Morris Leiben fought for the tsar’s army in Siberia during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.  He returned home after his service to a family who expected him to marry and become a successful business man.  He found the atmosphere suffocating.  It inspired him to do the only ambitious thing he ever did.  He said good-bye to his parents and two sisters and boarded a boat to cross the ocean to America
Morris landed in Galveston, Texas.  He withered in the heat.  He wandered for two days until he found a man who spoke Yiddish.  Is the whole country like this? he asked.  Of course not, the man scolded.  America is huge.  Is there any place like Siberia? Morris pleaded.  The man told him to catch the train north to Omaha.

             There, Morris found a room and got a job at a hat factory.  The owner of the boarding house thought it a shame, these young unmarried people.  She arranged for Morris to marry Rose Sluskey, another Yiddish speaker from Russia, a poor and determined woman, the only one from her family to ever come to America.  Rose and Morris opened a grocery store on 19th and Willis. They had three daughters, the oldest, my grandmother, Lillian.   Rose warned Lillian that she would die if Lillian ever left her.  Just after my mom graduated from high school, Lillian and her husband Joe decided to move just a few miles away, from 18th and Willis to 50th and Burt.  Rose died not long later, of complications from diabetes, an intentional insulin overdose, Lillian claimed.

Morris, by then an old man, came to live at the house on 50th and Burt, where he sat and read the newspaper.  He, like my mom's father, died before I was born.  There is a photograph in one of my mom's many albums of my brother as a little boy, nose to nose with an old man.  Today, my mom mentioned it when I was digging for more details about her ancestors, and I can perfectly picture it, having studied that photo many times, without ever having made a connection, here was a man who made the decision to leave behind what was familiar, to begin a life unknown.

All our ancestors on both sides left Russia to make that ocean crossing at the beginning of the 20th century.  Their pictures hung on the wall in my parent’s study, in the 51st Street house where I grew up, not a mile from Grandma Lillian's Burt Street house.  All my life, I have studied the faces of my ancestors and heard the tattered bits of stories that have survived.  They met and had children and formed families and we who remained gathered for Passovers and Hanukkahs, birthdays and funerals.

The stories of how we came to Omaha are more dramatic than how we left.  Less than a hundred years after these Russians arrived in Omaha, most all of us have snuck off, each leaving in our silent way, through death or diaspora, to follow children, to attend school, to chase jobs, to live out dreams.  Another hundred years, and no one descended from this family will remember that their ancestors were from Omaha, or rather, it will be a vague recollection, a hunch, three generations of people condensed into a single unrevealing fact:  In the twentieth century, they lived in Omaha.

            The story goes, when Morris was a very old man, he told his daughters that he was ready to go back to Moscow, to see his sisters again after almost a half century.  Too late, they told him.  He was too old to make such a journey.  When we get close to death, we fill with love for the things we took for granted and regret for the love we forgot to give.  And now they are gone, the highest branches of our family tree collapsing into a single detail.  They came from Russia with two rolling pins.


  1. I can see why your mother clings to the rolling pins, though I hope she knows that in the future there will be no better place for their safe keeping (along with the attending stories of their journey) than with you.

  2. "...the highest branches of our family tree collapsing into a single detail." What a wonderful phrase! And all the generations before, those for whom there is no photograph, no letter, no documents at all and the places they lived and died whose names we cannot know. What should we leave behind for those who follow? Is literature immortality, or only the illusion of permanence?
    Grandpa John

  3. It's the archivists who are the real heros of history!