A Family Photograph

08 Jun 2014
June 8, 2014
Jeff Gates' family

My great uncles and aunts in Russia.

Like many Eastern European Jews, my paternal grandparents emigrated from the Russia in the early 20th century. But not all of my family left for the States. And, I suppose you could say they were saved from the atrocities of the Nazis because they lived under the atrocities of Stalin.

But, interestingly, my great Uncle Louie (“Unkie”) went back for a visit around 1931, when this photo of him and some of his brothers and his sister was taken (my grandmother Bessie, Louie’s sister, and another sister, Margaret stayed here).

This is an incredible photograph. What possessed the Bieber siblings (could I be related to Justin??) to pose in this way? It’s wonderfully theatrical, though no one was in the theater. From left to right in the back: my Great Uncles Yuri, Grisha, and Louie. In front are Zena, wife of Grisha (who, my grandmother’s daughter —my Aunt Selma— noted on the back of the photo, were later divorced) and my Great Aunt Fira.

In the 1950s my family was told not to contact the family in the USSR. It was too dangerous for them. I only know what happened to Uncle Louie. He saved his sister, my grandmother Bessie, from a destructive marriage by buying her a small piece of property in Los Angeles: something she could use to make some money to live. The lot, on the corner of Century and Airport Boulevards, ended up right next to LAX (and I see it every time I return home). My grandmother rented it to Union Oil where a gas station sat for decades making it possible to live a decent life after years of difficulties. It was an act of love by Unkie that saved her.

I remember him but I was just three years old when he committed suicide. He left no note and no one knows why he killed himself, although we have our 21st century suspicions. Just before my father’s funeral in 2000, I started to go into a private room to view his open casket, but suddenly stopped. I had decided I’d rather remember my father as he was when he was living. His sister, my Aunt Selma, pulled me aside as we stood outside of that room and told me the story of Uncle Louie’s funeral. Another open casket but they had conveniently covered the gunshot hole in his head with a yarmulke. Selma laughed. “Unkie would have been furious if he knew he was buried wearing a yarmulke.”

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