Lazarus Averbuch is based on a historical character, a nineteen-year-old Jewish immigrant who fled the violence against Jews in Eastern Europe in 1903. He escaped to America with his older sister, Olga, and settled in Chicago where a few years later in 1908 he was shot by the chief of police, sparking protests and a near uprising among the immigrant community.
The fictional Lazarus works hard in an egg-packing plant and dreams of writing a novel. He has attended some anarchist rallies with his friend Isador Maron, but he does not have strongly-held political beliefs. He is described as a “scrawny young man” who is always hungry and who has a “foreign cast of features.” As evidence of the bizarre racial theories prevalent at the time, Lazarus’s body is described as follows: “The thin skull cap, the large mouth, the receding chin, the low forehead, the pronounced cheekbones and the oversized simian ears all indicate a well-marked type of degeneracy.” But Lazarus is not a degenerate. His murder is entirely unjustified. All of Chief Shippy’s suppositions about him and explanations for having shot him are false. The five sentences found in the band of Lazarus’s hat turn out not to be a secret anarchist code but homework for his English language class. He is clean-shaven not because he is expecting to be killed but because he takes pride in his appearance, even though he is a poor immigrant. He is Jewish, but he is not an anarchist.
Most of what is learned about Lazarus is revealed through the memories of his older sister, Olga. He was intelligent and inquisitive, a naive, sensitive boy who searched for his friends long after they had run away during games of hide-and-seek. Olga always had to search for him and bring him home. Lazarus was her sweet little brother who “used to be afraid of sparrows” and whose curls tasted “sweet and salty” when she kissed them. “My little brother. All the lives he could have lived,” she laments.
Olga Averbuch is Lazarus’s older sister. She and Lazarus have both escaped the pogrom and fled to America. Olga works as a seamstress in “Goldblatt’s sweatshop” and “cannot afford to miss a day of work.” After Lazarus is killed, the police ransack Olga’s apartment and haul her off to the station for merciless and endless questioning. A fearful immigrant intimidated by the police, she believes that if she answers truthfully, everything will turn out all right. She asks to see her brother, not knowing he is dead. She is escorted into a room in the morgue where the police are supporting Lazarus’s body upright in a chair. At first, Olga is relieved, believing her brother is still alive. She soon realizes he is being propped up, however. His eyes are closed and he is dead. She faints. As Olga continues to have flashbacks about her brother throughout the novel, she realizes she might not know who he had become. She feels guilty for not picking up on things: Could he have been an anarchist? Why did he pal around with that anarchist sympathizer Isador Maron? How could the boy who survived a pogrom and a refugee camp in Czernowitz be an anarchist? How could the boy who jumped on a soldier’s back, scratching the soldier’s cheeks to protect his older sister, be an assassin?
Olga continues to be hounded by the police. They are certain she knows the whereabouts of Lazarus’s friend and alleged anarchist co-conspirator, Isador Maron. Maron, it turns out, is hiding in her closet. She is shocked when she discovers him. Olga is conflicted. She fears the police will make things worse for her if they discover that she is harboring a criminal but her loyalty to a fellow immigrant coupled with her anger over the cruelty of the police cause her to hide Maron. The ever-suffering and distraught Olga at times withers under police interrogation and at other times rises up in anger, demanding that the police release her brother’s body. She dreamily constructs a mental letter to her mother, rehearsing how she will tell her the news of Lazarus’s death. When she finds out Lazarus’s body has been desecrated, she at first refuses to bury him as urged by members of the Jewish community. In the end, she goes along with their plan in order to protect the Jewish community against retaliation in the event of an anti-anarchist backlash. She writes to her mother that she has decided to choose life so that no more people will be killed. “God will take care of the dead. We have to take care of the living,” she writes.
Vladimir Brik is the narrator and main character of the novel....
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