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Jack Mexico City c1926 Meet Jack Granoff. I’m tracking and untangling his life story, to the best of my ability.

He was born Yakov Israelovich Granov in January, 1905, to Israel and Anna Granov, nee Kurzmann. He was the second child and second son in a comfortably well-off Jewish family living in the cosmopolitan city of Odessa, in the Ukrainian region of the Russian Empire.

Israel was the manager of a chocolate factory in Odessa, and Anna had once been his secretary. Their first son was Avram, and the two boys were eventually followed by a brother, Alexander, and two sisters, Yevgenia and Alexandra, though the third boy did not survive an early childhood illness. The youngest child, born in late 1917, was likely named for that lost child.

Israel had come up in the world. His father was a cord and tassel-maker in a city then called Yelisavetgrad. Anna’s father was a grain dealer, or possibly a dry goods merchant. They were consciously not shtetl Jews. When the Granov grandparents came to visit, the children couldn’t communicate much with them, because the old folks spoke Yiddish and the children spoke Russian.

Israel was interested in health fads, testing out vegetarianism and different exercise regimes at times. Family legend has him swimming in the Black Sea every day, even in winter. They were urban and comfortable. They had a nice apartment, with electricity, and a few servants. The children went to private schools and had clothes made to order by a seamstress who came to live with them while making the garments.

Jack Granoff was my grandfather. Though born in Ukraine, he identified himself as Russian. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the overthrow of the Tsar, the family struggled. Oral histories with Jack and his sister Jeanne (Yevgenia) indicate stretches of insufficient food, battles over the strategic city of Odessa between the White and Red forces, and growing tension within the family as Anna started to look toward immigration to join her brothers in the United States. Family stories when I was a child told me that Israel thought the situation would stabilize, that he was in denial about what we, with hindsight, know was coming in the newborn USSR. Now that I’m an adult, my older relatives are willing to admit that it seems likely that Israel had a mistress he was unwilling to leave.

As far as I’ve been able to tell so far, the way they all left Odessa – for they did all leave, eventually – was as follows. Anna and the two girls, known for most of their lives by the American names of Jeanne and Alice, left with a smuggler who would sneak them across the frozen landscape of Russian winter and into the safe region of Poland. That story, related briefly by Jeanne in an hourlong 1980 tape recording, is upsetting in many ways. Anna got typhus on the way out of Russia, and the group they traveled with abandoned her and the girls in a small village on the Zbruch River called Husiatyn, where Anna raved with fever and twelve-year-old-Jeanne tried to take care of her mother and her toddler sister in a boarding house full of soldiers and only blankets for doors. Pictures of Anna afterwards show her once voluptuous figure gaunt and haggard with illness and privation, and there is a solemn sadness in the eyes of the girls.

Eventually they got to Germany, where they received aid from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS – which still exists, by the way – and spent a little time recuperating and meeting with relatives while waiting for visas to the United States. It’s around this point, it seems, that Anna, Jeanne, and Alice were reunited with Arthur (Avram, the eldest child) who had fled army service in the USSR to join his mother and sisters. From Hamburg they supposedly took ship to the United States, entered through Ellis Island, and joined some of Anna’s brothers in Detroit. The only complication here is that Arthur is not on the Ellis Island documents. Neither is he in the portion of the ship’s manifest that contains his female relatives.

Jack’s story is more complicated. He was supposed to leave with his mother and sisters, but at the time had a job as some kind of courier or chauffeur. He was not at home when the smuggler said it was time to go. He was in another town and missed it by a few days or less.

How he obtained the services of another smuggler to follow his mother and sisters is unknown, but he did. This fellow was less honorable than the individual paid by the women of the Granoff family (who may have been in it for the money but at least got his group safely over the border), and he turned his entire party over to the authorities as soon as they crossed into Poland, presumably for a fee. Jack, with this group, was arrested and imprisoned for some time, moved from place to place under terrible conditions. It wasn’t a gulag, but it sounds like what you’d expect from an early Soviet prison to punish people trying to run for the border. When the authorities needed more room in the prisons, some people, including Jack, were released on a promise to sin no more and the payment of a big ol’ fee.

I’m not exactly sure how Jack found out about the Nansen Passports, which aided stateless and refugees to find entry to any of a set of nations between 1921 and about 1938, but his oral history indicates that he obtained one and thus left Russia legally. By accepting a Nansen Passport, Jack became stateless. Whether he renounced his citizenship before or after obtaining the document is as yet unknown. We do not have any documents from this period for him, because his papers were stolen from him in Rotterdam.

Due to the Immigration Quota Acts of 1921 and 1924 in the United States, and in spite of having immediate family already established in the US, Jack could not get a visa to join his mother and siblings. He had by this time fallen in with a group of single Russian men of a similar age to him, and I guess someone had the bright idea to try Mexico instead. Anyway, that’s where he ended up around 1925, and we have a Mexican passport in his name to prove it. My current area of inquiry is trying to get more information on the significance of the Mexican passport – does it indicate naturalization of some kind or is it part of the Nansen Passport process? I have information feelers out to the Mexican consulate in San Francisco, El Archivo General de la Nación México, and the Mexican Museum in San Francisco. No hits yet, but I’ll keep trying.

It is unfortunately at this point in the story that the oral history cuts off, in the middle of a sentence about his first twenty-four hours in Mexico.

We know that he was in Mexico for a few years, and we have a couple photos from that time. The picture at the start of this post is Jack in 1926 in Mexico City, at about age 21.

We know that Jack left Mexico because Arthur got tuberculosis and their mother sent a plea for her other son to come closer and help to support the family. I can only imagine that for some reason he still could not remain in the United States, because the documentary record picks up around 1928 in Windsor, Ontario, in Canada. Right across the Great Lakes from Detroit, but still divided by an international border.

This is where things get REALLY confusing. We have three short-term visit permits for Jack to come to Detroit from Canada, dating between 1930 and 1933. We know that he was in Detroit for much of the 1930s and possibly early 1940s, in business with his brother Arthur. Yet in 1934, he became a naturalized citizen of Canada, and his records show he entered Canada FROM Detroit. Thanks to a friend in Canada, I have a digital copy of his naturalization forms, and they are a wealth of startling information (he claimed his occupation was farming? He’s already fluent in English, his third vernacular language?). Like most of the documents I’ve unearthed, they raise more questions than they answer.

The next question is tracking down the specifics of his US Citizenship, which seems to have taken place in the later 1940s. Documents list El Paso, Texas, as his official port of entry, and his application to naturalize was processed in Detroit, Michigan. That’s in process, as you may have gathered from my recent grumpy post on the subject.

By circuitous routes and a lot of forks in many roads, he found his way from a privileged childhood in Imperial Russia to an adult life in rural California.

Jack Granoff died in February, 1987. I acknowledge my obsession with his travels may have begun with a desire to know the only grandparent I never knew in person, but given the story I’ve just told you, wouldn’t you want to know more?

He left school after sixth grade, yet learned to function in three very different languages – Russian, Spanish, and English. Many jobs, many attempted careers, and an extraordinary gift for investing in losing propositions, but a passion for food and music that run strong in his descendants. I sometimes look at these documents and listen to the recordings of him and wonder who he would have been if his education hadn’t cut off short at age 12.

So that’s where we are in tracking Jack Granoff.

Currently in process:

  1. Get context for Mexican passport.
  2. Track US Naturalization file.
  3. Keep tabs on request with archives of the League of Nations, which holds records of Nansen Passports.

Stay tuned. There’ll be more.