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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Living the Life (or Death) of Reilly

"...Therefore, we ask you to put yourself in our position, and to do your best to search and find our relatives because we do not have their addresses. As you know, the War started long ago and we have not heard from them for a long time. Therefore, we do not have their address... Therefore, search for them and tell them about us and our condition. I suppose you heard what happened here... And when God will help, after we will be together, we will thank you for it and pay your doublely... When you find them, tell them to have pity on us and to help us and to send us money. Do like other people who come from America and take their relatives and send affidavits for nine people for us and our children." (names, ages follow)

Translation of enclosed Yiddish letter indicated in red ink. (from passport application, December 1920.)


"December 13, 1920.

The Honorable
The Secretary of State
Department of State
Washington, D.C.


Attached to this application you will find a Yiddish letter written by Beile Mul, my cousin, addressed to Ethel Alter, of 616 Williams Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, for transmission to me, because my address was not known to my relatives there.

This letter speaks for itself and will indicate the correct reason why I am applying now to go to Roumania. The reason is that I have in Roumania my grandfather, uncles, cousins, nieces and other relatives, who are now in terrible straits. My family has made up its mind for me to proceed immediately to Roumania, while conditions are still tolerable, for the purpose of assisting our relatives there and to bring some of them to the United States, at the first opportunity.

Please, therefore, grant me this passport, to enable me to proceed to Roumania to assist my immediate relatives there.

Very respectfully yours,

Nathan Lutzky
282 Riverdale Avenue
Brooklyn, New York


I started writing this post at 6am. I awoke with the title in my head, which I'll explain later.

I've been spending the past couple of days down with my parents and my grandmother, where an unexpected and fascinating journey through the past awaited us.

In my father's inbox were three emails, forwarded by my uncle, who has just gotten bit by the genealogy bug and has started doing some research. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, he and a new-found cousin (second cousin, once removed) found a passport application and other documentation related to our past relatives, but right now I'm focused on the man in the passport image, Nathan Lutzky. This may be the only surviving photo of him.


I don't know about how it is in your family, but in ours, little to nothing is really known about anyone. Either people didn't care to remember very sad and difficult times, or no one bothered to record it, so the memories are quickly becoming scattered to the ages, to be lost forever.

The little I had heard about Nathan, who was my mother's grandfather on her father's side, is that he was a furrier, lived in Brooklyn, and died trying to smuggle weapons into Russia, where he was shot and died of his wounds, leaving behind a widow with four tiny children to support.

From the documents my uncle received, it looks like we have a little bit more to the story. Up until now, we didn't even know where he was born or where he lived in New York. But now in an instant, a life becomes real, one long since gone. Now we know that he was born in Russia (Lisanka, which could also be spelled Lysyanska, and is in the Ukraine) on December 15, 1884 and he emigrated to America from Hamburg, Germany about February 5, 1904 and lived for 16 years in Hartford, Connecticut. He was naturalized as an American citizen on August 9, 1910 and had never returned to Europe after he arrived in America.

As you can see from the excerpted first letter, a cry for help from surviving relatives made him petition to return to Romania to come to their aid, and to help them escape and find safety in America.

Although I don't know the details (yet, if they exist) of that journey, I do know the outcome. Nathan Lutzky was granted his passport, and he left his wife and four small children and his furrier business in Brooklyn to return to his endangered extended family. Somewhere along the line, events took a turn for the worse. He was apprehended by the Russian government and sent to Siberia, to prison.

He contracted pneumonia there and was returned home, to New York, to die. The State of New York's Department of Health records his death on April 2, 1924. Nathan was 40 years old.


I woke up thinking about Nathan and Siberia and Sidney Reilly, the world's first modern spy and possible model for the James Bond character many years later (because even in sleep, my mind is obviously making strange connections). Reilly was about 11 years older than Nathan, but they were both sent to Siberia at the same time. What if they had known each other or their paths had crossed in a Siberian labor camp? But if not, they met the same fate. At least Nathan was returned home to die, whereas the final resting place of Reilly's remains is still disputed.

I'm amazed and fascinated by stories of both Sidney and Nathan, although now I want to know more about what happened to Nathan, if I'll ever find out. All of a sudden, this intricate family puzzle has been laid before us. Who knows how many pieces we'll be able to find?


Cynthia Pittmann January 18, 2009 at 8:21 AM  

tangobaby, finding lost stories that are connected to you somehow is so fascinating. I also look for family narrative. My greatgrandmother was left with two children to raise after her husband went off to war...never to be seen again. As a result of the stress,she had a 'nervous breakdown' and my grandmother ended up in an orphanage. The story goes on (naturally) but not here in your comment section. My grandfather, also had to leave Russia/Poland and later was 'orphaned'. So much difficulty was endured by those/our families. It's easy to take our free life-with its difficulties-for granted.

Gabby January 18, 2009 at 8:39 AM  

I am so amazed at the synchronicity of our blogs. A month ago I wrote about my uncle Mort's suicide and the suicide of my granpa Max. In our family, you knew nothing of the past, except it was horrific. I had been told that Max died at the hands of boatmen who robbed the gold threat sewn into his coat as he cross the Black Sea. In fact, he was a suicide in the garment district of New York. That was my father's side. We hailed from a small town in Roumania that had apparently been burnt to the ground in a pogrom, with Max the only survivor.

On my mother's side, my uncles Manny, Moe, and Sol all worked in Brooklyn or the New York garment trades as knitters. Their parents came from the Ukraine, a small town outside Kiev, or so the story goes.

