Uncle Aren

There would be no Book of Irv, no Irv, without his Uncle Aren’s bold escape from the Imperial Russian Army, a desperate run that brought him to the United States in December 1904.  Within a decade Aren sent passage for his youngest sister Chava.  Chava later gave birth to Irv, who grew up to marry Evelyn, the only child of the sole survivors of two large families wiped out in the Ukraine, they begat me and my sister.  

Everyone Aren left behind in Truvovich, a muddy hamlet across the river from Pinsk, was dead when the Nazis left the area free of Jews in November 1942.   Quite simply: no Aren, no Chava, no Irv, no me. 

In the middle of the Russo-Japanese War, a contest over Manchuria and Korea that the Czar’s army was losing badly, Aren Gleiberman, a draftee in the Russian Imperial Army, made the fateful decision to desert.  If he hadn’t hopped that westbound train, with fellow desperados Fischl Bobrow and another Jewish draftee named Fleishman, and lit out across the Atlantic Ocean from Hamburg, instead of following orders and rumbling east on the Trans-Siberian railroad, my father would never have been born.  

My existence, like my father’s, owes itself entirely to Aren’s bold decision, at the age of 28, to abandon the land of his birth and the doomed, marshy little hamlet of Truvovich, where he was born and raised.

When I say Truvovich was doomed, I’m not being poetic.  Every Jew in the Pinsk area where he grew up, outside of perhaps a dozen known to have escaped and survived, was systematically executed on the orders of the SS, carrying out the fondest wishes of their Fuhrer.  Men and boys were killed in two major rounds of shooting; women and young children were driven into the swamps and marshes to die however they saw fit.  

Truvovich was part of an open air slaughterhouse from July 4, 1941 to November 1, 1942.  After the liquidation of the doomed hamlet of Truvovich during those fateful months, no trace of it can be found on any map I’ve ever seen.  I have looked long and hard for a trace of Truvovich, as has my cousin Azi and an expatriate friend in Poland.  That trace so far remains very well-hidden.

Not that things were ever too promising for the Jews of that area, in what is today southern Belarus.  1904, the year Aren made his run, was a year after the soon-to-be infamous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published in Russian.  The book caused a sensation, and that sensation launched a new flood of pogroms.   Enflamed by fabricated proof of the international Jewish conspiracy to control the world, lynch mobs swarmed into Jewish settlements and did their damnedest.  It is safe to assume that Truvovich was not spared a pogrom from time to time.

When Aren came of age the Czar’s government drafted him for a five year hitch to go fight the Japanese over Russian colonial interests in Asia.  Aren took the initiative to get the hell out of there, I’m grateful to say.

Aren begat Eli, Nehama and Dave, three American-born first cousins of my father who figure prominently in his story.  I know as much about Aren, born Harry Aaron Gleiberman in 1876, from his children and his grandson Azi, Nehama’s son, as I do from my own experience.  I was still a boy when my father’s uncle died at almost 91.

My father introduced my sister and me to his Uncle Aren toward the end of Aren’s long life.  Aren was eighty the year I was born, and so for me his toughness was mostly a matter of reputation, though he was a short, stocky guy who looked like he’d been pretty sturdy in his day.  I could see a spark of the formidable younger Aren from time to time.  

He was a rough voiced man with a barrel chest his sons Eli and Dave would inherit.  Eli got the rough voice too.  Aren was known as a man not to be trifled with.  He was strong, determined and he had a fierce temper.  “The Gleiberman temper,” his son Eli, one of its foremost exemplars, always called it, with a little smile that showed teeth equally ready to bite.

My sister and I were young kids and Uncle Aren was an old man when we met, so we knew a quiet old man with a heavy Yiddish accent.  Uncle Aren always kissed my sister and me, brushing our faces with his close-cropped, bristly mustache.  He also gave us money every time we saw him.   A dollar bill each, sometimes a five or a ten.   “Wow, he gave you a fin,” our hipster father would say when we showed him a five, “here, let me hang on to those for you.”  He always pocketed whatever money Aren gave us, promising to keep it for us.

Uncle Aren didn’t speak to us much that I can recall, though I remember his heavy Yiddish accent.  He used to speak mostly in Yiddish to his nephew Irv and he read the Forward, the Yiddish paper my grandfather Sam also read.   Aren, at that time a widower of many years, lived in a rented ground floor apartment in Queens, not far from his daughter Nehama’s place, within walking distance, I think, of her husband Ben’s synagogue.  I recall seeing Aren several times at Ben’s synagogue.   These details leave me the impression that he was a religious man and regular shul goer.  I don’t know if that’s so.

I have gone back and forth during my life about the existence of a benevolent God.  I tend to see God these days as he appears in Leviticus 26, a jealous deity with no hesitation to make good on the most blood-curdling threats.  I have a hard time untangling the all-forgiving, loving God from the merciless events that go on in His world, often in His name.  

There are some who would say it must have been the hand of God that guided Aren westward and across the ocean to New York City on Christmas Day, 1904.  More likely, I believe, it was the hand of Aren himself, clenched into a hard fist and knowing it had to be better in America than the senseless, murderous life he was seeing all around him.

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