Short Story: The legend of Uncle Lazar

In August 1929, a customer came into my grandfather’s dry goods store in Braman, Oklahoma, with an article featuring a certain Lazar Danski.

oklahoma in the 20s (photo credit: Courtesy)
oklahoma in the 20s
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A few months before the start of the Great Depression, which ultimately drove my grandfather back to New York from Oklahoma where he had lived for almost a decade, he discovered Uncle Lazar. Lazar, his father’s oldest brother, had just turned 100 and had not been heard from by anyone in the family for more than 60 years.
My grandfather had never met his uncle. He knew only that his father had an older brother Lazar, who at the age of eight, was kidnapped on the way home from heder by officials of the Russian army to be forced to serve the tsar for 25 years. This event took place in 1837, during a period in which tens of thousands of young Jewish boys were stolen from their homes, sent to military camps thousands of miles away and subjected to intense pressure to convert to Christianity. Most never returned home.
As the boys were forbidden to contact their families, decades passed before Lazar could write home. Both his parents had already died and the letter was eventually received by a sister who recounted to the rest of the family that their little Lazar, who had forever remained in their minds an eight-year-old boy and an empty place at the table, had ultimately escaped from the Russian army, made his way to Turkey and now was headed to America. That was the first and last time that the family heard from him.
That is until August 1929, when a customer came into my grandfather’s dry goods store in Braman, Oklahoma, with an article from the Garden City News in Kansas. The story was about a Lazar Danski who had the previous week turned 100 and had been feted by the town of Garden City where he now lived. Noting the similarity of the uncommon name, the customer wondered if Lazar might be a relative.
My grandfather read slowly through the article and then read it again. Though he had recently become an American citizen and was proud of his proficiency in English, it was not his native language. The article gave a bit of Lazar’s history, noting that he had been a soldier in the Russian army for many years, had fought in the Crimean War, and finally made his way to the US. The story fit with the very few details Grandpa had about his uncle.
Lazar, the article said, had wound up in Garden City about eight years earlier and, still stronger than men many years younger, had worked briefly for a grocer. He lived now in a small one-room cottage on the edge of town. Neighbors looked in on him from time to time, but he was said to still be independent and able to care for himself. His wife, his second wife, had died a few years before. Lazar himself had tended to her burial in the Jewish cemetery in Lawrence, Kansas, as there was no rabbi in the area. His two children were no longer living and his second wife had had no children of her own.
There was no doubt in my grandfather’s mind that this was his uncle and that my grandfather was in all likelihood just about his closest living relative, certainly in this part of the world. There had been a large family in the old country and my grandfather still had 11 brothers and sisters living near the village in the Ukraine where he had grown up. World War II, still 10 years away, would end of all that. When it was over, not one remained alive.
My grandfather made up his mind that he would close the store right then and drive to Garden City, four to five hours away. He hoped he would be able to persuade Lazar that he was his nephew and to convince him to come and live with them in Braman. Why should he be alone in his last years when he had family nearby?
THERE WERE few phones in those days; my grandparents didn’t have one, and nor of course did Lazar, so there was no way of calling ahead. Grandpa Ben figured that he would go to the office of the newspaper and find out from someone there where his uncle lived.
By the time he finally made it to Garden City, it was late afternoon. He had no trouble finding the offices of the Garden City News, nor much difficulty getting the directions to Lazar’s cottage. Lazar lived just on the edge of town in an undeveloped area of small truck farms and a few small houses scattered about between the railroad and the river.
Grandpa Ben pulled up to a small, ramshackle structure, with a neat yard planted with tomatoes and cucumbers. There was a water pump near the entrance. Around the side was an outhouse, as was common even in larger, more respectable homes. No one answered at first, but my grandfather persisted. After a while he heard a voice, “It’s open.”
Anxiously, my grandfather opened the door. A sentimental man, he could also be fairly dramatic, and so instead of a lot of preliminaries, he said simply in Russian, “Uncle Lazar? It’s your nephew Ben, Benchik, your brother Yisroel’s son.”
Lazar was sitting on an old rocker. He looked younger than his years and had clear blue eyes and a wispy crown of white hair. The only other furniture in the room was a table, a bed, a standing closet and a small shelf above the bed with a few books in Russian and a Hebrew Bible. There was a tiny two-burner stove and a wood-burning oven that probably provided heat in the winter. On the table were a plate of sliced onions, half a loaf of bread and a half-empty bottle of vodka. Lazar had an unlit pipe in his mouth. Though quite modest, the room was tidy, perhaps a reflection of someone who had spent more than two decades as a soldier.
Lazar stared for a moment at his guest and then shook his head. “No, I don’t have any nephews. I don’t have a brother Yisroel. If you’ve come for my money, I don’t have any. It’s all gone.”
