Fleeting Shadows of the Dead
Arriving at Ellis Island, Bain News Service, 1915. Via Library of Congress
by Ed Simon
Men learned to speak in order to understand one another…
It seems that the time has come to learn to be silent once again.
—Fritz Mauthner, Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache (1923)
On the whole, more men had perhaps escaped into the war than from it.
—Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity (1939)
Act I: What Little is Known
I’ve no photograph of my great-grandfather’s brother, Peter Simon, the Hungarian tailor who was imprisoned by Cossacks and sent to a Siberian prison-camp. No physical description, no first-hand testimony, no knowledge of if he was tall or short, fat or thin, fair or dark. His brother Mathias, my father’s grandfather, is scarcely more tangible to me. Of him, I have the stories of my grandfather, now dead for eight years, recounted to me in childhood. My father, now dead three years, never met his grandfather, so Mathias was scarcely more present to him. Only a few generations from the boat and Peter skirts the edges of our narrative – a cipher, a lacuna, a ghost.
Mathias appeared only in a sepia-toned photograph that his son kept on a shelf next to golf trophies and literature from the United Steelworkers. From my memory of that now missing photograph, Mathias looked like the Ellis Island immigrant of our collective imagination: a dark man with a finger-thick mustache in high-necked frock coat, the Victorianism of the Austro-Hungarian Empire still fashionable in the year before World War I when he first arrived in red-brick Philadelphia, only to eventually settle to the west in Reading.
Polyglot Mathias’ native tongue was possibly Hungarian, though he spoke German at home, had acquired Italian from his years of military service as a cavalry soldier, knew both Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch (the later easily learned after moving to Reading), and from the multiethnic quilt-work of his home empire presumably was conversant in Czech, Slovak, Serbian, Croatian, and possibly Romanian and Polish as well. Such was Mathias’ linguistic aptitude that my grandfather Joe claimed that all recent arrivals to Reading, regardless of their national origin, were told to come to Mathias’ house at 224 Rose Street for conversation and bootleg wine.
Mathias was born within that confusing Hapsburg map, and served that quixotic, aristocratic, paradoxically conservative-yet-utopian project as a military officer, until he heard the guns of August in the distance, and smelled the mustard gas of the Brusilov Offensive and left with his wife and those early children born in the “old country.” I’ve no certainty of the contemporary identity of that land. Ellis Island lists him as “Magyar,” but that in and of itself is no indication of “actual” ethnicity or nationality, especially in the Austro-Hungary where borders were somehow even more obviously arbitrary than they normally are (while ironically ultimately proving more consequential and deadlier as well).
Such confusing vagaries are exemplified by an example given in the British writer Simon Winder’s Danubia: A Personal History of Hapsburg Empire, which concerns the Hungarian composer Bella Bartok. Winder writes that Bartok was “born in Nagyszentmiklós, now the Romanian town of Sânnicolau Mare, then moved to Nagyszőlős … now the Ukrainian town of Vyobradiv, then Nagyvárad, now the Romanian city of Oradea, and then Poszony, the Slovakian capital of Bratislava,” a narrative that demonstrates how such people crossed borders and borders crossed them – continuously.
Winder explains that identity was mercurial in Austro-Hungary, where language, ethnicity, and religion could be altered by sheer mobility and the duration of a few generations, the result of this “great population boom and resultant rush to the cities over the [nineteenth] century’s last decades.” Particulars of Mathias’ narrative are no simpler, even as those details escape us. His birthplace would today either be in Hungary or Serbia, possibly Slovakia. All that is known with any certainty is that the region or town identified as largely Hungarian, though before the 20th century that is no indication that the place remains there.
My father told me that wherever the Simons’ origins, they’d only been in that new land for a brief respite before ultimately coming to the United States, having made this country our home longer than they ever had in the “over there.” Such a place was figured to me as a province, or region, or town whose name I would ultimately discover written on Mathias’ Ellis Island manifest as “Toppelya,’ of whose modern locale there are several candidates. Before ever seeing it written, I heard the name pronounced like “Tupelo,” as in the town in Mississippi which was the birthplace of Elvis. Prophecies of our Americanness and rejection of all things European in the very name of the town from whence the Simons originated.
Family accounts are that there was once a letter explaining that internal immigration, that recounted the same basic narrative for all such stories: things were bad at home and they were better in this other place. I don’t know who this letter was written by or to whom it was addressed. I do not remember if my father claimed to have ever seen it – I certainly never saw it. Conjectures as to why they came to Toppelya included escape from the Napoleonic invasions, or as is more likely that they were Jews fleeing from the pogroms perpetrated by Cossacks across Galicia and the Pale of Settlement. In this narrative, the Simons left the shtetl and embraced the comparatively liberal tolerance of the Hapsburg empire, assimilating into Hungary and ultimately converting to Catholicism, though I know none of these details either.
