The Core Belief


70 years ago, on 11/09/38, the Germans staged a pogrom that would come to be known as Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass or Night of Crystal).  Although few were actually killed in this event, broken windows, the wholesale destruction of businesses owned by Jews and arrests were the norm, Kristallnacht is generally accepted as the first ‘action’ of the Holocaust.


11/09/38 is also the night that began to define my father.  In truth, I still haven’t been able to fill in the shades and contours that surround his life, specifically in Europe and Asia as he was on the run from the Nazi’s and then in the Displaced Person’s (DP) Camps after 1946.  I do know he was a gun runner, a blackmarketeer and learned how to gamble in those camps but the stories I heard from the Old Man were few and far between.  Because of that regrettable lack of communication between us (including my younger brothers), not to mention the official record of the Holocaust, any understanding of how they shaped the man are even further from my comprehension.  Such are the mysteries that followed him to Detroit in the early 1950’s.  They have remained after his death and are the exact unspoken mysteries that make him such a fascinating character.


There are whispers I have heard, some true some false, over the course of the years: Aron Zola was a gun runner for the Irgun – true.  He was arrested for black marketeering somewhere near Munich – true.  The Old Man met some survivors who were family members of the Purple Gang in one of the DP camps and that’s why he made his way to Detroit once in country – false.  Some branch of the proto CIA/US covert community used my father to gather information about Czechoslovakia while he acquired goods such as nylons, chocolates and coffee to sell on the black market in the DP camp Traunstein – probably false but the family loves to speculate.   However, there is one person who had all that information, all the stories but he took them to the grave: Marcus ‘Menasch’ Jacober.  He was almost as interesting a character the Old Man but just as much of a mystery.


My main memories of Menasch always revolve around Passover Seders.  The Seder is a meal consumed on the first two days of Passover, a holiday predicated on the exodus from Egypt, by Jews around the world.  Even Jesus, another nice Jewish boy who went wrong, did the Seder thing; although Christians call it the Last Supper.  There is a service that happens during each Seder; half prayers, half re-telling of the Jews escape from slavery.  The first half of this ceremonial prayer dinner, said before the meal is served, takes over 45 minutes to accomplish unless Menasch was doing the service, in which case it took around 10 minutes.  According to the Old Man, Menasch had studied to be a rabbi before the Holocaust and became a house painter when he came to America.  At first my brothers and I figured he just wanted to get to the food so he flew through the service so we could all eat and then play cards with the Old Man.


By the time I hit 8 or 9, I realized Menasch didn’t really paint houses, Menasch was a professional gambler.  So, whatever family event there was, Dad had to go get Menasch first and that meant going to the Cushion and Cue Pool Hall on 9 Mile and Coolidge in Oak Park.  The Cushion and Cue was owned by Mikey Selik, a member of the defunct Jewish mob called the Purple Gang.  Although small, fat, bald and walking with a cane, Mikey was considered, with reason, to be the toughest man in Detroit.  Whatever ‘real money behind the scenes gambling action’ that went on in Detroit could usually be found in a back room in the Cushion and Cue, and if you followed that action, you found Menasch. 


Of course, once we got to the joint, the Old Man had to sit in on a few hands of whatever game was being played.  When we hit our teens, my brothers and I were left to our own devices to play pool.  However, as children, we were left with either Mikey or a man named Pops.  Pops, who was just this side of a million and five, had no teeth, wore a small fedora and a long brown raincoat, was considered to be a pool hustlers pool hustler.  He used to instruct me on the proper way to handle a pool cue in his non-descript European accented English.  Within an hour, out came Menasch and the Old Man and off we went.


Menasch was a member of the family.  When he was hit by a car that broke both his legs, he convalesced at the house and he was at every graduation party, family event or holiday celebration.  In 1980, after my parents took us to see the re-make of Little Miss Marker at the Twelve Oaks Mall in uber suburban Novi, Michigan, Scot, Joel and I demanded the Old Man teach us Pishe Paysha, a Jewish card game mentioned by one of the movie characters.  After thirty minutes of hounding that would make Bart and Lisa Simpson proud, the Old Man promised he’d bring Menasch to the house for dinner.  “He can teach you that game,” Dad said, to shut us up.


Menasch did not disappoint.  The next night, he gathered the three of us around the black Formica breakfast table and showed not only how to play the game but how to hustle it as well.  The Old Man looked on smiling; another card game his son’s could survive and feed themselves on if Hitler ever came back.


I never thought deeply about Menasch, even after he died in the late ‘90’s.  To me he was a dear old man, bald with a thick Polish accent, who my father had befriended in post Holocaust Europe and, out of the blue, ran into at Greenspan’s Service Station in Greenfield Avenue shortly after he arrived in the Detroit in ’52 or ’53. 


After 9/11, when my father was in more of a mood to discuss the Holocaust i.e. yes I went through it, I still hate the fucking Russians, the rest of the Europeans slightly less and if you ever mention my sisters to me again, I will get on a plane to kill you myself, did I get Menasha’s story, blackly humorous, ironic and harrowing as it was.


