Belarus is a small country between Russia and Poland, which is a terrible idea. 90’s nostalgia seems to be all the rage, so I’ll use a trendy metaphor: Russia is OJ, Poland is his wife, and Belarus is the waiter. Waiter didn’t have to die, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Being in between Russia and Poland is the wrong place, and it has been the wrong time for over two hundred years.
In 1795 Belarus became part of the Russian Empire and the powers that be began a program known as Russification. (I did not make that word up, though it does sound like the kind of word I like to make up.) Gotta join the Orthodox Church, and wear what you’re told and speak the right language. The process was voluntary, and the only repercussions for not joining in were that you would be beaten to death after watching cossacks rape your family.
That is, if you were a Slav. Jews lived in Belarus, too. They were not included in the Russification process, but did get to participate in the “being beaten to death after watching cossacks rape your family to death” portion of the program. A Slav could be turned into a Russian, but a Jew? A Jew would always be a Jew. It was a matter of blood. They looked out for themselves, the Jews, and they whispered in their language. Look at their clothes. Look at where they live. How they live. What do they do, the Jews? Produce? I say that they do not. I say that they buy and sell. You work hard and they sit indoors all day with their books. Holy book and ledger book. A Jew cannot be a Russian. A Jew would always be a Jew.
Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. On Sundays, he liked to take his carriage and go watch the soldiers march around. He always took the same route. The first bomb did not destroy the carriage, as it was bulletproof, but killed a guard standing on the running board and injured the driver. The Czar stepped from the flame-scarred carriage and demanded to be shown around the crime scene. There was a second bomber.
The Jews were blamed. Riots called pogroms broke out that were both egged on and forgiven by the Russian authorities. Pogroms weren’t the systematic and relentless extermination of the Holocaust, they just happened one night. Usually around Easter; priests led them, sometimes.
One would imagine alcohol played a part.
And the townspeople would come streaming into the Jewish section of town–Slavs that the Jews had worked and lived alongside that very afternoon–and houses and businesses would burn. Synagogue, always. Children were pulled from their beds, sometimes by their parents to be hidden, and sometimes not by their parents.
The Jews that were not murdered organized or fled. The ones who organized were killed in the next and far more vicious round of pogroms after the Revolution of 1917. The ones who fled went to Israel or America. My great-grandparents fled. Six of the eight came from the area eaten up by the Russian Empire. The other two came from Ireland when it ran out of food that one time.
I don’t know their names. They died when my parents were young, and my grandparents died when I was young. I don’t know their family names, and I don’t know the names their new village gave them.
But I do know the names Wolf and Bessie Glotzer, who changed their name to Glosser when they came to America in 1903 from Belarus. They were tired of having their house burned down and being beaten with sticks, and so they came to America. They took a boat. It was 1903, so they took a boat. After two weeks at sea, they entered New York Harbor and everyone aboard came on deck. They could see Ellis Island, where they would start the paperwork on their new lives in squatty brick buildings, but no one was looking at Ellis Island.
Not when the Statue of Liberty was right there.
That same year, 1903, a plaque bearing a poem was installed in the pedestal. It goes like this:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
“Mother of Exiles.” How about that?
Emma Lazarus wrote it: it’s called “The New Colossus.” The Statue of Liberty was privately funded. Kids mailed in nickels, and charity dinners to get the swanky to write checks. One of the schemes was a fine art auction, and Emma Lazarus was asked to submit an original poem. She was a rich lady, but she was socially-minded and worked with refugees. Jews from Eastern Europe, specifically.
This poem was written about Wolf and Bessie Glotzer, and today their great-grandson Stephen Miller pissed on it.