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My grandfather, Meyer Greitzer, was born in the pale of Russia - that vast wasteland that was Russia under the Tzar. A few nobles lived in splendor, and everyone else had nothing. The peasants scratched the earth for enough food to survive, and life was very, very tough.
And then there were the Tzar's Cossacks. When necessary, these mounted soldiers did the bidding of the Tzar; the rest of the time they ran wild, oppressing the peasants. They would go into the small villages, the shtetls, and take whatever they wanted from whomever they wanted. Then they raped and murdered their victims. They supported themselves by living on what they stole. In this way, it cost the Tzar nothing to have an army.
No one was exempt from this carnage, although the Jews and the Gypsies were the Cossacks' special targets. When they entered a Jewish settlement they did extra raping and killing, the killing and torturing of Jews being considered a civic duty. After stealing everything of value, raping all girls and women, and murdering the townsfolk, the Cossacks would burn down the town and go on to the next place.
The only people they would spare were young boys six, seven and eight years old, who were old enough to take care of themselves and yet young enough to forget their lives thus far and become Cossack soldiers.
My grandfather was seven years old when the Cossacks arrived. They quickly killed his father and all of his adult male relatives. His mother and sisters were gang raped over and over again, and then killed as the Cossacks departed.
Meyer was working in the fields with his older brother when the attack came. They ran and tried to escape. A horseman caught up with them. Meyer was holding his brother's hand while running. The soldier cut off his brother's head with one clean sweep of his sword. The corpse actually ran a few more steps before it fell, spurting blood from the headless neck. The horseman turned his horse and scooped up my grandfather. He was tied to the horse like a sack of flour and carried off.
This was the Cossacks' recruitment system. These young boys were put into a military training school and taught soldiering. If they rebelled, or caused any trouble at all, they were executed. Meyer was very clever; he caught on quickly, and decided he was going to survive. In fact, more than just survive - he was determined to prevail. Stubbornness genes run deep in my family.
In general, my grandfather refused to talk about his early youth. He refused to discuss his father and mother. Over the years, while I, his favorite grandchild, spent time alone with him in his workshop, much of his life story was told to me, although very little about his childhood or family.
As an adult, I wanted to know more. I knew that Greitzer was not the actual family name. I once contacted my three uncles (Meyer's sons, the brothers of my mother, Ruth) to find out more about this period in my grandfather's life. They knew less than I did. So to this day, I don't know how many brothers and sisters Meyer had, the names of his father or mother, or the name of the small town where he was born.
In a casual conversation with my sister, Laurelle, I learned what the real family name was. It turns out that my mother used the real family name as her "password" at banks and such. My sister discovered this after my mother had passed away and her estate had to be substituted as the owner of the accounts. The correct name was Grajcer.
Meyer was a big, powerful man, and had no trouble being a "good soldier." He was an expert at hand-to-hand combat and fantastic with a sword. He rose quickly within the ranks of the Cossacks, who cared more about a soldier's performance than his religion. By the time Meyer was in his early teens, he was the leader of his group. Then he was promoted to the officer ranks, which guaranteed wealth and position.
His only serious problem was the fact that he, as a Jewish man, had been circumcised. The main manner of bathing was in a local river. This meant that during the winter no one ever bathed, so he didn't encounter any serious problem until he became an officer. A senior officer noticed he was Jewish and taunted him about it. Meyer took exception and there was a duel. To the death. Over his years as an officer in the Cossacks, he was compelled to kill a number of his fellow officers. The system then allowed him to take the goods of the person he had killed. He also received "points," or whatever credit it was called, by killing someone in a duel. As his position grew and flourished, he became quite wealthy.
He got great satisfaction from taking money and goods from the ordinary Jew-hating Russians. To him this was justified retribution. When they attacked a Jewish settlement, however, he had a problem. He would avoid such an assault whenever possible; if not, he would insist that no one was raped or killed. Due to his reputation for dueling he pulled it off.
Eventually Meyer became the highest-ranking officer of his own group of soldiers. He then would avoid or go around the Jewish settlements, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. He performed well, he produced the goods, and he gave the Tzar more than the expected booty, so he was left alone. In the process he saved the lives of countless Jews.
Once in a while he would get direct orders from higher authorities to attack a certain Jewish village. Sometimes he would ignore the orders, but sometimes he would be forced to attack, in which case the attack was as harmless as possible, and no killing or raping took place.
After many years in this situation, Meyer received a big break. He was sent to be the Governor of Afghanistan, and this gave him a large jump in rank. His wealth increased as he now received a share from all the looting and pillaging under his command.
