Tsar and Queen
Until the First World War redrew national borders in Europe, Augustów, a trading center for cattle and the region’s small, wiry horses, lay in imperial Russia. Today it is in the far northeast corner of Poland. Augustów was a garrison town when Rose—?Raisel in Yiddish—Wieslander was born there in 1879. “I slipped into the world,” she would later claim, “while my mother was on her knees, scrubbing the floor.” One of her earliest memories was of the clatter of iron horseshoes on cobblestones as the tsar’s cavalry swept across the town’s wide market square. “One voice, ringing steel, commands. Men and horses swing and whisk and turn and gallop, stop suddenly, race, and disappear with a cra-kerra! Kerreka-Kerreka! ”
Throughout the sprawling Russian Empire, there were often more troops in places with restive populations that were not ethnically Russian. In Augustów, that meant Poles and Jews. The latter had long been the officially sanctioned scapegoats for all the ills of the creaky realm of the Romanovs, with its corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy. Famine deaths? Jewish grain dealers hoarding all the wheat. Debt? Jewish moneylenders. Disease? Spread by the Jews, of course. Defeats on the battlefield? The Jews were spying for the enemy.
Though they often prospered in business, Russia’s Jews faced almost insuperable barriers to obtaining a university education or a government job. Only one of the empire’s five million Jewish citizens, for example, managed to become an army officer. With rare exceptions, Jews were restricted to the Pale of Settlement, a swath of territory spreading mostly across parts of what today is Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. And even there, they were banned from certain districts and cities without special permission.
Augustów lay in a region of lakes, rivers, and a long canal. On these waters Rose’s grandfather, known as Berl the Fisherman, plied his trade. She remembered his “thinly-bearded rugged face, with its high cheek-bones, generous mouth, and kindly grey eyes.” He lived near a public well in a hut with a thatched roof, which held the traditional large Russian tiled oven used for both cooking and heating. “Some of my earliest recollections,” Rose wrote, “are of a boat and oars and a wide expanse of shining water.” She recalled her grandfather fishing from the boat with nets, women dressed in soft white muslin laughing as they bathed and washed their sheets in a river, and more women chatting as they rolled loaves of dough at a bakery. In the town’s synagogue, there was “sunlight streaming in through a tall, high window, and a bird flying in the rafters.” When her grandmother died in a typhus epidemic, her body was laid out on the dirt floor of Berl’s hut, under a Persian shawl that had once been a wedding gift.
Despite those kindly grey eyes, Berl seems to have been a tyrant to his family of six children. He rudely broke up a romance between his daughter Hindl and a young Pole, forcing her instead to marry a Jewish bootmaker, a widower with a small child. The 17-year-old Hindl resisted ?— ?dirtying her face and dress when the bootmaker came courting, and fleeing to her father’s hut when it was time to stand under the huppah, the wedding canopy, already surrounded by waiting guests. Berl slapped her face and dragged her to the ceremony ?— ?or so Rose heard. It was this loveless union that produced Rose. Before long, the bootmaker departed for America, leaving behind his resentful wife, their new daughter, and the small son from his previous marriage. From New York, he finally agreed to a divorce.
Above the bed where Rose’s beloved grandmother died hung the only piece of artwork in the hut, a portrait of Tsar Alexander II. He was the reformer tsar, the emperor renowned for liberating Russia’s serfs, millions of peasants who had been living in a state akin to slavery. Making a few additional cautious moves to modernize his country, he had shown considerably more tolerance for Jews than his predecessors, ending some anti-Semitic measures including the harshest, a decree that sent tens of thousands of Jewish boys away for 25 years of military service. British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli called him “the kindliest prince who has ever ruled Russia.” The Pale of Settlement and most other restrictions on Jews, however, remained in place.
In 1881, the year Rose turned two, on the very day he put his signature to a new set of reforms, Alexander was being driven along the embankment of a canal in St. Petersburg, the capital, when a revolutionary threw a bomb at him. The tsar was not harmed, but the bomb killed or wounded several Cossack guards and bystanders.