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The Harness Maker's Dream
Nathan Kallison and the Rise of South Texas
By Nick Kotz
TCU Press Copyright © 2013 Nick Kotz
All rights reserved.
AT SEVENTEEN, Nathan Kallison faced stark choices as a Jew living in Imperial Russia. Forced conscription into the army would condemn him to years of privation and hard labor in Siberia. If he stayed in his small village of Ladyzhinka, he risked death in a wave of anti-Semitic violence sanctioned by Czar Alexander III and executed by his brutal Cossacks. Starting in 1881, a new wave of pogroms—the pillaging and burning of Jewish villages, the slaughtering of Jewish men, women, and children—swept across the country. If Nathan tried to flee Russia, he faced a long and perilous journey, fraught with danger—robbery, murder, or capture by Russian border guards. But for a young man determined to take fate into his own hands, the chance for a better life in America was worth the risk.
Even in Nathan's remote Ukrainian village, in 1890 word about America was spreading from home to home. In Ladyzhinka, near Uman, letters speeding back across the Atlantic on steamships or telegraph lines told of workers barely off the docks who were earning a living wage—enough to feed a family and even hope to buy a home. In the first year of what would be called the "Gay Nineties" in America, stories of opportunity and prosperity across the ocean grew from hyperbole to myth in the teeming cities of Europe.
As money from the faraway workers trickled back to help impoverished families in homelands from Dublin to Kiev, an exodus fever infected the young, even in nameless hamlets and country fields. The new continent, they said, would welcome and enrich immigrants. A mighty work force was required to build the railroads, forge the steel, run the factories. This dream offered adventure for some; for others, a means of survival. For Nathan Kallison, it meant survival. Driven by a relentless work ethic, an uncanny sense for opportunity, the courage to flee desperation and terror and then to forge a new life, he slipped out of Ladyzhinka one night in 1890 and never returned.
Officially, the Russian government did not authorize emigration. But Jews by the thousands were leaving anyway. With little money but a great deal of ingenuity and courage, many were making their way west illegally across the Russian border into Germany, then to the port cities of Hamburg and Bremen to seek passage to the United States. The hazardous journey to the ports was rife with robbers, muggers, unscrupulous guides, and ticket agents stealing the small savings the escapees carried with them. A sad fate was to be turned back by Russian or German border guards; a worse, to be denied entry to the United States at the port of arrival.
Nathan was but one of nearly two million Jews who, over a forty-year period, escaped from relentless deprivation within their small settlements, towns, and cities within the vast confines of the Pale of Russia, and poured into tenements in New York, Philadelphia, and shtetl-like ghetto communities in Chicago, where Nathan first found his way. His hardscrabble life there gave way to adventure, however, and he took a road less traveled. Ladyzhinka, with its long and painful history, was forever left behind.
When he said goodbye to his mother that night in 1890, Nathan was leaving what had been his only home—and home to Kallisons (or Kalisons or Kolosons or Keilsons) either in Uman or the surrounding towns since the beginning of the eighteenth century. Most had lived through similar times of terror and hardship. It was ever thus: since the first wandering émigrés made their way out of their desert homes during the Roman conquest of what is now called the Middle East, the rulers found ways to torture the stubborn monotheists who refused to give up their religion.
In Ladyzhinka, Nathan was born in 1873, the second of three sons of Dina and Moshko (Moses) Kallison. Jacob was born in 1871, Samuel in 1875. Little is known about Moshko's life except that he died leaving a young widow with three very young children to raise and protect. Small in stature but gifted with courage and a strong will, Dina struggled to surmount poverty and to shield her sons from the cruelties Jews faced in Czarist Russia. From her own experience as a child, Dina understood the dangers—she had witnessed Jewish children of less than ten years being dragged away to certain death in the Russian army.
Nathan grew up in that shtetl, located in Uman province, halfway between Kiev on the north and Odessa on the south within the so-called Pale of Settlement where Jews were confined. Like other shtetls at that time, his was a jumble of wooden houses—frigid in winter, blistering hot in summer—built along narrow, twisted lanes that meandered out from a central marketplace. There, peasants from the rich agricultural lands surrounding his village brought livestock and wagonloads of grain, fruit, vegetables, fish, and hides in exchange for merchandise the town's Jews—who were prohibited from owning land—imported or produced: shoes, boots, hats, and clothing, furniture, lamps and oil, spades, tools, and other dry goods. Each shtetl at that time had its own synagogue and a religious school where young boys were taught to read Hebrew while learning the Torah and Talmud.
