Grandpa George, The Gangster Lepke, and a Platypus by Miriam Sagan

My grandfather, George Sagan, founded the New York Girl Coat Company in 1916. That was not his real name. He was born Gershon Liesenbaum in the Ukraine, a borderland between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Holy Russian one, between Kiev and Odessa.

Gershon became George in America. But until the late 20th century we did not know that our family name was not Sagan. My father had found George’s exit visa from Russia. It was for Liesenbaum.

My father searched for an answer in his own imagination. George had bought Mr. Liesenbaum’s exit visa. Or, George had murdered Mr. Liesenbaum for the visa. My father actually proposed this theory without irony. My grandfather’s power to impose his will was legendary and survived even his physical death.

The most likely answer was more mundane. My grandfather Gershon, a young teenager, was in the Ukraine with his sister and her three children. She died. He was entrusted with bringing his two little nephews and one niece to their father Louie in New York City. Louie may have already remarried at this point. It is likely that Louie’s last name was Sagan.

George tied nephews and niece together with a rope so he wouldn’t lose them on shipboard. At Ellis Island, it probably made sense to take their and his brother-in-law Louie’s last name, Sagan.

One of the children tied to the rope grew up. He attempted to get an education but by the Great Depression found himself working in the garment industry for George, as one of the prime cutters. His son was Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer. On his deathbed, Carl told one of my first cousins who was interested in family history: “You aren’t really a Sagan. The Sagans were the smart side of the family.” George’s descendants were educated and successful. But we’d been told, and had to believe, we weren’t smart like the Sagans, i.e. Carl. And in fact we weren’t Sagans, but Liesenbaums.

In his own way, my grandfather cared not just about material success but beauty and justice. However, it was the justice of a gangster and the beauty of a robber baron that drove him.

The iconic story told about him was George’s meeting with the famous if perhaps second-string Jewish gangster Lepke. When my grandfather opened for business, it was in a storefront on the lower east side. One of Lepke’s henchmen came around and dunned George for protection money, the price of doing business, to be paid every Wednesday. Of course he paid.

A few months later, a second henchman appeared, demanding protection money to be paid on Fridays. My grandfather rebelled. He, a callow youth, demanded a meeting with Lepke. He was taken to a dairy restaurant on Avenue B., a table in back, men in hats.

George made his speech about justice—he would pay once, but not twice.

Lepke nodded in his fedora. Then, he offered my grandfather a job working for him. George politely declined, paid protection but once a week, and went on to make millions.

This story was told in my family not so much as an example of how ballsy George was but of how he had a true sense of fairness. It was not until I was middle-aged that I realized the absurdity of this, crusading for the right to pay protection money only once.

My grandfather’s gangsterism extended to his philanthropy, which was itself vast and generous, yet self-serving. As a small child, I too had been encouraged to be
philanthropic. I had saved up part of my allowance week after week to join the Bronx Zoo. I would be a member, with free admission, discounts, and best of all, a member’s garden party with a private viewing of a rare platypus. I was about ten years old, and ready to give my money to the zoo, when Grandpa George got wind of my stash.

We were alone, on the wraparound screened porch of my parents’ house. He loomed over me and demanded I hand over my savings to donate to plant trees in Israel. But my goal was already set. Israel, no. Platypus, yes. George yelled and screamed, towering over me. My father appeared like a deus ex machina, also shouting, “Leave her alone! It’s her money!”

I went to the members’ party and ate finger sandwiches and chocolate cookies shaped like leaves. I saw the remarkable platypus. I was the only child there, the only young person who had bought herself a membership. Old ladies in hats smiled at me. I planted not one twig in Israel.
This first appeared in the memoir BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE from Red Mountain Press.