Along the way, Grandpa had thought of names and places that Lazar would also have known, might somehow still remember, in spite of the fact that he was so young when he was taken away and that more than 90 years had gone by.
“Your parents, my grandparents, they were Reisel and Ephraim, may they rest in peace.” Ben moved a bit closer and spoke slowly and clearly waiting after each sentence hoping that Lazar would respond. “You were born in Rovno, where my father Yisroel was born. You wouldn’t remember him; he was born a few years after you were taken. He is gone now, just recently; he was 90. There was your sister Esterke and there was also your brother Shimon, Shimi. Surely you remember Esterke, she was barely a year older than you. She also had blue eyes, like yours you know, very much like yours.”
Lazar took the pipe out of his mouth looked at my grandfather and asked. “Did she marry Velvel, the baker’s son? Esterke, did she marry Velvel? Everyone teased her that she would marry Velvel one day.”
For a moment my grandfather was stunned. “Velvel. You must mean my uncle Velvel.”
Before he could go on, Lazar raised his hand to stop him. He spoke softly, but his voice was clear. “I always wondered what became of him. Velvel was my best friend. We were always together. I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t with him. We were together that day. Walking home from heder. He could run fast, much faster than me, he always could. Velvel always had the freshest rolls of anyone in the heder; he shared them with me. How I missed those rolls. And Velvel. I think I missed him more than anyone. Must be gone now; they’re all gone, I’m sure. Can’t imagine really why I am still here.”
My grandfather whispered a prayer of thanks that old Lazar’s doubts seemed to have been dispelled and with it any lingering doubt that my grandfather may have had. “Uncle, we are your family and we would like you to come and live with us. I have a wife, a wonderful wife who is busy now cooking for your arrival, food like you haven’t tasted in years. I am sure she will bake a carp and there will be soup, and I have no idea what else. We have three young sons who I know you will love. It would be a great honor if you would come and live with us.”
AFTER A few minutes of almost unbearable silence during which Lazar puffed on his empty pipe, he said. “You know, for so many years, I couldn’t even contact my family. I imagined that there were new babies born and growing up that I might never see. And, when I ran away finally rather than be killed for some stupid war, then I knew I would never see any of them again. And, I know of course that they are all dead. And, so are my two wives, they should rest in peace, and even my children. But Benchik, maybe you are my nephew, the son of a brother I never knew, and if you are not, you are a kind person, it seems, since you see I have nothing of value. But, I can’t start over now. I am 100 years old; can you imagine? It’s too late to start over again. How many years can a person live anyway? I am just a guest in this world and I am fine here. Really, I am fine. People stop by. I buy some bread, a little cheese now and then, a bottle for some comfort. I can’t. It’s very kind of you, but I can’t.”
My grandfather tried for several hours to change Lazar’s mind, describing my grandmother, the meals she would cook, the holidays they would celebrate together, the children, the little house and the store. But, he eventually realized that Lazar was not the type to be persuaded. So in the end, he gave up. He promised to bring the whole family for a visit, and in the meantime stuffed a few dollar bills in Lazar’s front pocket, to which Lazar did not object.
On the way out of town the next morning Grandpa stopped at the newspaper office and gave the reporter who had written about Lazar his address and begged him to be in touch if anything should happen. He gave him an envelope with a bit of money as well. “He seemed low on tobacco,” he told the reporter. The reporter told him that as far as he could tell Lazar was pretty well taken care. Apparently some church women had sort of adopted him. My grandfather laughed to himself at the irony of a man who had resisted forced conversion now being cared for in his old age by women from the local church.
He finally drove home feeling as empty-handed as he had ever felt inhis life and fearing that he might never see again the frail old man,ancient really, from that faraway place that had once been home. Hevowed to himself to come again, and to come soon, but he knew that eventhen it could be too late.
Two months later, in October, the stock market crashed and with it theoil industry in Oklahoma. The population of Braman dwindled almostovernight and there were few customers at my grandfather’s store. Hedid manage one more trip to Garden City. Lazar had been in the hospitalfor a few days and he seemed quite weak. My grandfather wasn’t sure ifhe recognized him from his previous visit though he was cordial enoughand pleased to have a visitor.
The economy of Oklahoma fared worse than most places and my grandfathercouldn’t keep the store open, nor was there any other work in town. Mygrandmother missed her family back in New York, her mother, her sistersand brothers and was sure that there they could somehow manage. No onewould go hungry. A half year later, now living in Brooklyn, a lettercame bearing the return address of the Garden CityNews. My grandfather knew what was written inside withoutopening it.
Though not particularly religious, my grandfather walked that eveningto a neighborhood synagogue where with tears running down his eyes, herecited the mourner’s Kaddish for his Uncle Lazar and the long tragicsaga of his life.