For the Jews of Austro-Hungary, the Hapsburgs avoided what Winder describes as “either [the] pressure on Prussian Jews to become German-speaking Prussians or the Russian view that Jews were irretrievably alien.” Jewish emancipation was “pushed by bureaucratic efficiency and not by liberalism,” as Winder explains, and yet that relative openness allowed for the emergence of an unparalleled cosmopolitan civilization, as Jews moved from Galician villages and Polish shtetls into the metropolises of Vienna, Prague, and Budapest.
Winder writes that in this “final period of the Habsburg Empire” the culture of the nation was “famously dominated by the achievement of its Jewish subjects,” perhaps the most completely European society to ever exist (no doubt an argument to the chagrin of white supremacists). Amongst the metaphysical predicament of exile, these new Jews produced a faith that in its universality, abstraction, and commitment to the flexibility of identity was as close to that fabled European humanism as anything from ancient Athens. But this came with certain sacrifices, a capitulation to the outside world that resulted in assimilation and a complete divorce from one’s origins, as was perhaps the case for the Simons.
My grandfather was certainly not raised Jewish (and was barely Christian for that matter, abandoning his childhood Catholicism), but was Mathias? Was that the faith of Mathias’ father? Of his mother Justina Reisinger, whose commonly Jewish surname is listed in only one place, her son’s Pennsylvania death-certificate? The Simons’ origins have always been their great mystery to me, lines ending only two generations back with no paterfamilias other than Mathias coming from some obscured part of a now collapsed empire, giving the anglicized form of his first name to both my father and brother. Were Mathias Jewish, that would not be an impediment to his being a military officer. Winder explains that while it would be “unthinkable in the other empires for Jews to become army officers,” here in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even in the shadow of Dreyfus, “there were thousands of Jewish army officers.”
If conversion and assimilation are at the core of the Simons’ story, then there is something fitting in the name of my great-uncle, for in the Asian manner Hungarians place the patronym at the beginning, meaning that he would have been known as “Simon Peter” – appropriate for a new Christian. That “Simon” is so commonly Jewish has certainly been taken as evidence of Jewishness, weaved into my own (perhaps false) interpretation of a Jewish beginnings, one which despite their eventual nominal Catholicism inspired me to (again perhaps falsely) grasp onto whatever shreds of a Jewish identity I could find. A strange semiotics of Jewishness when much about you reads as such and yet you are not, especially when your family’s history is so ambiguous. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his brilliant 1948 existentialist reading Anti-Semite and Jew, argued that the “Jew is the man whom other men consider a Jew.” If we go by that definition, then I can show you a litany of emails in response to my political writings where the increasingly not anonymous antisemites of the world very much consider me to be a Jew.
And yet I can’t still help but feel that a potential Jewishness is more than mere affectation, rather seeing it as a birth-right traded. Our families’ histories are written in absences, in the gaps between what is known and not known, identities as faded as the wallpaper where a mezuzah has been pried off. Mine is only partially a story of discovery, of being tantalizingly close to thinking that you might be on the cusp of knowing. My father Matt told me that his uncle Frank (ne Franz) returned to whatever village they came from shortly after the end of the Second World War (for you see, people once did know the location of that fallen world), in hopes of possibly procuring some records. The parish priest, upon meeting these American Simons, turned his back after learning their surname. In this village there were Simons in the graveyard, but no longer any in the streets, homes, and shops – perhaps their liturgy was now written in shadows and ash. I must affirm that I cannot affirm, for this is, as it must ever mostly be, a narrative of potentials and possibilities, of ghosts.
As little as we know of Mathias, we know less of his wife Magdalena. Matt remembered her as a positively tiny woman with broken English (save for some choice obscenities), continually in mourning black for her husband and perennially fearful of being sent back to Europe. Of her parents we know nothing, for she was an orphan who lived as an unpaid servant for a family until she married Mathias. In photos of Magdalena, pale and raven-haired, she looks nothing so much as “Magyar,” as the archaic, racially inflected language of U.S. Immigration documents described Hungarians in the first decades of the 20th century.
If there is at least one certainty, it concerns the decisions of two brothers who sailed from Hamburg to New York on the S.S. Blucher the year before a Serbian nationalist would shatter the skull of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This is a narrative about sons and fathers both known and unknown, of brothers. My great-grandfather, the older of the two, would tend to his garden in the New World, making himself and his family Americans for whom burial of the past was an inviolate right. Peter, on the other hand, was an example of that immigrant’s story too often obscured in American hagiography, that of the exile who longs to return homeward. So, a few years after arriving, he did. And as they say, “Csöbörből vödörbe.” That is, one leaves the frying pan only to be immolated in the fire.