Russia had invaded and taken control of Afghanistan. They were losing officers at an appalling rate. The Afghans had a simple plan to deter the unwanted Russians. Their theory was that cutting off the head of the beast would cause it to depart. Kill the officers, went the theory, and the troops would run. It was a good plan and eventually worked. The Russians left, much in the same way they left many years later on their next ill-advised adventure into Afghanistan.
Meyer had a number of close calls - the Afghans came close to killing him more than once. He finally decided that enough was enough, so he deserted the army with his accumulated wealth, which was now substantial and mostly in gold and jewels. He made it through the Caucasus into the Mediterranean and then into Europe. He took a ship from Europe to America, in order to put as much distance as he could between himself and Russia.
The Russian government issued an international warrant and request for his extradition under the name of Grajcer. Aware of this, Meyer knew he couldn't enter the US through a major port such as New York, so he came in through Houston, Texas. He had documents showing his name as Greitzer. Why Greitzer? When he was obtaining the false documents, he had a few coins in his pocket. He was turning them between his fingers. The smallest Russian coin at that time was a Greitzer. When the man asked what name to use, "Greitzer" popped out of his mouth.
Meyer married my grandmother, a warm, affectionate and gracious woman, and settled in Los Angeles. In a short time he was well established and had opened a furniture factory. He made a variety of furniture items, all of which were based upon steel tubing, Formica, and vinyl upholstery. Chairs and tables for offices, barbershops, and you name it. Soon he concentrated on dinette furniture for the home, and this business became Certified Dinettes. In only a few years, Certified became one of the largest furniture manufacturers in Los Angeles. Certified made furniture for the average person; not high styled or fancy furniture, but tables and chairs that were practical, durable, and affordable.
Meyer was enthralled with machinery. He designed all manner of it. He spent with total abandon to develop his ideas. Some worked, many didn't. He wasn't upset when his projects didn't make money, as he considered money to be just another tool for the invention and development of machinery. Becoming rich was not in his primary consideration, although he enjoyed living comfortably in Beverly Hills.
My grandfather on my father's side of the family was simple, plain and very religious. He was forced to leave Lithuania after a cruel and murderous pogrom. He had been a farmer in a very small town, and he arrived in the United States penniless. He moved to Chicago and started a small fruit and vegetable business.
Louis Levine was a kind, gentle, and wonderful man, as was his wife, Rebecca. My father was born in Chicago, the youngest of four children. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1920 to the Boyle Heights neighborhood, which was mostly Jewish. Louis bought a small house with a large garden. He had a horse and cart and went door-to-door selling fruits and vegetables. He did what he had to do to make a living, but his life was centered in the Synagogue. He was the gabbai, which is the manager. He and my grandmother spoke only Lithuanian and Yiddish, so I was never able to communicate with them.
My father, Albert Levine, was raised as a religious Orthodox Jew until he entered UCLA. He was one of the first full-athletic-scholarship students. He was a starter on the baseball team, basketball team, gym team, and the track team. Meets were on Saturdays, so my father gave up the Sabbath. He became secular and non-religious to such a degree that he openly professed his hatred of anyone or anything religious. He refused to teach me Yiddish.
Speaking Yiddish was a badge that caused the Nazis to execute you at once, said my father. It was a device to cull out Jews. My father hated all religions, not just his own. It was curious that Cardinal Macintyre of the Los Angeles Archdiocese became one of his best and closest friends.
He earned a pile of Varsity letters at UCLA and a degree in education. He went on to obtain an Master's Degree in Education. He lacked the funds to support himself while getting his Master's, so he became a professional boxer.
His last fight provided enough money to finish his studies. The problem was that he was far outclassed and was beaten to a pulp. He could never breath through his nose again, and his face was seriously damaged. His natural toughness coupled with his "tough look" made my father a person one did not want to tangle with in any manner whatsoever. I don't know if he knew about the fear he instilled in others.
My father became the schoolteacher that he always wanted to be. He was an athletic coach and English teacher. He was very happy even though he earned very little money.
I was born shortly before World War II began. When the war broke out, Meyer went to the government and volunteered his factory for war-effort work. Meyer was hugely appreciative of the United States and the opportunity it had given to him. They turned him away, but he was persistent and insisted. Finally someone listened to him and Certified Dinettes was turned into a full wartime production plant.