My Grandfather Avrum: My Teenage Guru


My mother’s mother dies, and my grandfather Avrum comes to live with us. He is short and wrinkled, and covered in scars. Most of these are from surgery, but between his eyes he has a crescent moon from when a cow kicked him. As a boy, he was trying to ride the cow. He also dipped the braids of little girls who sat in front of him in school in his ink pot. Today perhaps the diagnosis would be ADD, but he always seemed completely cheery in these accounts.
He has a tremor– Parkinsonian souvenir of the 1918 flu. His mother died in childbirth with him. I don’t know her name, and never will.
 However, it is likely I inherited the condition that killed her. When my daughter was born, the placenta did not detach and come out. Since I was in a modern hospital, I did not bleed to death as she did in Ukraine.
As a child, my world is a rough one, maybe rougher than it will be when I grow up. We are tested for TB because Avrum had TB in his liver, of all places. I love him, and when he moves in with us I spend my evenings worrying that he will die.
At night, I sneak in to watch his breathing, asleep in front of the television.
“The tsar did not like me, personally,” my grandfather says. “So I came to America. In Russia, I turned the other cheek. And they hit the other cheek too. So…I came.” He neglects to mention that all his money was in tsarist gold when he left The Pale to work in the shipyards in Germany. The Russian Revolution rendered it worthless. By then he was already in Boston, working in the Quincy shipyards.
I adore him, although he is bad-tempered and apt to yell at us that we are talking too much at the supper table. He yells, inhales a piece of raw carrot, begins to choke, and rushes from the table to get a glass of water. He survives, and goes on to give advice.
“I’ll be your guru,” he tells me. It’s the late Sixties, and even the Beatles have a guru. He assumes I need one, and he is right. He doesn’t tell me to take a deep breath, but he takes my side in everything, particularly against my erratic mother.
My grandfather loves sub gum chicken with almonds and all kinds of Chinese food. He saves nails and string in glass jars. Actually he does not have much real advice for me. He doesn’t tell me how to live, or what to do. He models…something…by eating eggs and bacon, smoking mentholated cigarettes, and drinking schnapps every day.
“Look at the moon,” he tells me.”That’s not the real moon. It is a moon- sized replica of the moon in the sky. The Russians have the real moon in the basement of the Kremlin.”
My favorite story about him is that when he was about 13 he accompanied his own father, a miller, to Kiev (always pronounced the Russian way in his stories) by train. There in the station he sees two Chinese merchants in brocade gowns with skull caps and braids down their backs. Are they men or women? Unsophisticated, Avrum knows nothing outside his village. His father makes the blessing: Blessed art Thou, the Lord our G-d, who has created human variety.
Avrum dies when I am thirteen, and I will always miss him. I play an odd game of pretend. What if he had born—presumably to me—in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. Been raised in hippie Santa Fe and gone to Little Earth School? Been in a band, and had lots of sex and eaten psychedelic mushrooms in the arroyo? Maybe studied technical theater, or been an architect? Worn loud shirts and gone through a motorcycle phase?
Would he have been happier backpacking in Europe rather than running from Cossacks? Less angry if he’d had sushi and YouTube?
I can’t know, but keep imagining.

My Grandmothers

To the best of my knowledge, Ukraine means “borderlands.” That’s why the article “the” sometimes precedes it. My whole life I’ve been obsessed with borders and boundaries—the Hudson River between my provincial suburb in New Jersey and the glittering canyons of Manhattan. Not to mention the border between my now home state of New Mexico and Mexico—a place of so much suffering, aspiration, violence, and hope.

The border inside me, though, is the border between the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian one. My paternal grandmother Esther, probably aged 12, is smuggled across this border in a cart piled with sausages. She gets on a boat for America alone, gets her menstrual period, then figures she is bleeding to death until a motherly fellow passenger explains. That is all I know of her story, except for a salient detail. Esther has said she will kill herself—drown herself in the millpond—unless she gets sent to America.

I have many suspicions abut this story. Was something bad happening to her? Is it even “true?” The cart comes to me from a family reunion, menstruation from her daughter-in-law who was my mother. The millpond comes from my father. She was a rather ordinary grandmother, less interested than some. She had a bosom like a mantelpiece and a love of clothing more lavish and colorful than strictly fashionable. I inherited both these things.

My grandmother Sadie—in Hebrew her name was the lovely Tsivya, which means gazelle—came to America with her family. The worst story of the lot is as follows. There is a pogrom. The child next to her is trampled to death. The family leaves. This is never discussed. My mother, her daughter, told me, but my mother was a storyteller who knew how to fabricate So am I. Is it possible I just made this up? From a movie scene or book? However, both Sadie and my mother were extraordinarily anxious people. They feared almost everything. If you were two minutes late, they were planning the funeral. So I’ll take it as true. If it had happened in today’s world there would be endless therapy and grief groups. Then, the coping mechanism was silence.