Mathias lived out the Great War in Reading until his heart gave way in 1926, scarcely seeing his fifth decade. Peter returned home to fight for the other side. My uncle, who according to his nephew harbored a special hatred of the Russians, returned to serve on the eastern front. Another Jewish enlistee, though fighting for the Allied Powers, was the British war poet Siegfried Sassoon who noted in his Memoirs of an Infantry Officer that in “earlier days [there] had been drafts of volunteers,” though now those men constituted “droves of victims,” as it would be for Peter.
Peter was to be captured by the hated Russians, placed on a train, and sent very far to the east. The trade skills which Peter had once plied in Philadelphia were now used to cobble boots for the Cossacks. A century before, Aleksandr Pushkin wrote of the Decemberists that “Deep in the Siberian mine,/Keep your patience proud;/The bitter toil shall not be lost,” and so one prays it was true for Peter sewing together shoes which had lost their soles in a camp whose barracks were constructed of unpainted birch-wood, acting as cobbler to the very people who may have once murdered and lynched his family.
Peter, following that separate peace brokered between the Central Powers and the Bolsheviks, slowly returned to Hungary, where his wife and son still resided (my uncle having supported them financially during his years in America, a not uncommon practice for split families). A Magyar proverb reads “A nyavalya lóháton jön, gyalog megy el,” roughly meaning that misfortune arrives on horseback and comes back on foot. For a soldier like Peter, now forced to trudge on leg and rail across all of Eurasia, such an aphorism was painfully true. Peter was joined by roughly one-and-a-half-million Austro-Hungarian prisoners-of-war representing a panoply of ethnicities, from Ruthenian to Romanian, Slovenian to Slovakian, Italian to Illyrian, a third of whom had died when sent to Siberian prison camps by the Romanovs. Winder writes that such men were scattered “all over the former Russian Empire” and that like Peter “they made their way back home as well as they could, one of the first of the horrible mass migrations that were to mark region after region of Europe until the late 1940s.”
Upon arriving in a country that hadn’t existed when he went to war, he discovered that his wife, understandably assuming him to be dead, had remarried. And so, Peter and his eldest son, whose name I do not know (but that I like to think is Telemachus), chose to leave grim and grey Hungary, not for America, but rather sunny Uruguay, the government of which had been encouraging Jews in particular to emigrate. Barbara Tuchman contends in her account of the Great War that “Human beings, like plans, prove fallible in the presence of those ingredients that are missing in maneuvers.” Life – like war – can only ever be planned and anticipated until it must actually be fought.
Upon his familial reunion, perhaps my uncle’s words mirrored those of Emily Wilson in her immaculate translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, writing that “he kissed/his son and cried, tears pouring down his cheeks;/he had been holding back till then.” In the years after Peter settled to South America, his family in the United States still corresponded with him and his children, until Hungarian, then German, then perhaps Yiddish were forgotten, and English and Spanish too divergent to speak in any common tongue. And so, his family was lost, even as the Montevideo phone book lists dozens of Simons, each one a possible descendant of my uncle and his children. This is what I’ve been told.
Act II: What’s Been Lost
Of paprikash made with kosher chicken incongruously seasoned with sour-cream and dyed the color of the blood-dimmed tide with that omnipresent Hungarian spice. Of vinegary cucumber salads garnished with an obscenity of dill and black paper. Of syrupy coagulated cherries, eaten cold and straight from the copper flavored can. Of apple strudel distilled to a cloying sweetness and studded with the partial cerebellums of walnuts, enveloped in a phyllo cradle of bible-paper-thinness.
Or schnitzel pounded flat and covered in the pregnancy of a soft-boiled egg, ringed with anchovies and capers. Of grey tinted goulash flecked with the torpedoes of caraway seeds heaved atop a field of curled egg noodles. Of bread so thick and dark that it’s the color of the hour just before dawn as espied from the muddy bottom of a trench. Of sardines eaten atop that bread, and creamed fish, and picked herring floating in a brine of onions and the cragged mutilations of their own spines. Of paprika. And paprika. And paprika. Of slivovitz chilled to Arctic coldness and burning like the eastern front from the mouth of the Baltic to the stomach of the Balkans.
Not just those things, but of wedding-cake colored Vienna, occult Prague, and the red explosion of Budapest. Of Rainer Maria Rilke writing in his The Book of Hours that “I am too alone in the world.” And Franz Kafka who, after walking through those claustrophobic, crooked, coble-stoned streets of the Prague ghetto, would write to his friend that “We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods.” Kind-faced Joseph Roth, round and bald, ambling across the Galician steppe while contending that “That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took its time being forgotten.”
Of Sigmund Freud, with his neat white beard and his glasses pinched high upon that beak of a nose, a cigar that is just a cigar clamped between thin lips while he informs a patient that “We obtain our concept of the unconscious, therefore, from the theory of repression.” Handsome Ludwig Wittgenstein with his piercing eyes and his thick curly black hair, traipsing through Alpine villages in his ratty tweed jacket so as to teach school children mathematics, even though his family lived on an apartment off of the Ringstrasse in Vienna, and who went to grade school with another Austrian named Adolph Hitler (separated by only a few rows in a class photograph), writing analytical philosophy that reads like modernist poetry, duly telling us that “Whereof we cannot speak, we must remain silent.”