Menasch was studying to be a rabbi in the east of Warsaw and lived with his wife and five daughters in the west of Warsaw.  When the Blitzkrieg and partition of Poland came though in September of 1939, Menasch was actually saved by Stalin and the Russians: they deported him to Siberia to work as slave labor for the furthering of the communist revolution by the Soviet Union.  In early 1994, when the Soviet’s attempted to send him back to Poland, Menasch told them he enjoyed sitting out the war in their forced work camp and they could go fuck themselves.  Not only is this at odds with the kindly old man I knew, it also earned him another year in Soviet detention for being a contrarian smart ass.


Once back in Warsaw, he attempted to ascertain the whereabouts of his wife and daughters only to find they had all been murdered in Auschwitz shortly after the beginning of the Final Solution.  “He snapped, kid,” the Old Man spat, “Hitler killed him in 1946.  After that, he became a degenerate gambler.  Once I had enough money, I always looked after Menasch.  He had no one else.”  That was all my father would say on the topic.


I do know Dad always made sure Menasch was in a good apartment complex, always had a few bucks in his pocket to gamble and had a semblance of family life.  The extent to which the Old Man looked after Menasch and the Mentor/Protégé relationship which they had was left unknown, at least to me and possibly to my brothers, until after my father’s death.


Apparently, they first met during one of Dad’s excursions over the border to Czechoslovakia.  Menasch was employed by the United States as a border cop in Traunstein, a Jew to police other Jews.  My assumption was the Old Man, who was all of 19 or so at the time, had bribed Menasch, who must have been 30, so he could operate unmolested.  It was Menasch who taught my father how to play cards, shoot craps and pool.


Personally, I believe if not for Menasch channeling my father’s gambling instincts out of the venture capitalism of the black market and into the more practical means of games of chance, Dad may have not lived long enough to come to the US.  I also think the Old Man knew this as well and Aron Zola never forgot a favor or a friend.


Once re-acquainted in the US, it was Menasch who showed the Old Man where the action was in Detroit.   “I didn’t hear from your father for the entire December of 1965, this was just a few months after we started dating,” Mother told me.  “I figured it was a fling, nothing more when Dad called me out of the blue in January.  I was worried and asked him where he had been.  ‘Oh, I was playing barbotte (a high stakes Greek dice game) behind the church in Greektown with Menasch.’ They did this for the entire month December!”


Over the course of the years, Menasch would borrow money from various loan sharks, so he could gamble.  It was never a lot of money, usually $300 or $400 hundred at a clip.  It was well known on the street, if approached by Menasch, you gave him the money and then went to see the Old Man the next day.  One shark didn’t go to see Dad for his money and he knew the Old Man.  His name was Levine and he made the mistake of sending a goon to put a scare into him.  Dad freaked out and made sure this kid realized his mistake.  “I don’t know what Levine was thinking,” Mother said years later.  “How could you do that to a man like Menasch after all he had been through?”


I know the debt was repaid by Aron Zola and Levine made some very high profile criminals very, very angry, most importantly Mikey Selik.  It seems that even the gangster culture of Detroit has rules of conduct.


However, he also kept Aron Zola within the framework of the Jewish tradition.  It was Menasch who arranged my bris, my Pideon Ha’ Ben (the ritual of buying back the oldest son from a rabbi), all of our bar mitzvah’s etc.


Of course, the Freudian reasons for Menasha’s gambling were right in my face: it was how he kept feeling.  But pure psychoanalysis fails when it comes to someone as complex as Marcus Jacober.  The fact he could still function after the latest act of genocide against the European Jews robbed him of his profession and family is frankly amazing.  But, like my Old Man, he never said a word about his experiences.  He never had a bad word to say about anybody Menasch remained religious, humble and charitable to the end. Why he was able to keep his devotion to Judaism is beyond me.  I suppose I would have asked him had I known but Menasch wouldn’t have answered the question, not even Talmudically.  He would have wanted to know if I wanted to play Gin.


All of these things went through my head last week as I went to say Kaddish for the man.  Kaddish is the Jewish memorial prayer said on the anniversary of the death of a parent, child or spouse.  My Mother, brothers and I say it for Menasch as well.  This year, I said it not only because I remembered the man, how good he was to my Old Man and, yes, he was as much a part of my family as my aunts or cousins.  No, I mention Menasch as the Iranian leaders once again issue genocidal threats against the Jews of Israel.


To this gentlest of men, I would ask: is this Hitler come again?  Should we attack?  What should we do?  Of course, this provokes many questions about why not tell the world about your experiences in Europe.  Why not give your testimony.


Then again, I know his answer: Alex, let me show you how to hustle Texas Hold ‘em.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Every Friday, get 2 for 1 movie tickets when you use your Visa Signature card.

Recent Comments