Study Guide

The Lazarus Project

by Aleksandar Hemon

The Lazarus Project Summary

Extended Summary

Lazarus Averbuch escaped the Kishinev pogrom with his sister Olga and fled to Chicago in pursuit of “The American Dream.” Instead, Chicago Chief of Police George Shippy shot him dead on March 2, 1908. Shippy claimed that Averbuch was a dangerous anarchist assassin and that he shot in self-defense. Public outcry arose over the Chief Shippy’s contradictory story and the circumstances surrounding the shooting. The chief explained that since the victim was Jewish, he must have been an anarchist. The chief was quickly exonerated by a coroner’s inquest. Shortly thereafter, Lazarus’s body disappeared.

In the early 1900s, the United States was growing ever fearful of what was referred to as “new immigration.” Old immigrants came to the United States mostly from Western Europe—Britain, Germany, Ireland, Scandinavia. These immigrants were easily absorbed into white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society. Beginning in the late 1800s, however, new immigrants began to arrive from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Russia. Many of them were Jews like the Averbuchs, escaping pogroms. The new immigrants settled in urban areas where jobs were plentiful. Unfortunately, so too were disease, overcrowding, and crime. Immigrants were easy scapegoats for the ills of society. Americans feared these new immigrants because they were unaccustomed to immigrant religions, customs, foods, languages, and ideas, particularly the idea of anarchism. Anarchism (the absence of government) was a popular concept in politically corrupt Eastern Europe. Some immigrants brought the concept of anarchism with them to their new country where they dreamed of liberty without authority. One of these immigrants was an anarchist named Emma Goldman.

On May 4, 1886, a workers’ rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago turned into a riot. A bomb was thrown at the police, and seven officers (along with many civilians) were killed. This became known as the “Haymarket Affair.” Seven anarchists were blamed, and eventually tried for and convicted of the murders. Prejudice against immigrants intensified to a point where all immigrants were considered anarchists (the U.S. Congress would later pass the Emergency Quota Act in 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 that restricted the number of Eastern Europeans allowed to enter the country). Twenty-two years after the Haymarket Affair, and fueled by the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 “by a Hungarian who claimed to be an anarchist,” fear still gripped the city of Chicago when Lazarus Averbuch showed up on Chief Shippy’s doorstep “looking like an anarchist.” This much is historical fact.

The fiction begins one hundred years later. Bosnian immigrant Vladimir Brik stumbles upon the seemingly obscure story of Lazarus Averbuch while doing research for his newspaper column. An immigrant from Eastern Europe himself, Brik decides to use the Lazarus story as the subject for his magnum opus, a novel that will establish him as a major writer and redeem him in the eyes of his American wife, a successful neurosurgeon who is tired of supporting her would-be novelist husband.

As Vladimir Brik embarks on his odyssey to uncover Lazarus’s story, his journey slowly morphs into a personal pilgrimage. Wealthy benefactors Bill and Susie Schuettler award Brik a grant to write his novel. Brik’s fellow Bosnian high school friend, photographer Rora Halilbašić, tells Brik he must travel back to Kishinev to tell the story of Lazarus. Brik takes Rora with him as he steps outside of his life in Chicago to “spend time deep in the wilderness of elsewhere.” Perhaps in this wilderness, Brik not only will “resurrect” Lazarus but also his career, his marriage, and himself.

The novel unfolds Brik’s and Lazarus’s stories in...

(The entire section is 1535 words.)