Jewish families had lived in Ladyzhinka for at least a thousand years. They were not always despised. In the eighth and ninth centuries, Judaism as a religion attracted the Khazar rulers of the Caucasus, who became converts. However, that influence faded in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when the Ukraine became the center of the first eastern Slavic state, Kyvian Rus. Late in the eighteenth century, this area, by then called Ukraine, was absorbed into the Russian Empire.
Located sixty miles south of Kiev, Uman Province was an important economic and cultural center, home to a large Jewish community. Nathan's family had lived in Uman province at least since the late eighteenth century. Records show "Kalisons" as Uman town dwellers in the late 1700s and early 1800s. By the mid-1800s, Kallisons lived in both Uman and Talnoye, a village northeast of Uman where Nathan's father Moshko, son of Duvid (David) Kallison, grew up with brothers Avrum (Abraham) and Yos (Joseph). All knew well the sad history of their ancestors in Russia.
Whether the land was under the control of Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, or Russians, Jews had fared badly in the Ukraine, often as convenient whipping boys and scapegoats. Life was marked by grinding poverty, discrimination, and violence, all endured with little hope of escape or of achieving a better life. That history, told sadly through the generations, was seared into Nathan's consciousness. Down through the centuries, the czars of Russia would issue special edicts limiting the rights of Jewish citizens. The lowly peasants in the countryside also were kept in line by rulers who convinced them that they were at least superior to the Jews. Even in relatively easier times, the Jews lived in a state of "permanent precariousness." The degree of hardship and fear varied, depending on the ideas and practices of whichever czar was ruling the country.
For a time, Empress Catherine II had welcomed Jews as merchants and traders, believing they might help stimulate the economy. In her reign from 1772 to 1796, she earned the title "Catherine the Great" by expanding Russia's borders to include what had been Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and the Ukraine, in the process adding several million more Jews to the population of greater Russia. However, the Empress's proclamation of tolerance did not last long.
Czar Nicholas I, Catherine's grandson, who had declared "Zhids" (Jews) to be "the ruin of the peasants" and "full-fledged leeches sucking up (the) unfortunate provinces to the point of exhaustion," was particularly ruthless. From 1825 to 1855, he issued six hundred edicts proscribing life for Jewish citizens, including a ruling that barred them from the villages where they had lived for centuries. Nicholas's motto—"Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality"—meant that the elements for a strong Russian nation must be the Russian Orthodox Church, the unquestioned power of the czar, and the protection of Russian national purity. There was no room for people of different religions, faiths, or national origins. Nicholas I's objective was to destroy the Jewish community as a social and religious body. "The purpose of educating Jews," declared one secret edict, "is to bring about their gradual merging with the Christian nationalities and to uproot those superstitious and harmful prejudices which are instilled through the teachings of the Talmud." Nicholas then ordered the conscription of young Jewish boys into the Russian army for periods of up to twenty-five years.
Memoirist Alexander Herzen described the fate of those boys as one of the most awful sights he had ever seen. "... pale, exhausted, with frightened faces, they stood in thick, clumsy soldier's overcoats, with standup collars, fixing helpless pitiful eyes on the garrison soldiers who were roughly getting them into ranks.... And these sick children, without care or kindness, exposed to the icy wind that blows uninterrupted from the Arctic Ocean, were going to their graves.
That cruel fate befell at least two young Kallisons: Mordko Kalison, recruited in 1852 at age nine, and Avrum Kalison, first cousin to Nathan's father, wrenched from his home and family in 1839 before he turned six. Neither survived. The cruel fates of Mordko and Avrum became family stories seared into the minds of future generations of Kallisons.
For the estimated five to six million Jews in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, one generation followed another without expectation of change. They lived in abject poverty, constantly fearing attack. They had little connection to the countryside immediately surrounding them or to the cities some distance away. Historian Irving Howe wrote:
Bound together by firm spiritual ties, by a common language, and by a sense of destiny that often meant a sharing of martyrdom, the Jews of Eastern Europe were a kind of nation without recognized nationhood. Theirs was both a community and a society: internally a community, a ragged kingdom of the spirit, and externally a society, impoverished and imperiled.
