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


  1. Hi Bryna,
    This is really a fascinating story. I'm my family's historian too and have almost pulled my hair out with all the different spellings of names and places! After I finished interviewing my mother about her Holocaust experiences, I finally found a site that recounted the events in her town and found everything she said repeated verbatim by the other survivors, who had been adults at the time of the massacres during which she was a child.
    I have one question for you - what's with the "bar"shiva"bar" and "bar"kazatska"bar"? I don't get why the words are bracketed with the word "bar"?
    Thanks for this interesting blog entry!

  2. Hi Linda,

    That was code that I had originally used in Wordpress that apparently doesn't translate to Blogger. No matter how many different ways I try to use Blogger's italicize function, I keep getting error messages, so I finally had to take out the special formatting.

    Good catch,