Because of its woodworking equipment and metal working equipment, Certified was perfectly suited to manufacture boarding ladders for aircraft. These were lightweight folding ladders that would hook onto the airplanes for fueling and for boarding and and exiting the plane. We had many sizes and types around our homes for years after the war as these were great ladders and took up very little space. I am sorry I don't have one of them today.
Certified had been the exclusive domain of my grandfather, Meyer. However, once the war started he needed additional management help. He ordered his son-in-law (my father) and his three sons (my uncles) to join the business. That was Meyer's style. He never asked; he gave you an order, which you were expected to comply with at once. He did not take no for an answer. His experience in the Russian army as an officer in a despotic regime gave him a clear air of authority and power. You did as he told you to do.
My father protested a little and then complied. My uncles were quite pleased to join the firm. The war turned out to be a huge boon for Certified and for my family. The government supplied war manufacturers with all the things they needed to fill their government contracts. This was the war effort; the survival of the free world was at stake.
Therefore, items which were impossible to obtain for the average person were supplied to those who performed for the war effort. We had a car. We had piles of gasoline ration stamps. The average person or worker was lucky to get a few gallons of gasoline per week. We had unlimited supplies, as it was needed for our trucks.
The same abundance was seen in supplies of lumber and steel. Steel was particularly in short supply, but not to Certified. I recall the discussions about welding materials which we used, and which were like gold during the war. You were unable to purchase welding rod at any price. The government supplied what we needed because we made a directly war-related product. We had lots of welding rod and many other usually unobtainable items. I recall the discussions which took place regularly at the dinner table about how amazing all of this was. I did not understand what rationing really was at that time, but I certainly recall the impact it had on everyone.
Meyer was fanatical about all this government largesse being used only for the purposes for which it had been given to us. No joy riding in our cars for pleasure. You used the gasoline for the purpose it was intended, business.
The government set the prices it paid you for what you manufactured and sold to them. It was always a more than fair price. In fact, it was a price at which you had to be an idiot not to make a large profit. Meyer, my father, and my uncles were not idiots, so they made big money.
As a schoolteacher my father was earning in the range of twenty-five dollars per week, a wage that was OK to live on, but that was about all. He was now earning three hundred dollars a week. Soon he was driving a nice car. And he did not have to go into the army and carry a rifle. He was exempt, as were my uncles. Not only were they exempt from military service, but they were in a special category of "persons necessary for the war production effort." They couldn't even volunteer to go into the army; their contribution to the country as manufacturers of vital equipment was more than their value as soldiers.
My uncle, Nathan Greitzer, spent a year or two fighting the system, demanding that he be able to volunteer and go into the army. He finally got his way and was allowed to join up. He went off to Germany to kill Nazis. He returned to Los Angeles after the war and went back to work at Certified.
I can remember the effects of the war on Los Angeles. There was a real fear in the US that the Japanese were going to attack the West coast of the US. Large guns were placed along the coastline. One of my early memories was going down to Santa Monica Beach and watching the test firing of the guns, which took place once a month.
I recall being on Wilshire Blvd. near the La Brea Tar Pits when the news of the end of the war was heard for the first time. People were dancing in the streets. Everything stopped. People left their cars, came out of shops and office buildings, and danced and sang and hugged and kissed.
During the war years, Certified had acquired large amounts of machinery and equipment, which were needed to make the ladders. When the war was over, all of that machinery was converted to furniture production. The machinery alone was very valuable, because at that time you couldn't go out and purchase even a band saw or a table saw. So the company was now very valuable, due to its land, buildings, and the abundance of equipment it owned.
However, there was a major difference of opinion in the US as to what was going to take place in the economy. There was a great fear that the depression was going to return to the world. After all, Europe was in tatters and ruin. Japan was equally devastated. China was totally backward, as was virtually all of the Far East. Africa was not even a consideration in those years. South America and Central America were an economic joke. America was very much on its own. Most "great thinkers" of the time believed that the war was a very temporary thing and that the depression was going to return. There was a general lack of enthusiasm about the economy, and a great fear of what was going to happen. Few predicted a post-war boom.
My grandfather and two of my three uncles agreed with that pessimistic view, which was the prevailing view among the population. My father and Uncle Nate disagreed - they believed that the furniture industry was going to boom.
