Fiction

The Lazarus Project: One Writer’s Research

Aleksandar Hemon

On the morning of March 2, 1908, a young Jewish immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch knocked at the door of the Shippy residence on Chicago’s North Side. George Shippy was Chicago’s chief of police and the young man demanded to see him. The maid told him to come back later that morning, and so he did, whereupon a shoot-out took place in which Averbuch was killed with seven shots, as in a fairy tale. Chief Shippy claimed that he had shot Averbuch to protect himself from an assassination attempt—as soon as he saw the visitor, he said, he knew he was an anarchist because he looked “Armenian or Jewish.” According to Shippy’s version, Averbuch arrived equipped with a gun, which Chief Shippy wrestled away. During the struggle Shippy’s son Harry, along with his driver, Foley, both sustained bullet wounds. The chief’s version does not add up, but the excited mainstream press was quick to believe him, and a slew of stories about the anarchist menace rearing its foreign head covered the front pages, frequently illustrated with pictures of the dead Averbuch. His violent nature was supposed to be manifest in his face and the shape of his head: The public marveled over his “low forehead,” “large mouth,” and “simian ears,” all presumably markers of his anarchist proclivities.

While looking for a “curly-haired” man someone had seen with Averbuch before the shooting, the Chicago police quickly started rounding up reputed anarchists, those resembling anarchists, as well as random foreigners who could one day turn into anarchists. Assistant Chief of Police Schuettler, in vigorous charge of the investigation, asserted: “It is almost impossible to pick up a man and determine whether or not he is an anarchist. We must follow them and learn their associates and habits from the moment they enter this country.”

A new federal law, quickly adopted after the Averbuch affair, allowed the authorities “to send out of the country not only the anarchists but all the worst elements of our foreign population.” The law ensured that “any immigrant who misbehaves himself badly [sic] within three years after his arrival in this country may be deported, never to return.” It gave the secretary of commerce and labor almost unlimited power, while deportation of undesirables became much easier, as it was “not necessary to convict an alien in court either of being an anarchist or being in any other way subject to the exclusion law” in order to deport them.

Had there been a color-coded alert system in those days, the alert would have been flaming orange, as a patriotic fever swept the country, with every decent American citizen on watch for foreign terrorists. One G. G. Trevissono, an attorney for the White Hand Society, an Italian organization formed to combat the black hand of anarchism, visited Assistant Chief Schuettler’s office and submitted a list of alleged “cranks” and anarchists in Chicago. The police department gratefully accepted the list and promised to investigate the persons named. One of the Chicago dailies ran an editorial cartoon in which the Statue of Liberty was angrily kicking a cage full of foreigners, recognizable by their hooked noses, curly hair, rabid looks, and bombs, knives, and pistols in their hands. “About time,” the heading read.

Averbuch’s bullet-riddled body was exhibited at the morgue, which quickly filled up with curious citizens, who, along with angry policemen, expressed their righteous outrage by hitting or spitting at the corpse. The police brought in Lazarus’s sister, Olga Averbuch, and without telling her he was dead forced her to confront the corpse. She broke into hysterics and collapsed on the spot. In the days after her recovery, she tried to convince the public that her brother was not an anarchist, but the machine had already made up its and the public’s mind.

It is here that accounts begin to differ. According to some newspaper reports, Averbuch was buried without witnesses in a potter’s field, beneath pouring rain. Olga was heartbroken—Lazarus was her baby brother, who had come to Chicago only three months prior to his death. She wrote a wretched letter to their mother and could not stop feeling guilty for her failure to protect him. The least she could do was to bury him according to Jewish customs. With the help of social activists, progressive lawyers, and kind people, money was raised and Olga demanded from the city authorities that they return her brother’s body so she could give him a proper funeral. But Lazarus’s body had vanished—the grave in the potter’s field where he was supposed to be buried was filled with water. For three days, Lazarus’s body was missing, as in the biblical story. It is unclear where the body was, and when the authorities finally delivered it to Olga, the brain had been removed, possibly, as some speculated, because some scientist wanted to study the mind of a proven anarchist. Jewish customs and common decency would not allow her to bury him incomplete. But a few days later, the brain was recovered and Lazarus Averbuch was finally laid to rest.

