December 13, 2007
Legends and lies
(Page 2 - Previous Page)The stories continue about how he walked from town to town, picking up odd jobs, eventually signing up as a coal miner in France. But instead of getting off the train as directed in the Saar, he bribed the conductor and stayed on until Paris. There, with the help of a small Jewish community, he became a tailor and supposedly solaced the countless French women widowed by the Great War. He talked fondly of this time when I taped him shortly before his death in 1980. My mother would not comment.
Was it Uncle Zalman, no longer fighting for the communists in the Ukraine but a bartender in South Philly, who wrote him to come to the "Goldene Medina," the golden land of America? Or was it on his own initiative he obtained a false passport, bribed a U.S. consulate official and instead of going to Philadelphia went to Brooklyn? There he became a peddler in the era of tough Jews, then an upholsterer and, finally, an interior decorator, furnishing the model apartments for developer Fred Trump -- yes, the father of the Donald.
So why is first cousin Alan a Cheuse, while I and most of my extended family are Kaplans? In his book, Alan writes that his father changed his name to Cheuse to throw off the KGB he thought was hunting him down after his plane crashed in the Sea of Japan and he deserted the Red air force, to later fly airmail for the Nationalist Chinese out of Shanghai. It is hard to make up these stories.
Or was it because Uncle Fishel hated his father, my paternal grandfather, for going to America after some pogrom or other and leaving behind the family, including himself and my father? While the brothers eventually made it to America, others did not, to die in World War II or to continue as what was described as the living dead in the ruins of Mother Russia. Bubbemeises?
"What is there to believe?" I ask my mother.
"You believe what you want to believe," she replies. "Some may be true, some not. What difference does make it now? You are who you are. Be happy. "
Call it Jewish history, or whatever, but when the museum opens, I hope someone endows a fact checker.
Sam Hall Kaplan, a former writer for The New York Times and former design critic for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of, among other books, "The Dream Deferred: People, Planning and Politics in Suburbia," and "L.A. Lost & Found."
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