Some very interesting events then took place. My father went on a trip to Chicago. He returned with a million dollars in cash. Sometime during the war, my grandfather, who originally owned the factory all by himself, gave my father and my three uncles 50% of Certified. So my father and my three uncles each owned twelve-and-a-half percent of the company, and my grandfather owned half. My grandfather and two of my uncles now sold their share of Certified to my father. The uncles received $75,000 each for their two shares, and my grandfather was paid $250,000 in cash. Nate, who held out for about a year, also walked away with $250,000. A quarter of a million dollars then was like ten million dollars, or maybe twenty million dollars, today. It was a huge amount of money. (To give you an idea, a beautiful and large house in any nice neighborhood cost about $15,000 to $20,000.) So my father, a poor schoolteacher, now owned 100% of Certified; quite an accomplishment.
People were starved for consumer goods. They had been restricted during the war to the purchase of basic necessities. The soldiers were returning from the war and wanted houses. They needed furniture. They needed clothes, cars and just about everything. My father, anticipating all of this, moved into a large new factory near what is now the Los Angeles Airport, which turned out to be a great move.
We moved into a large house in the Carthay Circle area of Los Angeles. We had one of the first new Cadillacs available right after the war, interior decorators - the works. We were rich.
My father soon had a high-powered secretary by the name of Ruth Jenkins. Miss Jenkins' sister was the secretary to the Governor of California. All of a sudden we had the Mayor of Los Angeles and all sorts of interesting people to our house for dinner. I was six years old, and the only reason this all was of any interest to me was that, as the only child at the time, I was always given terrific presents by these people. It didn't even have to be my birthday. They would come with a new set of six shooters in a great (real) leather holster. Cowboy stuff was the in thing in 1946. Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy. I had several bikes, and every toy a young boy could desire.
There was another very interesting change, which I didn't understand. All the people I knew were Jewish. Now, all of a sudden, there were many people who were not Jewish. They were interested in things Jewish, including "Jewish food." Lox, cream cheese, and bagels, which I grew up on, were exciting to them.
I was soon to learn these new visitors were Catholic. I did not know what that meant. One of the visitors was extra special; he was a very kind and wonderful man named Sam Nocita. He wore a cross around his neck and told me that he was now my godfather. I had no clue what that meant, other than that he always brought me presents. I liked these new people who brought me gifts.
As a small child it was not relevant to me where Sam came from, or who he was. Some years later I started to question some of these strange events. Any and every time I asked a question, however, my father would respond like the character in the Ring Lardner story: "'Shut up,' he explained."
Questions were not allowed.
Once, when I was a little boy, I had taken some small object from my friend two houses down the street. I don't even recall what it was, but it was insignificant and not of any real value. I showed my father what I had.
He marched me at once to my friend's house to return the item. He then took me into the back yard of our house, put boxing gloves on both of us, and proceeded to beat me to a pulp. I could not have been more than six years old at the time. The lesson was very clear: Do not steal. Ever. I then received a verbal lashing from my grandfather a day or two later. Also something I will never forget. The message was firmly engraved on my psyche.
My grandfather, Meyer, doted on me, as I was the first-born male in the family. As soon as we arrived at my grandparents' house, which was permeated with great smells from my grandmother's cooking, Grandpa would take my hand and lead me into his workshop and studio. This is where he created and invented, which he did until the last days of his life, well into his 90's. There were a variety of machines and interesting gadgets. I also loved machinery and gadgets. Grandpa would involve me in whatever his current project was and give me something to do to help him. It was never busywork, but something that needed to be done. I was in ecstasy.
During those many hours spent with Grandpa, I was taught, and I absorbed, his standards of living, and the do's and don'ts of civilized people. You never stole. You never lied. You always did the right and correct thing. You never cheated anyone. You were respectful to your parents and your grandparents. You honored your flag and country. You were good to your wife. My grandfather was openly devoted to my grandmother, Frieda, and he treated her with a great deal of respect. So I learned how I should conduct myself as a husband, and I'm very grateful for that - my own marriage, like my grandfather's, has been long-lasting and happy.
I saw these rules in action around me in my daily life, because my family practiced what they preached. My grandfather often lost substantial amounts of money because of his convictions. Unscrupulous people cheated him, but he never budged from his principles, and he never deigned to "fight fire with fire." I learned all of these lessons well. I listened to and obeyed my father and grandfather. I did as I was told.
So when my father told me not to ask a question about something, I shut up. I wanted to ask why sudden changes were taking place in our lives, or why my father made certain decisions that seemed inconsistent or inexplicable, but I shut up. When asked a question by either my father or my grandfather, I gave them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This often merited a beating in a "boxing lesson." Those boxing lessons worked well, but I do not recommend this system of parenting and did not use it on my children.
I knew where the lines were drawn. I did not cross the lines. I have not crossed the lines in my entire life. I never broke the law. This, unfortunately, did not exempt me form contact with people who did.