries) to protect the innocent (and in some cases, the guilty), and wondered whether this might one of those instances, though I can't imagine why. When you read how he saved my grandfather, below, you'll understand why I find him so intriguing:

“Captain Mikhailoff, it turned out, appeared genuinely glad of an opportunity to repay Mordechai's many favors” and assured him that “I had nothing to worry about, nor would I need to incur the expense of a lawyer, for he himself would defend me in person.”

“I naturally had no way of knowing whether he actually understood the nature of the crime with which I had been charged, or what kind of legal training qualified him to defend a soldier in a court-martial. But it did me no good whatever to suggest to Mordechai that, since it was my life, or at least my future for the next twenty or thirty years, which was going to be determined by this military court, perhaps I would be better off with a professional lawyer.

“After all, as my brother pointed out, who was I to say no to a blood relative of the Czar?

“But the day of the trial arrived and I still had not so much as set eyes upon my ‘defense attorney.’ The devil only knew how he intended to present my side of the case… Mordechai, in between biting his lips… conceded that there were some grounds for uneasiness only when the trial actually had begun and there was still no sign of Mikhailoff. All Mordechai could say to reassure me was that he'd probably been drunk the night before and overslept.

“The prosecutor painted our little brawl as an outrage committed by me alone, an act of unprovoked savagery and insubordination which, unless punished so severely as to set an example even for future generations, surely, would lead to a speedy and total breakdown of all military discipline and hence, inevitably, to the dreaded revolution - - a word which, in those days, was an almost automatic invitation to a death sentence.

“I could see right off that the judge was not exactly in my corner. Any minute now I would be called upon to speak in my own defense. And what could I talk about? “Jewish honor?”

“…I could already see myself blindfolded and tied to the stake, Especially since my aristocratic defender, who finally had strolled in and taken his seat, one hand vainly attempting to comfort a throbbing brow, listened to the prosecutor like a man who couldn't wait to put this tedious performance behind him and get back to bed…

“But first the aggrieved sergeant himself took the stand, bearing his scars as officiously as though they were battle wounds. He delivered a good strong recitation on how I had attacked him, totally without provocation, in what he could only assume to be a Polack Jew's typical frenzy of rebellion against good Russian discipline.

“With each minute he spent talking, I could almost see the judge adding another soldier to the firing squad. But what offended me above all was to hear no objection from the judge when my opponent referred to me once again as “Jewface.”

“At this point, Mikhailoff, who until now had maintained a morose, hung-over, rather self-pitying silence, rose to my defense. Once he had found his feet, he straightened his body with remarkable steadiness. But to my horror, he did not seem quite certain who in the room was the defendant. Nor, once he had found me, in belated response to Mordechai's frantic wagging of his chin, did he pay the slightest attention to any of the charges laid against me. Instead, he launched into an impassioned attack on those non­coms who, by their unrestrained brutality and total disrespect for the proud traditions of the Imperial Army, had already turned Heaven-only-knew how many innocent and patriotic recruits into embittered revolutionaries against his relative, the holy Czar.

“…There was simply no stopping the man and, to my surprise, although my defender was plainly the sort of man who had more growing under his nose than inside his head, I saw the judge repeatedly nodding his respectful agreement…

“Only when he had at last finished delivering himself of his heartfelt harangue and seemed almost ready to sit down again, did he briefly take note of what he labeled “the so-called defendant.” True, he conceded, perhaps a more experienced soldier might have tried to moderate his righteous anger. But what I had done was, after all, so patently an attempt only to defend the honor and security of his relative, the Czar, Captain Mikhailoff simply failed to comprehend why it was me and not the other man who was on trial here.

“Much as I wanted to agree with my defender, even I had to admit that his argument lacked logic, not to mention common sense.

“But the judge, to my astonishment, showed himself to be totally persuaded by this line of reasoning. While I was let off with only the most gentle of reprimands, Pyotr, my opponent, who hadn't been accused of anything, suddenly found himself reduced in rank…”

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Monday, November 23, 2009

The First Death Sentence

What has always been intriguing about my grandfather (known as “Yacub”or “Jacob” Marateck) was that he'd been sentenced to death four times, and each time something approaching a miracle saved him. He was also twice reported to his parents as dead. (His poor parents sat shiva for him several times.) And in Russia where, even in recent history, people were arrested, tried and convicted (without much time transpiring or difference between steps 2 & 3), and quickly executed, it’s especially remarkable that he escaped.

During the same period of time that he was repeatedly scheduled to be executed, he also received medals for his valor in war, as well as (again, the way I heard it) for dancing the kazatzka on horseback. Kind of makes it sound as if Czar Nicholas II had been schizophrenic, as well as completely disconnected from reality (widespread famine throughout Russia, as well as underestimating the military capabilities of the Japanese).

The first death sentence came as a result of getting into a fight with a higher ranked officer.

It started over a kettle of hot water for tea, but escalated not when the officer knocked him down, but when he referred to my grandfather using an ethnic slur, Zhydovska morda* and Jewface. Apparently those were fighting words.

