One hundred years ago, on Sept. 21, 1914, Louis Olasky signed a Declaration of Intention “to renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, and particularly to Nicholas II, Emperor of All the Russias.”
He also declared in writing, “I am not an anarchist; I am not a polygamist nor a believer in the practice of polygamy; and it is my intention in good faith to become a citizen of the United States of America and to permanently reside therein SO HELP ME GOD.”
Five years later, as soon as he legally could, Louis Olasky became an American citizen. He also bought a house in Malden, Mass., and 40 years later enjoyed walking his grandson, me, to a park down the street.
Grandfather, this column’s for you.
“Shine my boots, Jew Olyevsky.”
Russia, 1912: The Czar’s army drafted Jews such as my grandfather for up to 25 years—although with rumors of upcoming war it seemed unlikely that any would survive that long.
Olyevsky at age 20 knew to keep his eyes lowered as he obeyed the lieutenant’s command. Now he accepted the name Olyevsky—the man from the town of Olyevsk—even though his real name was Lepke ben Yehoshua. Now his face betrayed none of his thoughts. Sinful thoughts of murdering the lieutenant. Better thoughts of heading west to Germany—and America after that.
“Don’t be an idiot,” his bunkmate Mendel whispered that night. “Lepke ben Yehoshua, Lepke son of He-who-saves: No one will save you. They’ll chase you and shoot you down. Even if you escape the patrols, what then? How will you get to a German port? How will you get on a boat?”
“God will provide,” Lepke replied.
“This god of yours!” Mendel exclaimed. “What has he ever done for us?”
Lepke, on the top bunk, stared at the cracked ceiling and pondered his chances. He tried to figure out how many versts it was to the border—each verst had 500 sazhen, each sazhen was the length of a very tall man. The numbers he multiplied in his head were so huge that he became frightened. One step at a time, he told himself, that’s all it takes, one foot in front of the other.
But then he thought about all the obstacles. He would have no papers to explain what he was doing to the soldiers and bounty hunters on the lookout for deserters, especially runaway Jews. So many things to fear—but fear would paralyze him if he let it, the way it paralyzed Mendel and so many others.
Lepke prayed himself to sleep: “Praised are You, Adonai, ruler of the universe, who closes my eyelids in slumber. Let no disturbing thoughts upset me, no evil dreams nor troubling fantasies.”
The next morning he put together his sack: Bread, some buttons useful for trading, a spare pair of socks. He’d leave his army musket—heavy, and a dead giveaway that he was a deserter—but would take his long knife: You never know. He also needed a map. The lieutenant had one.
That evening came the hated command: “Shine my boots, Jew Olyevsky.” He had just begun when a few drops of water came down from heaven. Keeping his eyes down, Lepke asked, “Sir, if it rains harder your boots will be muddy. Shouldn’t we do this in your quarters?” The lieutenant laughed: “You Jews hate being outside, don’t you? All right.”
Inside, the lieutenant chugged a bottle of vodka as Lepke spat on the boots and made them especially shiny. The lieutenant became sleepy. Then his eyes closed. Lepke picked up the map and ran. Mendel tried to dissuade him from leaving: “We both know this life is miserable, but it’s life. Why go to the grave?”
Lepke responded, “I refuse to think that way. I will not settle. I will always look for something better, or I will die trying.” Mendel hugged him: “You’re you and I’m me. You always do what you believe.”
Lepke did just that and managed to get across Poland and Germany. In Bremerhaven he hopped a boat to Liverpool and at age 22 came across the Atlantic in the steerage (lowest cost) section of an ocean liner, The Celtic. He arrived at Ellis Island in 1913. Thank you, grandfather. Thank you, God.