Or Gustave Klimt, whose paintings were as a shimmer of gold miracle, and rectilinear Adolph Loos. Theodor Herzl, who while of no land wished for one and willed it to be so, and Felix and Moses Mendelsohn who drafted symphonies for those new worlds. Strange Arnold Schoenberg with his clanging, discordant, twelve tone masterpieces, and Gustav Mahler plaintively stating “Ich Bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen” – “I have lost track of the world.”
What was this world that we could lose track of, this weird, pompous realm held together by mutton-chopped emperors and the stupid, hunting-obsessed Hungarian nobles who hated those same emperors? This strange land cobbled from all of the left-over bits; neither German, nor Slavic, nor quite anything else? Was Austro-Hungary a profoundly conservative patchwork of kingdoms, where administration and paper work synthesized dozens of disparate countries into a chimera that made little sense and which ultimately committed suicide? Was it the cradle of the Modernist avant-garde, unheralded for its significance until that map had already frayed to bits? Was it both?
Uniformly dim and frivolous though they may have been, the Hapsburgs promoted a constructed identity that for a time was able to avoid the traditional tribalism of Europe, even as ethnic nationalism continually reared its head within their confines. Simple realpolitik perhaps, and yet the Austro-Hungarian Empire encompassed Austrian Roman Catholics and Hungarian Calvinists, Polish Lutherans and Wallachian Unitarians, Orthodox Romanians and Balkan Muslims. And of course, Jews. The empire’s decrees were spoken in guttural German and the razor-blade Hungarian; in soulful Czech and soft Romanian.
Austro-Hungary was a land that Pieter M. Judson reminds us in The Habsburg Empire: A New History which exemplified “social policies that reinforced a sense of equal citizenship,” albeit by “promoting patriotic feelings… and respect for the social order.” And yet the Hapsburgs built a nation with “Universal primary education in vernacular languages,” established “an independent judiciary,” and promoted “free trade within the empire.” The Habsburg’s had neither the revolutionary fervor of French “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” nor the mystical promise of the American “pursuit of happiness,” but a tolerance for pragmatic reasons is tolerance all the same. Not difficult to see how one could be patriotic, but whether Peter committed himself to his nation’s defense for that reason, or from bad-luck or coercion, is hard to say – accounts differ. I do know that Peter left as an Austro-Hungarian, but when he returned that country no longer existed.
Curious as to if Peter ever read Stefan Zweig, the most European of all men (for he was the most cosmopolitan), while never faltering to condemn his empire’s worst provincialisms. An assimilated Jewish Austrian, who in stories, essays and novels like The Royal Game and Letters from an Unknown Woman, explored the dream of a Europe where no person would be a stranger, where culture was the common treasury of all, and where every country could be his home. Like Peter, Zweig left Europe for South America, though a few decades later. Zweig’s final residence was some fifty or so miles north of Rio De Janeiro, and while he saw the mulatto promise of Brazil as its own type of cosmopolitan utopianism, the horrors of blitzkrieg at home led him and his wife to take a fatal duel dose of barbiturates, writing in his suicide note that “My inner crisis consists in that I am not able to identify myself with the me of my passport, the self of exile.” If Peter could sympathize, I do not know.
As for my connection to this lost civilization, it is almost entirely intellectual. My mother’s family is Italian on both sides and as far back as we know, and that is an identity that I can grapple with, but of this missing nation in the middle of Europe there is only the sense of being in exile some several times removed. Who among us can say that we’re “Austro-Hungarian-Americans?” Just as likely to say that you’re Babylonian as Austro-Hungarian, for such is the result of tracing yourself back through the cemeteries of a fallen empire. Can we speak of ourselves as Hungarian? We’re barely that, the most I’ve ever heard the language spoken was in The Usual Suspects. And whether we’re to speak of ourselves as Jewish is to either utter a lie or rather a promise which we ourselves rejected, and I know not which.
Rather the Simons were to answer the question in a different way, with an identity every bit as invented as that of being Austro-Hungarian. Winder writes of how in Austro-Hungary there was an optimistic sense of “redefining how people felt about themselves,” that now they had the ability to “choose;” that “within two generations” there could be a “total jump” to whatever constructed identity one wished. What Peter chose is hard to say, but for the rest of us, the identity that would be embraced couldn’t be purchased at the cost of a train ticket from Toppelya to Budapest, or from Budapest to Vienna. Rather it had to come from that baptismal font that is the Atlantic Ocean, for if the Simons were to be anything, it would be American.