As my grandfather wrote, "without thinking, ... I snatched up the full kettle and walloped him once across the head, and, while I was at it, also allowed my fist to find a resting-place on his broad nose. In the commotion that followed, with plenty of warm encouragement for both sides, he ended up on the bottom and I on top, while the blood from our mouths and noses mingled fraternally on the floor." This was the type of offense that earned a sentence of death by firing squad.

At two o'clock in the morning on the day following the fight, my grandfather's brother, Mordechai, who figures prominently in the role of his savior throughout the diaries, found him in the hospital.

"But when he found out I had committed violence against a Russian of superior rank, Mordechai, in his loving anxiety over my ignorance and dimming prospects for survival, started to shout at me that unless I learned to control my “Polack temper” I would spend my army years going from one prison to another until I forgot what a Jew was."

Mordechai was not as hot-headed as his younger brother, and having risen to the rank of Quartermaster in the Russian army, had some powerful friends, one of whom played a role in getting my grandfather's sentence commuted. That will be the subject of the next post.

*I couldn't find a literal translation but 'morda' refers to the visage of an animal

Thursday, November 19, 2009


A little bit about where my grandfather came from: He was born in Russian-occupied Poland in 1893 in a town called Vishigrod (hence the title of the first book of memoirs, The Samurai of Vishigrod), aka Wyszogród. (On the map, above --you'll probably have to enlarge it to see it--Wyszogród is just below a dip in the 107, just above the Vistula river, northwest of Warsaw, on the left-hand side of the map). I had never thought to look for it, but a friend did, and he told me that there was a website devoted to Vishigrod, specifically to Jewish Vishigrod and Polish Jews who died in the Holocaust. (Wikipedia also links to a Wyszogród website but it’s entirely in Polish). The link is to only one of many pages assembled, I have to assume, over many, many years, with undying devotion by Ada Holzman, a descendant of Polish Jews, to remember the Jewish communities of Poland that were largely destroyed. 

It is also a site at which people can search for information about their Polish ancestors. I had always heard that we (Jews) couldn’t trace our history further back than 3 generations ago (great-grandparents) as so many official records from Eastern Europe were destroyed during World War II. But (‘zchor’ is the transliteration of the Hebrew word, ‘Remember’) links to various sites that assist in that search, such as the Jewish genealogy website. For some reason (even using Soundex to see if the surnames had been spelled differently), that I haven’t found any of my relatives in their database, nor in the Database of Unclaimed Swiss Bank Accounts and Other Holocaust Era Assets (I would never have thought to look, but the link was right there… I guess neither side of my family, which lost relatives in the Holocaust, had ever had anything worth stealing or hiding.)

While the above sites can give you facts about Wyszogród and its inhabitants, you can pick up some of the local ‘color’ of the town from the title story in my grandfather’s memoirs, entitled, The Samurai of Vishigrod and the Very Small Pogrom. It is posted on Ada Holzman's website,

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Monday, November 16, 2009

When 'History' and Eye-Witness Accounts Conflict

I had read about the Japanese sneak attack on Port Arthur in Manchuria that provided the excuse to launch the Russo-Japanese War, so I wasn’t surprised to see it described in the notebooks. But my grandfather also served under one of the key perpetrators of Russia’s defeat in the Battle of Mukden, one of the most critical battles of the war. This was none other than Alexi Kuropatkin, Russia’s Minister of War, whom Wikipedia says was held responsible for the disastrous decision described below by my grandfather.

"Toward dawn, a messenger from headquarters came riding up. We had been ordered to stop and make a stand.

"Our company commander was justly furious. Here the terrain was flat and almost indefensible. The ground was also icy and rocky. It was impossible for us to dig trenches. We had passed up far better positions to which it was now too late to return. But headquarters was adamant. The enemy was advancing too quickly. Time had to be gained to reinforce Mukden.

"Our commander ordered us to build ramparts out of frozen corpses, the only material that was in abundant supply…"

This was “one of the largest land battles to be fought before World War I,” according to Wikipedia, and in which Russia lost about one-quarter of its soldiers (Japan lost marginally fewer men), which is described in painful clarity:

"…With the first beams of sunlight, hordes of Japanese had risen out of the earth and, like a tidal wave, came rolling steadily toward us, accompanied by queer blasts on a bugle and a roar of voices raised in a single word, “Banzai!”

"Our company disintegrated before my eyes. We turned and ran, stumbling heedlessly over dead and wounded alike. Far behind us, from time to time, we heard a hideous shriek, which I assumed to be one of our wounded being sliced to death.

"I hadn’t yet forgotten our commander who, after a furious, pistol-waving attempt to rally us, was now running as fast as any man in the company. I had trouble catching up to him until suddenly he staggered. A bullet had tom his neck. He tried to keep running, which was a mistake, because he ran right into an explosion which tore off part of his leg."

And every once in a while I discover a contradiction with recorded history. In The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russias, W Bruce Lincoln writes, The “Trans-Siberian Railway remained bisected by Lake Baikal , some 13,000 sq miles of water. …To save the expense of building the especially costly stretch of tracks around the lake’s southern tip, its planners had decided to ferry freight and passengers across it.”