What is astounding—and difficult for many to comprehend—was the passion, the determination, the conviction, the stubbornness of Russian and other Eastern European Jews. They remained steadfast in identifying with and practicing their ancient religion despite cruel laws and constant danger. Even at the risk of their lives, the vast majority refused to yield to the succession of czars demanding that they embrace the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Kallisons, like most Russian Jews, were heartened, therefore, when Czar Alexander II came to power in 1855. He reduced their military service requirement from twenty-five to five years. Businessmen and artisans were permitted to travel outside the Pale. Universities were even opened to some Jewish students. At the same time, he also freed forty million Russian serfs. His actions raised enough hope for some Jewish families to honor the czar by naming their sons Alexander.
But those hopes soon ended. On March 13, 1881, revolutionary terrorists on the streets of St. Petersburg tossed a bomb at Alexander II with reverberations that resounded throughout the Empire. The blast that killed the czar elevated his son Alexander III to power. Rumors spread across Russia falsely accusing Jews of the assassination. Alexander III's edicts ushered in new waves of terror against Russian Jews. Cossacks swept across the countryside, robbing and destroying homes and businesses in Jewish villages, beating and killing the residents. This was the world that enfolded Nathan Kallison as a boy. When the Cossacks launched their reign of terror in 1881, Nathan was only eight years old; his brothers Jacob, ten, and Sam, six. Fearing for the very lives of her sons, Dina hid them at the first rumor of approaching danger. The young Kallison family and other Jews who survived this latest pogrom were subjected in 1882 to the new czar's more repressive laws, which again banned Jewish students from attending most schools, and even more narrowly dictated where adults could live and what few jobs they were permitted. Alexander III then announced his threefold "final solution" to the problem of "yids": one-third were to be killed, one-third driven out of Russia, and one-third converted to Christianity and impressed into the army.
In that moment many Jews within the Pale, particularly the strong and the young, decided to make a run for freedom. Their people had endured centuries of mistreatment; the young Jews refused to suffer any longer. With stories from across the Atlantic fanning their dreams, the mass exodus out of Russia began. Inspired by their faith in the idea that Jews were an "eternal people" imbued with the strength to start anew, a group of emboldened Jewish students started a movement they called Am-Oilam. They agitated for resettlement in America, a free country where they could begin new lives.
The fervor of new thinking spread quickly from the cities to the shtetls in the rural areas. Hasidism, a movement of pietistic enthusiasm, brightened spiritual life. The Haskala, or Enlightenment, brought modern ideas to the middle classes. New political and cultural movements stirred social awareness among the masses. The colliding forces of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and a new Yiddish culture of socialism and of Zionism combined to embolden Jews to embark on this mass departure.
Dina Kallison had done her best to prepare Jacob, Nathan, and Samuel to survive and to earn a living. Because literacy was a religious mandate for Jewish boys, they would learn Hebrew and study the Torah, but secular education at a public school was not an option. Leatherwork, however, thought by most Russians to be undesirable, was one of the few crafts open to Jews. Dina apprenticed each of the three boys at an early age to a leathersmith to learn harness-making. It was a useful occupation. Commerce depended on horse-drawn wagons to transport food from farms to villages and cities, and to bring manufactured goods back to the vast rural areas throughout Russia.
Ladyzhinka was surrounded by fertile farmland, much of it worked by subsistence farmers who produced enough vegetables and grains to sell and earn a small cash income. Because they were forbidden to own farm land, another of the few jobs permitted for Jews was as middlemen, going from town to town peddling small amounts of produce or a few small manufactured items. While working as apprentices to the local leathersmith, Jacob, Nathan, and Samuel Kallison each helped peddle their master's products, and young Nathan learned the rudiments of commerce.
But as the decade progressed, the already difficult life in Russia grew even more perilous for the Kallison boys. Young Jewish men were being slashed to death for what seemed blood sport. Yet somehow, that frightful wretchedness concealed the emergence of a heightened sense of hope. As the first Jews escaped to Western Europe, and as hundreds and later thousands were reaching America, their letters home revealed that life could become radically different—and for the better—in the country founded upon freedom of religion. You can get out, the immigrants reported home. And you should come now.
Among the first from Ladyzhinka and surrounding towns to reach the New World was Joseph Kallison, a cousin of Dina's late husband. Arriving in the United States in 1886, Joseph had made his way across the land to Chicago, where he found work as a tailor. Four years later, he'd saved enough money to send for his wife Ida and their two children, Samuel and Mamie. His optimistic reports home greatly encouraged others in the Kallison family.
Excerpted from The Harness Maker's Dream by Nick Kotz. Copyright © 2013 Nick Kotz. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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