Monday, February 18, 2013

Mystery of an Unassuming Hero

Among the many characters in my novel, The Unveiling, one stands out as a true hero. Chaim Rubin was a distant cousin who in 1920 left the safety of his home in New Jersey to return to  the war-torn shtetl, Skvira, in Ukraine to rescue over fifty suffering people. He helped them overcome the dangers and hurdles to escape first to Budapest, Romania, then Antwerp, Belgium, and finally to Ellis Island, New York.

My mother mentioned Chaim often while I was growing up in Pittsburgh. She was in awe of him. I never met him although his name was never far from my consciousness as the man who saved our family from the destitution of the shtetl following the Russian Revolution. Who knows what would have happened if they had not escaped...maybe they would have starved or been killed in a pogrom. If not, the Nazis would likely have wiped them out later.

When I interviewed my mother as I prepared to write The Unveiling, she could not explain how Chaim Rubin came to make the decision to undertake such a dangerous mission. She knew that her father and other family members had contributed money to help pay the expenses for the trip. My grandfather's sister and her family were also among those who needed to be rescued.

Once I began writing, my cousin, Carol Swartz, shared a photograph taken in Belgium of all of the people who were rescued as they were preparing to board the ship for the United States. Sitting in the middle of the large group was Chaim Rubin. That photograph provided some of the inspiration I needed to write the book.

Unexpectedly, a  few weeks ago, I began to hope that I could solve the myserty of our family's hero. Another cousin, Marvin Rubin, had made contact with Chaim Rubin's daughter, Etta Cantor. She read The Unveiling and wanted to meet me. She lives on Florida's east coast. Since I have been vacationing on the west coast,  her daughter, Bev Shane, was willing to drive to a luncheon meeting in Naples, Florida. Luckily, my cousin Carol was able to join us.

Leah Lambert, Etta Cantor and Carol Swartz

I felt an immediate bond with Etta, a lively, bright and curious woman, who shared her feelings of excitement when she read the section of The Unveiling that recounted her father's courage and selflessness. She wanted to know more about the people who inspired the other characters in my book. She remembered meeting quite a few.

I wanted to know more about her father. When I asked her what she thought motivated him to undertake such a harrowing mission, her first response was startling. "Maybe you should ask how his wife felt about him going on such a journey when she was home with two young children." But she did not elaborate on that angle.

As we talked about her father, she portrayed him as a very quiet, unassuming man who owned a candy store in New Jersey. He loved family and felt a sense of responsibility for them. Among the people he rescued from Skvira were his four brothers and their families. She said he never talked much about his experience although he had told her the same story my mother told me, about the woman who tried to quiet her crying baby and accidentally deprived it of oxygen and killed it.

Etta did have one new story to share. If I had heard it a few years ago, I would have included in The Unveiling. Before Chaim made the trip, he bought a camera. When he joined the others in wagons that carried them out of Ukraine, they all covered themselves with straw and hay to avoid detection. Some of the soldiers who were checking the wagons to prevent people from escaping, began poking through the straw to see what was there. A sword went through the camera and missed Chaim. He kept that camera for the rest of his life.

I am hoping to stay in touch with Etta and to learn more about her family.