I’ve inherited all of this. The fear. The ability to act quickly and decisively. Perhaps also the belief that terrible events are my fault.

Sadie became a seamstress. She was blacklisted for union organizing. She was a more classic grandmother. She made our dolls beautiful hats and crocheted them tiny purses. Her eyesight was so poor that she was close to blind. I learned to thread her needle.

Neither of my grandmothers ever gave me advice of any kind. Sadie was strong on endearments, and would scratch our backs by the hour if we insisted. My paternal grandmother, as she approached dementia, would wake us in the middle of the night and offer us salami. She just kept trying to feed us more.

I know, deep in my bones, that whoever they were, my grandmothers wanted me to stay alive. Sadie overtly cared about having babies and education. As old ladies, neither of them seem particularly focused on men. They were supportive of their husbands, perhaps feared them, partially avoided them. It was very old country—-no kind of role model even for my mother’s generation.

I loved Sadie and I feel she loved me. Esther was more of an active model, doing her calisthenics, getting a massage, swimming in the ocean. She had a Slavic love of fresh air and exercise. When I went to massage school I often thought of her.

But more than love, I can still feel them rooting for my survival. And if I look at how I feel about my own granddaughter, that primal feeling may also be the strongest.

My grandfathers present more ambiguity. I’m thinking about writing about them next!

Ukraine Musings by Miriam Sagan

I go to the dentist to get a temporary crown, and by the time I get home Russia has invaded the Ukraine.

Deep within me, fueling much of my personality, is the Ukraine my four Jewish grand-parents fled.

And it was Russia. Or “Russianize” as a student of comparative religion told me. A conquered territory. All of my grandparents referred to themselves as Russian. They spoke Russian, along with Yiddish, some Hebrew, and possibly Ukrainian. But the Russian tsar loomed over their stories, along with homicidal Cossacks.

They feared abduction into the Russian army, sometimes cutting off fingers or toes. Their money was Russian. If the Russian tsar stirred up Cossacks to raid Jewish villages, they died.

This was the world of the Pale. I never heard much about “Ukraine.” They were from shtetls between Kiev and Odessa—-pronounced the Russian way.

They ate borscht (which I loved). And kasha (still eat it). And drank shav in glasses (a cold sorrel soup—and I think they added celery. I hated it). Had samovars (which I coveted but never inherited). Slathered sour cream on everything. Pickled herring. Sliced radishes or kohlrabi on black bread.

You know that supposedly holistic diet—eat what your grandmother’s ate? Excuse me, chicken fat on rye bread? Not exactly health food.

My father’s parents were almost completely silent on the topic of the old country. Their policy seemed to be: It was a bad place and we left. Have something else to eat, kinde.

The local “graf” told my paternal grandfather to go to America. The word means “count” in Russian but I doubt he was any kind of lord-—probably just local gentry.

I thought of my mother’s parents as the Russian ones, the very short ones, the poor ones. I adored them.

My grandmother used a Russian word to describe me and my two sisters. She called the three of us a troika.

Although Russia was an empire it was also brewing a revolution. They were Russian in part because of politics. My grandfather Avrum was in the general strike of 1905. He had anti-tsarist pamphlets-—burned them in a back room stove when police came to call. My grandmother Sadie had a sister married to a Bolshevik sent to Siberia. They was killed by Hitler—or maybe Stalin. In any case, Sadie’s letters were returned.

“In Russia the cherries were sweeter” Sadie and Avrum used to say, spitting out the pits in their garden gazebo in Boston. A little house built to escape summer heat. Very Russian. It drove my mother crazy. How could the cherries not be sweetest here in the land of the free?

It wasn’t until I grew up that I became aware of Ukrainian culture—language, music, poetry, people. And then Ukraine became a modern nation. And once again, Russia came after it.

But it will never be only a real contemporary place to me. Inside me is the Pale—really that is the heart of it, more than Russia it is a place of Jewish settlement within different strains of Slavic and eastern European culture.

“Russian Jews,” my contemporaries, have suddenly been asking ourselves about our grand-parents. Where DID they come from? I’ve attempted to clarify for mine.

If I write more about this, I’ll investigate how this history compels me to automatically lie when faced with authority. To feel that my “ancestors” aren’t necessarily a purely good thing. How the Jews of Odessa were gangsters as well as otherworldly and pious. And more.