Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 6, 2011

Calvin Trillin on the Galveston Project

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 12:43 am

Calvin Trillin

Today I got this comment on my “Born in Kansas City” post from Stuart Newman:

The writer Calvin Trillin had a similar family history, with grandparents and other relatives who were diverted to Kansas City via Galveston. In one of his essays he asks “And who is Jacob Schiff to be embarrassed by my uncle Benny Daynovsky?”

I tracked down the book (“Messages from My Father”) at lunch today and scanned in the passage. It is, as you would expect, vintage Trillin:

I eventually found out how the St. Joe people got to St. Joe. [This is a reference to St Joseph, Missouri, a small city 50 miles north of Kansas City, the eventual destination of Abe Trillin, Calvin’s father.] This discovery came after I was grown and married. Alice and I were on vacation in the Caribbean. Someone I’d met in the South, Eli Evans, had sent me a copy of The Provincials, his book on Southern Jews, and I was reading it on the beach. I had reached a passage on the tense relations at the turn of the century between the German Jews in New York—many of whom had become established, respectable businesspeople—and the horde of impoverished Eastern European immigrants pouring into the Lower East Side. It said, “The silk-hat banker Jacob Schiff, concerned about the conditions on the East Side of New York (and embarrassed by the image it created for New York’s German Jews), pledged half a million dollars in 1906 to the ‘Galveston Project,’ which helped direct more than ten thousand East European immigrants through Galveston.” In order to disperse the immigrants, Evans explained, arrangements were made for jobs in various parts of the South and lower Midwest. It all made sense. My family had, in fact, gone to St. Joe specifically to work in a cabinet factory run by a German-Jewish family—a line of work soon abandoned for storekeeping by just about everyone except for my Uncle Benny Daynovsky, who apparently rather liked making cabinets. The Trilinskys and the Daynovskys were obviously Galveston Project people. Years after I’d learned that, a man in California named Alan Wachtel, who had heard me mention my family’s origins, was kind enough to go through microfilm of the records kept by the Galveston Project and send me copies of the relevant immigration documents—manifests of alien passengers arriving at the port of Galveston. There it was, in tiny longhand. The manifest of the S.S. Koln, arriving on October 5, 1907, from Bremen, listed my grandfather as Kussiel Trilinski, a thirty-one-year-old joiner (meaning carpenter, not someone who is almost certain to become a member of both Kiwanis and the Rotary) from a village that Wachtel eventually de-ciphered as Sokol’cha, a place about seventy-five miles west of Kiev. On March 10, 1910, the S.S. Frankfurt landed in Galveston with a complement of passengers that included my grandmother and two small children—Scheindel, my Aunt Sadie, and Abram, who in America became Abe, my father.

When I read Eli Evans’s book on the beach that day, Uncle Benny may have been the last survivor of my grandparents’ generation—a man in his late eighties who spent a lot of time tending his tomatoes in the yard behind his little row house in a part of St. Joe that I always remember as looking as if it had got frozen in place in around 1922. I sat up on the beach. “Embarrassed!” I said to Alice. “Who is Jacob Schiff to be embarrassed by my Uncle Benny Daynovsky!”

That was the first line of a piece I wrote about the discovery. My research consisted partly of coming up with embarrassing facts about the Schiffs, which did not prove terribly difficult. According to Stephen Birmingham’s book Our Crowd, for instance, Jacob Schiff had displayed on his office walls two of the largest checks he ever wrote, one of them for $62,075,000. (Big k’nockerl) In the piece, I remind my wife that the New York Post survived one battle of the New York tabloid wars because its owner, Dorothy Schiff, had finked on the other publishers in the New York Publishers Association and settled with the union separately. (“‘Since when did you become such a big defender of the New York Publishers Association?’ my wife said. ‘My Uncle Ben Daynovsky never finked on anybody,’ I said.”) Acknowledging that my family in St. Joe had a certain local renown for stubbornness, I maintain in the piece that there was nevertheless nothing embarrassing about them.  (Although my mother did not object to this statement, she might have quietly disagreed: at the time she met my father, I had often heard her say, some of the St. Joe people were so poor and benighted that their toilet paper supply came from the little pieces of tissue that oranges used to be wrapped in when they arrived at a grocery store.) Unlike Jacob Schiff, I point out, my Uncle Benny had never consorted with robber barons like E. H. Harriman (“When it comes to rapacious nineteenth-century capitalism, my family’s hands are clean”) and would have never put a framed check on his wall. (I did not go into the question of whether or not Uncle Benny actually had a checking account.) When I saw the St. Joe people at a wedding in Kansas City, I told them that I was working on the piece and hoped to have it published somewhere before Uncle Benny’s ninetieth birthday party.

“Don’t mention his name,” Uncle Benny’s son said. “The Russian army is still looking for him.”

1 Comment »

  1. […] of actor Ed Asner and long-time Nation Magazine and New Yorker contributor Calvin Trillin who had this pithy take on Jacob […]

    Pingback by A ten year Kaddish for Ann Proyect (1921-2008) | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 15, 2018 @ 5:42 pm

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