 

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Lazarus, his sister, and their family scattered around Eastern Europe were survivors of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom. After escaping across the Russian border, they lived in a refugee camp in Czernowitz (Chernivtsi, Ukraine today) for a while, and from there Lazarus made his way to Chicago in late 1907 to join Olga, who had arrived earlier. It is clear from his letters home—seized by the police, along with his books (What the Constitution Teaches, In Battle You Get Your Rights, etc.)—that he was profoundly unhappy in America. How did his hope so quickly turn to disappointment? How did the Land of the Free kill him, at the age of nineteen, months after he had arrived? This is what I wanted to write about.

My American research was based on Walter Roth and Joe Kraus’s book, An Accidental Anarchist: How the Killing of a Humble Jewish Immigrant by Chicago’s Chief of Police Exposed the Conflict between Law and Order and Civil Rights in Early Twentieth Century America. But I needed to go to Kishinev—Chisinau, Moldova, today—where I felt it all began, with the pogrom that was, for Lazarus, completed by Chief Shippy. I was interested in what Lazarus had left behind; I hoped to discover places where he might have been happy, before the pogromchiks took it all away. I wanted to get a sense of the magnitude of his journey, to understand the loss and the shock and the sadness of his transition from Kishinev to Chicago. I did not expect to find out what led him to Shippy’s door, or to solve the mystery of his death. I had to accept the defeat in the face of history—the complicated fullness of Lazarus’s life could never be reconstructed. But I wanted to collect the fragments of the times and places he passed through so I could imagine what it was like to be Lazarus.

There is no objectivity in writing fiction—to do the research I had to recognize that my interest in Averbuch was not a historian’s. I was after stories, the stories that I had to tell out of a need that could be defined only in the process of telling them. And stories can come from anywhere, at any time. To do research really means to open yourself up to all the possibilities of storytelling, to be ready to own whatever comes your way. The fragments you can use to build a story can be scattered across continents and centuries: the hand of a Bosnian I saw at the Vienna airport clutching a plastic bag containing all his immigration documents can be transposed to llis Island in 1907; the eyes of a Ukrainian boy, hardened by poverty, could belong to anybody in the ghettos of Chicago at the beginning of last century. Research means collecting random details so they can be built into a story. I had to wander and wonder in Eastern Europe, gathering things I could recognize as valuable and useful only once I saw them.

I do not trust my memory, and I was afraid of being alone with Eastern European history, so I recruited my best friend, Velibor Bôzovíc, to come along. Before the war in Bosnia, we lived across a narrow street from each other, played together in a band, and spent a lot of time together. But when the war began I found myself in Chicago, and he stayed in Sarajevo, where he subsequently spent almost four years under siege, serving in the Bosnian army. He moved to Canada in 1998, and now lives in Montreal. A few years ago he took up photography, and I wanted him to come with me and photograph the research trip.

We decided to take the long road: In June 2003, we landed in Warsaw, then took a bus to L’viv, Ukraine, a city laden with history. From L’viv, we took a field trip to a village called Ostalovechy, where my grandfather was born and where I still had some distant family. Averbuch, as far as I knew, never set foot in L’viv, let alone Ostalovechy, and I am not sure why we went there—looking for pieces of a story I could not yet tell, perhaps. After L’viv, we went south to Chernivtsi, a town near the Romanian and Moldovan borders. Chernivtsi has always been a border town with a shifty identity. It used to be one of the far towns of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the closest one to the Russian border, host to a border garrison and thousands of attendant prostitutes. This is where Averbuch and his family first escaped after the pogrom. From Chernivtsi, we took a bus to Chisinau, where we roamed the old Jewish quarter, spent some time at the Jewish cemetery, talked to the kind people of the Jewish Association, marveling all the while at the strange mixture of mobile phone shops, McDonald’s restaurants, totalitarian architecture, and traces of horrible history in a country that stands no chance of joining the wealthy, or even the not-poor. From Chisinau, a hired driver, possibly a lunatic, took us at blood-curdling speed to Bucharest. There we boarded a night train to Belgrade, where Velibor’s brother picked us up and drove us to Sarajevo. After a few of weeks of traveling we made it home, which was home no longer.

The fragments I have stored away in my mind and notebooks, along with a thousand or so of Velibor Bôzovíc’s pictures, are what we brought back from that vast, sad world. The photographs have become integral to my Averbuch project, in more ways than one. Sorting through them is what my book is going to be about. Now that the research has been done, the search can begin.

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