When my dad was little, Joe would sometimes take him to an ethnic fraternal society informally called the “Hunkie Club,” after the common ethnic slur for working class eastern Europeans which is still commonly used in the Rust Belt. Such was the rare acknowledgement of this recent ancestry, but what my dad claimed to remember the most about those visits wasn’t anything particularly Hungarian, but that the floors of the club were polished to such a slippery sheen that he enjoyed sliding across them, and that on the jukebox the honky-tonk of Hank Williams played continually.
Act III: What’s Been Gained
So American was my grandfather that as a child I assumed that he had willed himself to be born on the 4th of July. Lean, muscular, athletic and tall, he had an eruption of wavy white hair that if he were to have grown a goatee would have made him look like Uncle Sam. In profile he had the hawkish nose which used to be called “Roman,” and his face looked nothing so much like a carving on Rushmore. His name was Joe Simon, which he shared with one of the first Jewish settlers in Pennsylvania, a prosperous merchant who established Lancaster’s first Jewish cemetery in the 1740s. More evocatively for my contention about his sui generis origin as a fully formed Yankee, my grandfather shared a name with the Jewish creator of Captain America. Joe defined himself through a hatred of injustice. Socialist in politics, loyal to his union, and steadfastly liberal in his dealings. According to Joe, oppressions promulgated by those exploiters who game the system – the landlord and the factory owner, the arms dealer and the bigot – must be resisted at all costs.
Half of his sisters and brothers were born in that forgotten land, and half in the new one. He was the youngest. Things of Europe were abandoned; he played soccer when he was an adolescent, football when he was an adult. Josef became Joe; Franz became Frank; Mathias became Matt. His beloved sibling Casper would spend several years playing Triple-A baseball in the Tar-Heel League, after a stint as a Golden Gloves boxer in the Navy; his athletic career was halted after his middle three fingers on his pitching hand were sliced off in the machine shop he worked in. Supposedly this was immediately after he’d received word from a scout that he’d be potentially drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers. A relief pitcher with the Coolomee Weavers (his uncle, after all, was a tailor) and the Lexington Indians (his uncle was not); Cas scored 99 runs in 1938, and 45 walks. His baseball card for that season has him at a healthy American 6’2’’ and a solid 215 pounds, fighting weight for when he returned to West Lawn Pennsylvania to beat the shit out of the former chief of police, who was also a Grand Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan. The chief had harassed the family in Cas’ youth, because they were Catholic and immigrants, and Cas hadn’t forgotten. Neither had Joe.
Such was Joe’s love for his brother that after Cas grew wealthy from the print shop he owned, known for frequenting local bars with two women on either arm and a drink in each hand, that my grandfather was willing to vote Republican only once in his life, when Cas ran for local office. A member of the Young Persons Socialist League in his youth, during the Vietnam War Joe marched with Veterans for Peace, throwing his medals from the Pacific away in protest of U.S. action in Indochina. His was a radicalism imparted from the old left – a gospel by Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie. In 1908, less than ten years before Joe would be born, and the popular socialist candidate for President Eugene Debbs would thunder in Girard, Kansas that “I am my brother’s keeper… What would you think of me if I were capable of seating myself at a table and gorging myself with food and saw about me the children of my fellow beings starving to death?” Joe had no traditional religion, but if you could encompass his sentiment towards the eternal, then I believe the words of Debb might come closest to it.
The extent of his formal education ended before he could graduate from Wilson High School, returning rather to the machine shop after his war, and the only time he spent in a university class room was when he was trained in the operation of ship radios before being sent to the Pacific. Yet he had a keener mind than a bevy of theorists working at a left-wing magazine, and his sentiments were not formed in the reading of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, but rather from the factory floor. This is also to say that Joe’s politics weren’t imported, that they didn’t necessarily arise from his European origins, and that in fact an understanding of his radicalism is instrumental in understanding just how American Joe saw himself to be.
Historian Marshall Berman describes the politics of the left-wing American Popular Front, explaining that it “articulated a vision of a genuinely democratic community, perhaps the first such coherent vision in American history.” Joe’s Americanism was of an “ideal community [which] differed radically from the draconically purified New Jerusalem with which our Puritan founders had begun, and from the Populist idyll of an agrarian Paradise Lost, of the garden before the machines – or the swarthy immigrants – arrived.” Joe was, after all, the child of those swarthy immigrants, and he operated those machines. Rather his politics envisioned a country that was “modern, industrial, ethnically and culturally diverse… a community with room for people like our parents and ourselves.” My grandmother’s origins can be traced back through prairie homesteaders and Puritan Yankees, but the WASPiest thing about my grandfather was a love of golf played during the hard-won temporal utopia of the weekend. While Berman is correct that Popular Front partisans and men like my grandfather rejected the Anglo-Saxon hegemony which had defined elite America for centuries, he gives short-shrift to the role that the Puritan New Jerusalem played in that American radicalism.