Seeing your post, my post, and the comments from Cynthia made me think that there really are only eight or nine people in the world. That we have thrived in our generation despite the cellular memory of tragedy and despair is a wonderment to me.

J9 January 18, 2009 at 8:44 AM  

I interviewed all of my older relatives, and it is amazing how sharp their memories are - they remember what year it was when everything happened. I think I've lost my faculty for that - I couldn't remember a damned thing!

Glad to see you back to blogging, and would love to hear about Bud Cort, when you have the chance!

Char January 18, 2009 at 9:35 AM  

I always find family history so interesting and in the modern times so much easier to handdown stories. I had to pull much of my mother's history from her late in her life because it was always such a source of pain for her. I just finished reading about Poe who also had a difficult family history.

how amazing the things you are finding out.

Lyn January 18, 2009 at 10:07 AM  

I couldn't find Carl in your wonderful memory piece, but the name made me sit up and take notice.
My Carl, my father,came to NY, into the waiting arms of my grandfather,(who of course had run away from the Czar's army when it mattered). He came from a small shtetl,(didn't everyone?)Roshkov, outside of Kiev, arriving at Ellis Is., alone, after trekking around Europe for 2 yrs., looking for cousins wanting to go to NY. He was about 14, in 1923, when he finally got to AMERICA.
He had left Russia, crossing the Dnieper, into Roumania, money stitched into his clothes, bullets flying over his head and that of the boatman.
A lifetime later,his name was placed by me on the Wall of Honor at Ellis Is.
We all better get in touch with Spielberg!

Laura Doyle January 18, 2009 at 10:08 AM  

Oh my, I am so enthralled with all this! I'll have to return with my comments later though; my brain is scattered. I've been doing your interview! It's funny...because of your interview, I've been thinking of my Russian heritage for the past hour and then I read this. One of my goals this year is to delve deeper into my heritage and to become more connected to my ancestors. This is quite a bewildering adventure for you!

paris parfait January 18, 2009 at 10:10 AM  

So fascinating. I wish everyone would write down their stories for future generations. Sadly, too many (often amazing) stories are lost forever.

The Pink Cowboy January 18, 2009 at 12:18 PM  

I have dedicated all of my adult life trying to complete the family puzzle that I inherited from people that thought old photos and documents belonged in the garbage, that it was a sad affair to look back in time into the misery of a immigrant family. I always felt otherwise. We are here because of our ancestors. They deserve to be remembered and honored. They survived the duress and hardships of their homelands that's the reason they sailed to America. In many occasions in my life where my family had to move in a rush, I would be the one leaving clothes and books behind so I can carry my old photos with me. We are part of their history. The more you know your ancestor and long gone relatives the more you understand your humanity. Your post remind me of the fact that physical death is not the sole destiny of life on this earth. Could you imagine how much love they gave out while alive? How many sacrifices they had to make so their offspring would have a better life than them? This is a subject that touches my heart deeply. Your ancestors are alive in you. Wonderful post. Love the way you interpolated the live of Sidney Reilly into your cousin's, it is possible you know...very much so.

Kath January 18, 2009 at 6:40 PM  

margie's family was the subject of a documentary, one of the last .... it's an amazing story about my late brother-in-law's family and their journey from Ukraine to Canada
http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/city/story.html?id=820aeb39-3561-44bf-b158-f9891311764a (I hope that very long link works!)

Anonymous January 18, 2009 at 6:43 PM  

I am actually rather envious, TB. Half my family's records were burned, destroyed, and/or abandoned during the Nazi Reich. The other half were from lands where names with few vowels offended the sensibilities of American immigration officers, who promptly changed their spelling.

Though half my existing family has tried to retrace the steps of our ancestors, and fill in the branches of our little, scrappy Charlie Brown family tree, there are nothing but dead ends in every direction.

Unknown January 18, 2009 at 9:02 PM  

Now you have me hoping you will figure it out too.
It seemed when reading this as if Nathan's life sprang out from the screen.
I am enthralled that there is information about a life lived so long ago, the hardships, the struggles, the intrigue!
It makes for some damn interesting reading, this human condition of ours.
Keep us up to date with the tales of Nathan!

shabby girl January 19, 2009 at 6:58 AM  

Wow. What a story! Truly, I don't think we know the trials that our families endured back then. Thanks for sharing!

Mari January 19, 2009 at 9:59 AM  

I hope you find out more about Nathan, these mysteries are so intriguing; they are maddening and obsessive at times, too.
My gg grandmother Melissa died in the Monterey area in the late 1800's and I am still searching for her death record. I found her mother in law died in Pacheco Pass on her way to Hollister in June 1889 purely by accident, reading old newspapers online. I want to know more- who was she traveling with, or was she alone? Was she already ill and trying to see her son once more? I know she was buried in the pass for 30 years until they moved her to the cemetery in Hollister. I traveled over that pass for so many years in my car on a modern highway, never knowing what had happened there. You never know what you will find, but there are an amazing number of records out there, and unknown family members who have more. They are just waiting to be found. I've dabbled in genealogy for most of my life, and every once in a while a great windfall comes.

Silliyak January 19, 2009 at 2:05 PM  

I got into genealogy trying to track down the source of the insanity that runs in my father's line. One of the things I have done is had my Y-DNA and my mitochondrial DNA tested for comparison to others who might get the same test. No close hits so far, but hope springs eternal. I have found a lot, but there is always the next thing. (I'm still on this side of the pond)

christina January 19, 2009 at 6:31 PM  

This is amazing. I too, would have woke up with thoughts of family had I discovered such interesting stories.

I have hit a brick wall with it all. Two different spellings to my great grandfathers, last name. I am sadly stuck.

I love family history.