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…”

hit counter code

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,

hit counter code

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.

hit counter code

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.

Blog directory

hit counter code