What Joe shared with that initial generation was a sense that our national identity was as if a covenant. A rejection of those twin idols of “blood and soil,” an identity not reducible to mere contingencies of race and ethnicity, language and religion. If Joe condemned America (and he often did) it was out of prophetic love, and the desire to caste out of the Temple those money changers who more often than not directed the affairs of state. Regardless of his family’s origins, this may have been the most “Jewish” thing about Joe, that true to the covenantal nature of his political allegiances he’d be just as likely to embrace the words of Isaiah 1:17: “Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.” For the son of Mathias Simon this was the definitional nature of being American, this desire to be a citizen of that utopia and a commitment to its unrealized ideals. The rest of identity are simply details.
“Americanism” in this sense is strangely Jewish, for it’s abstract and universal – a faith that can theoretically be entered into by anyone willing to convert, where the signing of the Declaration is as Moses at Sinai. As the Simons wished to become American, so it was as if a burning away of old identities. This wasn’t even mere assimilation – it was conversion. Contrary to the spurious essentialisms of so called “Identitarians,” how we define ourselves is contingent, relative, ambiguous, fluid, and mercurial – not just in America, but the world round. America is only exemplary in admitting (not often enough) that identity is self-constructed. Which is to say that identity in both Austro-Hungary and the United States, as indeed everywhere else that women and men dwell, is an invented affair. Yet where Austro-Hungary was an ever-expanding union of composite states, with strictly defined ethnicities given a square on the quilt that was the empire, the American model saw those differences as subsumed in a creedal allegiance to the abstract definition of the nation.
The literary critic Leslie Fiedler once told an interviewer that “To be an American (unlike being English or French or whatever) is precisely to imagine a destiny rather than to inherit one; since we have always been, insofar as we are Americans at all, inhabitants of myth rather than history.” Price of admission for this myth was in the rejection of that history, and allowance that old identities had been shuffled off in favor of a new one. The collective price of that admission was also the unspeakable horrors committed against those who were defined as being incapable of paying that fee. All the differences between the United States and Austro-Hungary must forever be contextualized in the horrific wisdom which understands that their tolerance has always had its limits; that if the former began in genocide and slavery, then ultimately the later ended in it – and we still await to see what the end of America will look like.
In Hungary, tallit and kippah were exchanged for scapular and rosary; Hebrew for Latin; the Magen David for the crucifix; in America those things were exchanged for Cas’ baseball bat, for Joe’s United Steelworkers card, for my father’s saxophone. All things lost and gained in transits across oceans real and imagined, but as the nature of the American frontier is ever receding, the danger of myth would be in my naively believing that history has ended, of assuming safety with complacency, of believing in membership through ignorance. But how does one sail to an America when it is increasingly obscured on those imaginary maps that we clutch?
Act IV: What’s Been Discovered
Carl W. Ackerman, New York Times correspondent who covered the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the subsequent Russian Civil War, has faded from public consciousness, in part due to his more-than-dubious ethics and his rabidly anti-Communist editorializing. His were a politics that led him to produce copy with sentences like “Railroading, like everything else in Russia, has been revolutionized; that is, revolutionized in the wrong way,” where Orientalized Russians are described as having “eyes [that] betray their ignorance and their innocence.” Ackerman’s Siberia was a locale of stereotypical droshky drivers with “long, unkempt whiskers… curly fur hats, and long threadbare fur-lined coats, and felt boots” and of exoticized “caravans of camels and… horses and ponies bringing in raw materials from Mongolia, Manchuria, and Northern Siberia.”
But he could also spin poetry in his copy, as when he described Lake Baikal on a winter morning. Ackerman was a polemicist, but he could see the mountains ringing the western shore as “lace against a background of gold and blue clouds” where the sun appears “copper-gold in color, contrasting sharply with the silver sunrises and sunsets further east, where there are forests of birch.” Ackerman also writes that Siberia and the America are not so far apart, especially as he encounters “Russians, Germans, Austrians, and Czechs who have lived in the United States.” He writes that from “Vladivostok to Irkutsk, at nearly every station we met persons who could speak English and said that New York or New Jersey or Pennsylvania had been their home.” And on November 6th, 1918 he filed an article from Irkutsk for The New York Times about one of those Pennsylvanians, detailing a conversation he had in a Siberian work camp with a 31-year-old Austro-Hungarian prisoner of war named Peter Simon.
My discovery some four years ago of Ackerman’s article, “Across Siberia to Vladivostok,” filed with the Times exactly a century ago today, was a strange and fortuitous moment. How often do people hear family legends, accounts of being pretenders to some foreign throne or of Indian princesses, of lost aristocratic origins and obscure genealogies? But rarely is one lucky enough to find confirmation of that apocrypha in an article by the future dean of the Columbia University school of journalism making his way across Siberia with the U.S. 85th Regiment, the “Michigan Polar Bears.” Confirmation of family legend is so rare for most of us, and yet in the newspaper of record, in-between Ackerman’s denigration of shifty Japanese soldiers and stolid American railroad engineers, there is my great-granduncle’s previously mute voice, the only trace of the man that I’ve ever been able to discover. A spectral photograph, a tape of a ghost whose few words recounted are all that survive of this ancestor.
