Where I come from

Biography | The lasting influences of my grandfather, mother, and father
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 10/16/14, 03:12 pm

The following three articles about my grandfather and my parents were WORLD magazine columns rather than segments from my biographical series, but they show a lot about how God made me, for better or for worse.

‘I will not settle’: The 100th anniversary of a Declaration of Intention by a determined immigrant

One hundred years ago, on Sept. 21, 1914, Louis Olasky signed a Declaration of Intention “to renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, and particularly to Nicholas II, Emperor of All the Russias.”

He also declared in writing, “I am not an anarchist; I am not a polygamist nor a believer in the practice of polygamy; and it is my intention in good faith to become a citizen of the United States of America and to permanently reside therein SO HELP ME GOD.”

Five years later, as soon as he legally could, Louis Olasky became an American citizen. He also bought a house in Malden, Mass., and 40 years later enjoyed walking his grandson, me, to a park down the street.

Grandfather, this column’s for you.

“Shine my boots, Jew Olyevsky.”

Russia, 1912: The Czar’s army drafted Jews such as my grandfather for up to 25 years—although with rumors of upcoming war it seemed unlikely that any would survive that long. 

Olyevsky at age 20 knew to keep his eyes lowered as he obeyed the lieutenant’s command. Now he accepted the name Olyevsky—the man from the town of Olyevsk—even though his real name was Lepke ben Yehoshua. Now his face betrayed none of his thoughts. Sinful thoughts of murdering the lieutenant. Better thoughts of heading west to Germany—and America after that.

“Don’t be an idiot,” his bunkmate Mendel whispered that night. “Lepke ben Yehoshua, Lepke son of He-who-saves: No one will save you. They’ll chase you and shoot you down. Even if you escape the patrols, what then? How will you get to a German port? How will you get on a boat?”

“God will provide,” Lepke replied. 

“This god of yours!” Mendel exclaimed. “What has he ever done for us?” 

Lepke, on the top bunk, stared at the cracked ceiling and pondered his chances. He tried to figure out how many versts it was to the border—each verst had 500 sazhen, each sazhen was the length of a very tall man. The numbers he multiplied in his head were so huge that he became frightened. One step at a time, he told himself, that’s all it takes, one foot in front of the other. 

But then he thought about all the obstacles. He would have no papers to explain what he was doing to the soldiers and bounty hunters on the lookout for deserters, especially runaway Jews. So many things to fear—but fear would paralyze him if he let it, the way it paralyzed Mendel and so many others.

Lepke prayed himself to sleep: “Praised are You, Adonai, ruler of the universe, who closes my eyelids in slumber. Let no disturbing thoughts upset me, no evil dreams nor troubling fantasies.”

The next morning he put together his sack: Bread, some buttons useful for trading, a spare pair of socks. He’d leave his army musket—heavy, and a dead giveaway that he was a deserter—but would take his long knife: You never know. He also needed a map. The lieutenant had one.

That evening came the hated command: “Shine my boots, Jew Olyevsky.” He had just begun when a few drops of water came down from heaven. Keeping his eyes down, Lepke asked, “Sir, if it rains harder your boots will be muddy. Shouldn’t we do this in your quarters?” The lieutenant laughed: “You Jews hate being outside, don’t you? All right.”

Inside, the lieutenant chugged a bottle of vodka as Lepke spat on the boots and made them especially shiny. The lieutenant became sleepy. Then his eyes closed. Lepke picked up the map and ran. Mendel tried to dissuade him from leaving: “We both know this life is miserable, but it’s life. Why go to the grave?” 

Lepke responded, “I refuse to think that way. I will not settle. I will always look for something better, or I will die trying.” Mendel hugged him: “You’re you and I’m me. You always do what you believe.” 

Lepke did just that and managed to get across Poland and Germany. In Bremerhaven he hopped a boat to Liverpool and at age 22 came across the Atlantic in the steerage (lowest cost) section of an ocean liner, The Celtic. He arrived at Ellis Island in 1913. Thank you, grandfather. Thank you, God.

This column originally appeared in the Sept. 20, 2014, issue of WORLD magazine.

As she lay dying: On Mother’s Day, how do you honor an ornery mom?

“Honor your father and mother.” The commandment is unambiguous, but we’ve seen notorious cases of dishonor in which kids get rich by slashing their celebrity parents’ reputations. The rest of us, with little-known parents, don’t have that specific temptation, but we may have resentments that lead us down paths of dishonor.

On Christmas, 2008, my 90-year-old mother lay dying in a nursing home in Austin, Texas. I was with her all that day, holding her withered hand and watching the shallow rise and fall of her chest. Occasionally she opened her eyes and looked at me with a flicker of recognition. Then her eyes fluttered shut and she retreated once again into that space between life and death.

They say your life flashes before your eyes when you’re dying. I don’t know about that, but I can say that my mother’s life flashed before my eyes. She grew up in an emotionally and physically cold home with immigrant parents who had survived hardship. She never felt love nor enjoyed its material manifestations: No teddy bears, no birthday parties, no separate bed to sleep in. She never had the opportunity to go to college and as far as her good brain could carry her. She married a decent man with whom she was fundamentally incompatible, but stayed married to him.

Ida Olasky wore those resentments on her sleeve. One of my cousins, who liked her, called her “the unhappiest woman I ever knew.” Not until I became a Christian at age 26 did I have any empathy for her. I’d like to say love, but it was more abstract. A sense of God’s sovereignty does not remove awareness of human responsibility, but it does decrease bitterness. The doctrine of original sin does not generate despair, but it helps us to understand trespasses and eventually forgive them.