In contrast, this is my grandfather talking about traveling by train from St. Petersburg through Siberia, to Manchuria, some 6000 miles away. This involved crossing Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world (said to contain one-quarter of all the fresh water on earth (, during the brutal Russian winter.

"The train had to cross Lake Baikal on rails laid over the ice, which at times suddenly cracked open into yawning rifts and crevices. To keep the cars from being too heavy, the officers were taken across by horse-drawn sledges, and the rest of us walked, our rifles with their eternally fixed bayonets resting on one shoulder. Forty miles across the windswept ice, with only brief pauses for hot soup from our mobile kitchens. By morning it turned out that a number of men had disappeared, probably drowned, and many more suffered from frostbite."

I don’t know why I continue to be surprised to discover that people and places that my grandfather referenced in his diaries were real people who actually existed. But each time I come across a new name, I feel a need to look it up, which is part of why this process is taking so long.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Waiting to be Discovered

I consider myself an “as yet undiscovered writer,” having worked for several years on a second novel (the first having been represented by a “hot” agent though not sold for publication). I’d also written short stories and essays that I only passively marketed, because “selling” is completely different than “writing,” and I found it difficult to do both at the same time.
But if I was going to drop everything in order to prepare my grandfather’s diaries for publication, I was determined to do it properly. Which I quickly determined had to be done by self-publishing, for several reasons:
1) I’d already pursued the route of seeking an agent for the diaries and had gotten responses like, “It’s hard to sell a memoir of someone who’s dead”. I had also had the experience of seeking an agent for my fiction with all of its frustrations and false elation.
2) The publishing industry is currently undergoing a dramatic change due to the recession; editors are getting laid off at every publishing house, and no one is buying manuscripts. I firmly believe that the industry that will eventually emerge will be completely different from how we think of it today. In particular, I expect publishers to become, almost exclusively, distributors, which is something they do well.
3) And finally, the length of time it takes for a ‘traditionally’ published book to come out might not coincide with my time-dependent timeline.
But self-publishing has an aura of Vanity press about it, and that’s not what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure how to go about what I did want to do. Fortunately, I found a Self-Publishing conference in San Francisco, which took place this summer (put on by InStock, to give credit where it’s due) and it was extremely helpful, laying out the steps I need to follow, as well as the timeline, in order to be successful with my project. And the first step is creating a blog, which I could/should have done two months ago. But I knew that once I started I’d be obligated to continue. It also took me a while to come up with the title for the blog. I probably should have spent less time worrying about those things than about understanding the technical issues of how to set up a blog, such as how to insert links, files and counters, which have taken up too much of my time. I suspect I’ll still be figuring out those things for quite a while.

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Monday, November 9, 2009

Somehow, I always knew that I would inherit this project and become responsible for getting my grandfather, Jacob Marateck’s, diaries published.

There was no reason I should have thought so when my father, Shimon Wincelberg, a Hollywood writer, had been editing and preparing for publication my grandfather’s stories of his ‘adventures’ during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). In fact, in 1976 he and my mother published the stories from the first 16 of my grandfather’s 28 handwritten notebooks as The Samurai of Vishigrod. Then my father set to work on editing the remaining stories.

While I wouldn’t say the process was jinxed, the fact is that a lot of people died while waiting to see it completed.

First, it was my grandfather. Although he survived starvation, exposure, prison, and four death sentences by firing squad (from each of which he was miraculously reprieved), he died the very day he and my mother were to begin editing the notebooks.

Then it became my grandmother (and namesake’s) dying wish that my father, her then-future son-in-law, see to the stories’ publication.

For the last ten years of my father’s life, he was unable focus on publication though he had finished editing the later notebook. (In reality, he was still ‘tinkering’ with them, unable to let go of what had engaged him for fifty years). And before he died, my mother guaranteed that she would see to their publication.

I should probably have jumped in at that point and taken responsibility for the process, not only as a writer but as someone with business experience. But I had been focused on my own writing, which I considered a higher priority. It was only when my mother, at the age of 82, expressed her wish to see the stories shared during her lifetime that I made the commitment to drop (almost) everything else and focus on the notebooks.

For the past six months, I have been editing my grandfather’s stories along a specific story line. What I have found so remarkable is not only learning about him (as a Jew in the Russian army, the men under his command often wanted to kill him as much as the enemy did) but the humor with which he told often horrific tales of poverty, starvation and the brutality (as well as absurdity) of war. And through it all, his incredible warmth comes through in ways that make me regret even more that I never met him.

For example, here's what my grandfather says about going, at the age of 13, with his father to the magistrate of their village to obtain permission to travel:

“My father, as somber as the day he would see me off to war, took my hand. And never before or since did I love him so desperately as I did on that day.”

This is what my family, for generations, has wanted to share, the life of a man who saw humor in adversity and his intense love for his family and friends. It will also be a process of discovering what it’s like to take on a project in which personal and world history merge.

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