As my grandfather had told me, as my father had told me, Peter was imprisoned in a work camp administered by Cossacks. Israeli historian Alon Rachamimov, in his invaluable POWs and the Great War: Captivity on the Eastern Front, describes how Cossack-administered camps were prelude to the industrial killing of the subsequent decades; he writes that “Stories… about eye-gouging, tongue-removal and summary executions were common” in the prisons run by the Czar’s traditional enforcers. From Ackerman I learned that the location of Peter’s camp was in the town of Ust-Sema, in what’s known today as the Russian oblast of the Altai Republic, a small wedge of land between Mongolia and Kazakhstan’s kiss.
Mountainous and remote, Altai is inhabited by ethnic Russians and indigenous Turkic peoples; its valleys dotted with churches of the Old Believers who struggled in reformation against the Orthodox in the 17th century. Peter would have been witness to “undernourished prisoners interred in barbed wire enclosures; cramped cattle trucks converted to carry human loads; camps that supply cheap labor to industrial and agricultural enterprises; frequent outbreaks of… typhus, typhoid fever and dysentery,” as Rachamimov describes them. Croatian prisoner Franz Bejcek, imprisoned in a camp northeast of Kostroma in the upper Volga, viscerally described the “evening wind” that whistles “through every joint of this miserable barrack,” where it’s impossible to stay warm and where it is “never quiet,” victim to an onslaught of “roaches and fleas” and those “impertinent house animals, the rats” who ultimately “devour during the night every little precious piece of bread and whatever else they can find.”
I have less words of Peter’s, but his recounted interaction with Ackerman is still telling, a litany of pain provided in the details we’re not given. The reporter describes “walking through the railroad yards” when he “spied some German war prisoners in a box car.” Ackerman climbs in, and finds a group of German and Austro-Hungarian POWs forced into slave labor as “tailors and shoemakers for a company of Cossacks.” The entire drama of Peter’s exile and imprisonment, all of family myth, the spectrogram of a ghost, recorded in five sentences by Clay W. Ackerman:
“I have been seven years in Reading, Penn,” said one of the men “I have a brother there, Mathias Simon, but I haven’t heard from him in thirteen months.”
“Are you married?” I asked.
“Yes. I have a wife and baby in Budapest.”
“Do you know that Austria has made a separate peace?”
“No?” he inquired, doubting and astonished. “Then why don’t they let us go home?”
Unequivocally our Peter, as helpfully confirmed by the delivered details. Some of what he told Ackerman was new to me – I was unaware that he’d made the metropolis of Budapest his home; I assumed that his son was older. But it’s that single “No?” that makes me feel like, even for the briefest second, I can detect the fleeting shadows of the dead from my peripheral vision. Not only do we sense his understandable doubt and astonishment as recorded by Ackerman, the frustration and anger that he’s still been imprisoned in an anarchic country ripped apart by civil war, but in the oddest of ways I feel like that shocked monosyllabic interrogative also evidences a bit of gallows humor.
The last words I have from Peter, but not the final from his brother. On January 31st, 1919 The Reading Times published an article without byline that basically quoted the pertinent portions of Ackerman’s piece, but which also included a remarkable quotation from Mathias. The anonymous reporter writes that Mathias was “elated to learn that his brother was alive and well,” being “very anxious to give a story of his brother’s life.” Mathias told the reporter that:
My brother Peter, who is now 31 years old, came to this city from Budapest in 1906, and was a tailor by trade… in 1913 applied for his first naturalization papers. It was then that he made the mistake. He thought he had money enough to go back to Budapest for his wife and little baby, and so he went. When he arrived back there they seized him and held him in reserve, expecting then that war would soon be declared. So Peter was forced to go to the front, and the last we heard from him was about 14 months ago, from somewhere in far-off Siberia, and we have written many letters since to the address of his last letter, but never received an answer. I am so glad that he fell into the hands of the Americans. I know now that he will be treated good, and I shall write to his family at once, and hope that his wife will receive the good news. Peter’s heart was with America, I know that, but what could the poor fellow do – when he got back in Europe they grabbed him and made him go to the front, because he had no naturalization papers, and under the law of Austria-Hungary he was still their subject.
What an irresistibly strange thing for the literary critic to interpret, to perform a close reading upon the only words you have of a man who is your direct ancestor, and for which the only trace you have left is this perilously unlikely article published a century ago? The miracle of this, that of the millions of men imprisoned in those camps like my uncle, that his words should be preserved, available to me with a simple ProQuest search of the New York Times archives. More than anything, Mathias has the desperate need to assert an Americanness for his brother denied naturalization papers and who would ultimately find himself in a typhus-riddled, vermin-infested, freezing prison camp on the Asian steppe. After all, “Peter’s heart was with America… what could the poor fellow do?” His heart was with America, and maybe a century later America’s heart would be with him? Though I increasingly have my doubts.