Only over time could I stop yearning for what Ida wasn’t and start enjoying her rough-edged honesty. She gave the gifts she could, including a bag of fortune cookies hoarded one by one from dinners in Chinese restaurants. My wife and I still chuckle about the time my mother, in a fit of altruism (or thinking our four children were enough) offered her an old, used diaphragm. And God allowed us to honor her by throwing the birthday parties she never had as a child.

Then came the miracle God wrought in Ida’s last three years, from age 87 to age 90. As her memory failed and life became too complicated, an odd thing happened: Unlike other people who had dementia and became mean, she forgot her resentments and became happy. She lost her fear of poverty and her sense of being taken advantage of.

Perhaps because Ida was white-haired and fuzzy-headed, therapists found funny what would have been cruel coming from a younger woman. When an overweight therapist walked past her, Ida would ask, “Have you ever seen such a big BEHIND in all your life?” Then she’d giggle and pull a face like a naughty schoolgirl. Once she had heaped up mounds of medical magazines as she read about each ailment she could possibly have. Now, living in a perpetual present, she didn’t even fear death.

For decades she had been hostile to any mention of Christ: She would always ask the same question—“Tell me why you had to become a Christian”—but never really hear the answer. Now, she could listen to the gospel and say, “What an interesting story.” Before, she would criticize Susan. Now, she would take my wife’s hand, look her in the eye, and say, “I’ve always loved you.”

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belong the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). Having become like a little child during her last three years, does my mother have a spot in heaven? What was going on in her soul? I don’t know, but five verses after offering that admonition to his disciples, Jesus—recounting commandments vital to keep—says “Honor your father and mother.” Honoring my mother is hoping to see her again.

This column originally appeared in the May 18, 2013, issue of WORLD magazine.

Honoring Dad on Father’s Day: Don’t go inside when he drops the ball

My Mother’s Day column last year must have struck a nerve, judging by the many letters I received. Some readers asked, What about your dad? It looks as if lots of guys on Father’s Day have a hard time obeying God’s command to honor our fathers. 

One reason is that many of us retain grievances. The quirky 1989 baseball movie Field of Dreams gets to me because my dad and I never played catch, nor did he ever come to one of my Little League games. Once, at age 10, I asked him to throw me some ground balls on the street—we had no backyard or green space nearby. He reluctantly obliged, but his first throw went under my glove and kept rolling and rolling. I fetched it, waddled back, and tried to cover up my error by saying, Throw one I can reach. That was a bigger error. He walked inside. We never played again.

I can’t lose that bad memory but can push myself to trump it with a good one. At age 8 I wrote a school report on Israel’s 1956 war with Egypt. I was pro-Israel but had picked up from TV Westerns that firing the first shot was wrong. When I read an account of the war that said Israel had launched a pre-emptive strike, I discounted that and wrote in my draft that Egypt in 1956 invaded Israel. My father was also pro-Israel, but he corrected me. I’ve never forgotten the importance of factual accuracy.

Part of honoring a dad is to let memories of his strengths outweigh the grievances. My father knew calligraphy. He knew the odds against a hand in bridge having no card higher than a nine are more than 1,000 to 1. He knew the frequency distribution of English letters: “e” most often, but folks who think the other vowels follow immediately are wrong. (“T,” “a,” “o,” and “n” come next.) He loved magic squares, arrays of numbers in a box on paper so that their sum in any horizontal, vertical, or main diagonal line is the same.

If we can’t forget our dads’ limitations, at least we can push ourselves to consider them as suffering human beings and not as icons (our childhood reaction) or icons to be shattered (often our teenage reaction). My father was extremely introverted and uncommunicative—once he totaled the car yet neglected to tell my mother—but through his consistent work I always had food, clothing, and a roof over my head. I’ve never had the experience of a wife screaming at me as my mother screamed at him weekly, but he didn’t strike back either physically or verbally—and they didn’t get divorced. 

What I don’t have from my father is much of a theological legacy—or maybe I do, in a negative sense. He was an anthropology major in college from 1936 to 1940, a time when not only Nazis emphasized the centrality of ethnicity and race. Many professors stressed being a member of your clan because it’s your clan: Stay within it. Follow its customs, regardless of your own ideas.

The clan teaching struck home for my father, who stayed within Jewish culture although he apparently had no belief in the God of the Bible. I’m thankful that he introduced me to Adam, Noah, and Abraham: Judging from his senior thesis, he did not think they existed, but he never told me that, and my childhood faith valuably left me with unanswered questions. Those questions propelled me into atheism but made a difference in my mid-20s when I learned the answers are in the New Testament. 

My father died of cancer three decades ago. He was 67 and I was 34. Three months before he died he didn’t respond to my questions about what he believed, but I should have persevered in asking and did not: Once he dropped the ball, I went inside. So one way to honor fathers still living, even those who seem distant, is to try doubly hard to draw them out while there’s still time. I wish mine were still around. I have no confidence that I’ll see him again, but the Judge of all the earth will do what’s right, and maybe someday, somehow, my father will throw me another ground ball, on grass.

This column originally appeared in the June 14, 2014, issue of WORLD magazine.

Read Marvin Olasky’s multi-part biographical series chronicling his progression from card-carrying Communist to Bible-carrying Christian, his years in academia, his involvement in welfare reform, and his present position as WORLD's editor in chief.

The first 10 episodes are available in a book, Unmerited Mercy: A Memoir, 1968–1996. Visit the WORLD News Group store to order your copy.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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