This firsthand account of an event that happened in the last decade of the 19th Century* originally appeared in the September 30, 1977, issue of Friday Forum — at that time the monthly literary supplement of the weekly Jewish Exponent newspaper in Philadelphia. Note that this orally recounted story uses words that had meaning in English rather than necessarily the exact translation of Russian terms.
My maternal grandfather Max Fishman would never tell his story when I was young. But when he was 86 or 87 — he wasn’t sure of the year of his birth — he told me the story of the czar’s uncle:
It was wintertime and the snow was knee-deep. The czar’s uncle came to hunt in our area of Russia — near Tiraspol. Now the czar’s uncle had the best horse, the best harness, the best bridle and the best saddle.
And eight boys got together and killed the czar’s uncle and buried him in the snow. That night it snowed again and covered their tracks.
(There were a lot of bears and wolves there. At night you had to have a light on all the time. We would put a stick in a long clay pot with olive oil in it, and the stick burned for 12 to 14 hours and kept the wolves away. If the bears came towards you, you had to kill them, or they would just squeeze you to pieces. The wolves would tear you up.)
About a month later the eight boys who killed the czar’s uncle came down to a little village where one Jewish family was living. There were 13 in the family and the boys killed 12 of them. the little baby rolled under the bed and didn’t cry and she was left alive.
The next morning the gentile [non-Jewish] neighbor woke up and saw that everything was quiet. She got suspicious. She walked over to the house and found the baby alive under the bed and the others dead. She took the baby to her house and warmed it up. Her husband got the horse and wagon and went to town to the sheriff and told him all about it.
The sheriff went to the Jewish community — to the burial committee. The committee took a wagon and placed boards across the top. A few other fellows went with the neighbor. They took the bodies and laid them down across the boards and covered them up. (They didn’t cover the bodies with blankets because they were dead, but they covered them up.) The neighbor woman sat in front while her husband drove the horses, and she held the baby all wrapped up.
Now one of the boys was working in Odessa and he found a Jewish girl — in one of those houses — and made her his sweetheart. He brought her down to our town to live. And when she saw that wagon with the bodies she broke down.
She slipped around the back way and crept into the police station. She told the chief of police all about it — where everything was hidden (the boys didn’t have any secrets from her) — what they had stolen from the czar’s uncle and from the family and whatever they could steal without killing people. They had hidden the stuff in a clay pit — like a basin — that you entered by a tunnel.
The police chief put the girl in police clothes and brought her to our house to hide. The police laid a trap and got four of the boys. (There weren’t places to hide like there are in America.) The other four boys ran away: two to Argentina and two to America.
But the police still didn’t find the czar’s uncle because the boys didn’t tell where he was buried. The police held the four fellows in jail, and the two fellows who did the killing said the other two fellows weren’t guilty — they didn’t do the murder.
The snow began to melt late in April and the police found the body. But they already had sufficient evidence — the saddle, the bridle, the rest of the harness, the boots, the coat, the czar’s uncle’s winter cap they already had taken out of the pit along with a lot of other stuff.
Finally the police sent the two who claimed they weren’t guilty to Siberia to dig coal, and the other two who said they were guilty they hung in the public square — the hay market. (We had a great big hay market — like a great big baseball field. Every farmer brought a load of hay in the fall to sell to the Jewish people because every Jewish family had a cow who had to have food for the winter.)
They made everybody in the county over six years old go to see the hanging. We didn’t see any more hangings for several years after that.
Jewish people took the baby and found a mother who had a baby and was able to nurse both babies. They paid her so much for nursing the baby.
The chief of police put that girl on the train and shipped her back to Odessa. She wasn’t even guilty and she was honest and she was telling the truth about it. She was no good — you know how some girls turn out — a Jewish girl turned into nothing. She knew before what was going on but she hadn’t said a word because she was afraid she would get killed. (The boys would have killed her if they had caught her.) But she saw that woman — the way she held that little baby — and she broke down.
The police went to the train station at two in the morning so they wouldn’t see anyone — friends of the killers who might want to kill the girl. They came down with a patrol wagon pulled by horses —- six or eight policemen with guns — and put the girl on the train at the last moment. They pushed her up into the passenger car and the train pulled out. They didn’t want to see her killed.
Were there any other things like that which happened in Russia? I asked my grandfather. Not exactly, he answered, not exactly.
If you want to read another historical firsthand account — this one of the Cold War — check out http://budurl.com/TAintro
*When I posted this account on my blog I decided I needed to set the event in a specific historical time period, which I realized I had never asked my grandfather to specify. Looking at family papers and calculating Grandpa Max’s probable birth year, I determined that the event must have taken place in the last decade of the 19th Century.
Subsequently I realized the event may have happened in the first few years of the 20th Century. I looked up the reigns of czars — and there are two different Russian czars during this time period. Then I tried to do research on the uncles of those two czars and couldn’t find any who fit the murder victim.
This is when I realized that the victim could have been, for example, a great-uncle and not an uncle. My grandfather’s first language was Yiddish and as a child he probably spoke some Russian and/or Ukrainian. He told this story to me in English many years after the actual event, and the victim’s exact familial relationship to the czar may have gotten entangled in translation.
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Phyllis Zimbler Miller (@ZimblerMiller) has an M.B.A. from The Wharton School and is the author of fiction and nonfiction books/ebooks, including HOW TO SUCCEED IN HIGH SCHOOL AND PREP FOR COLLEGE and the romantic suspense spy thriller CIA FALL GUY. All of her Kindle ebooks can be read for free via Amazon’s monthly subscription program Kindle Unlimited. Phyllis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org