Act V: Coda
In 1882, a young girl named Ezster Soymosi drowned while playing in a river near that Hungarian village of Tiszaeszlár. Rumor spread that the Jews were responsible, that old accusation of the blood libel proliferating like spores through this quiet backwater of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Antisemites claimed that kosher butchers had slaughtered the girl for her blood, to be used in the production of Pesach matzah. A hateful myth, common since the middle ages, and used to justify all manner of pogrom and atrocity against the Jews.
Writing about the horrifying state of contemporary Hungarian politics, Winder informs us that “Scarcely credibly, at the time of my writing the far-right Jobbik party have been promoting a cult of Eszter Solymosi’s grave and raising questions about what really happened to her in the Hungarian Parliament.” Barely more moderate than Jobbik, the Hungarian Prime-Minister Viktor Orbán has made himself a virtual dictator, in the midst of the European Union. Propelled to power on waves of anti-Islamic, anti-Rom, and anti-Semitic rhetoric, Orbán is one example of what some have called the new “illiberal democracy” which has taken root from Russia to Brazil, and which more honest observers have identified as simply the latest iteration of fascism.
In Italy, the government of Matteo Salvini is proposing that all Rom be catalogued in a database and that “ethnic stores” have an enforced closing hour. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Party is a potent force in French politics, and it remains possible that she will become President one day. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government remains in power in coalition with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, an anti-Republican and anti-Catholic group, and the Labour minority is embroiled in scandal over antisemitism in its ranks. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party have pushed through the noxious National Home Law, which moves that country closer towards apartheid. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of the once promising democracy of Turkey, has shifted Ankara in an increasingly authoritarian direction. Australia’s Parliament almost passed a bill whose language was explicitly drawn from internet white supremacists, and in Germany the AfD movement, with its neo-Nazi origins, lurks like a dark presence at the edges of legitimate government. Chinese President Xi Jinping has removed virtually any obstacles to him becoming a life-long autocrat. In Poland, the ironically named Law and Justice Party has made it illegal to mention the role that any Poles may have played in the Holocaust (a bill passed with Netanyahu’s support). Putinism emerges from Russia like the authoritarian child of tsarism and post-modern trickery which it should be understood as. And of course, there is America. As Mathias once put his ear to the steppe, you should do the same now, and ask yourself what sounds you hear?
Winder, considering the decomposing body of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, wonders if it’s fair to say that “that nineteenth-century liberalism was always doomed to fall into the nationalist trap.” What had once been the most urbane, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan of places found an entire subset of its population “annihilated within twenty-five years of the Empire’s end and millions of people murdered for mystical and intellectual reasons so perverted that they raise effectively unmanageable questions about the real nature of Europe’s civilization.” If members of Peter’s family found their ends in those camps far more horrific than even those which he was imprisoned in, I do not know. But I have my suspicions.
Peter was not just a refugee, as we may all one day, he is also one of the early victims of this long, bloody 20th century which has yet to see an end. Rachmimov argues that “World War I unleashed the murderous potential inherent in modernity itself and set into motion a process of ‘industrial killing’ which is still very much with us today,” and historian Peter Pastor claims that the gulags which Peter was imprisoned in “could be considered prototypes of those set up later,” Hitler and Stalin drawing occult inspiration from “this new type [which] seems to have come into being… under the tsarists.” We must be horrified by these noxious new nationalisms, same as the old ones, with jackboots polished and still a comfortable fit for our new Führers. If we’re to have any hope of survival, then defense must be proffered for that maligned “rootless cosmopolitanism” as Stalin called it, and which the new authoritarians call “globalism,” with dog-whistle clenched between thin, grey lips.
Peter returned from one collapsing empire into another, a man with literally no country, but for whom like the Wandering Jew I pray may have found that the whole world was a common treasury. No human is as free as when home is wherever they choose to lay their head. Historically a very American contention, for Mathias does tell us that his brother’s heart always was with America. Time is one method of burning away our identities, yet underneath those scars our skin remains warm to the touch. What identities have been lost, and what remains to still be burnt away? How strange to have a secret message hidden from my lost uncle, these ghostly filaments, these mystic chords of memory reaching like tendrils from a man whose picture I have never seen. A refugee, an exile: Peter is a family ghost among the ghosts of empire.
When Ackerman asked Peter about whether or not he and his fellow soldiers would be ready for another world war if they returned home, he answered “Never again, if we have anything to say about it.” Our history has been a painful process of realizing that we’ve often had very little to say about it. My uncle repeated those words a hundred years ago today. Of all of the questions concerning Peter which remain unanswered, the one which is the most haunting is whether or not someone will be able to similarly consider me a hundred years hence. Of that answer, I do not know.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.