The Lazarus Project

by Aleksandar Hemon

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1535

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 alternating chapters separated by black pages with hazy black and white photographs taken by Aleksandar Hemon’s real-life friend and photographer Velibor...

(This entire section contains 1535 words.)

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Božović. These photos are supposed to represent Rora’s photos. The reader learns about Lazarus’s early life in Kishinev, how he grows up in a loving Jewish family, how he makes his bar mitzvah, and how most of his family is killed in the pogrom. He and his sister Olga escape to America where they struggle to survive with menial jobs. Lazarus dreams of going to college and one day writing a novel. He is a hard worker and his employer has been planning to train him in the egg-packing business by sending him to Indiana. Lazarus, in fact, is so reliable that his employer trusts him with the crucial task of delivering an important letter to the Chicago chief of police.Lazarus’s employer is a “loyal American” named Mr. Eichgreen. Eichgreen is writing to Chief Shippy to warn him that he has heard rumors from his employees that the well-known anarchist Emma Goldman would be arriving in Chicago soon to stir up the populace with her radical, anti-American ideas. Lazarus, it turns out, has not been sent to kill Chief Shippy. He is merely a naive nineteen-year-old Jewish immigrant who happens to be in the wrong place with the wrong person at the wrong time.Intertwined with Lazarus’s story is the story of his older sister, Olga, left behind in Chicago after her brother’s murder. Olga is interrogated relentlessly by the police. She tries in vain to make the police understand that Lazarus is a good boy, not an anarchist. She tells them that she does not know where his friend Isador is hiding and she herself has nothing to do with any of it. All she wants is her brother’s body back, to give him a proper Jewish burial, but the body has disappeared. Has Lazarus really risen from the dead like the Biblical Lazarus? No, medical students have stolen the body. Eventually, some prominent members of the Jewish community help Olga reclaim and bury what is left of Lazarus, even though she protests that it is a sacrilege to bury a body that is not whole. These same Jewish citizens also smuggle Lazarus’s friend Isador to Canada by hiding him underneath the corpse of another Jewish man who has died after having been tortured by the police. In the anti-Semitic fervor of 1908 Chicago, Jews fear that Lazarus’s murder will lead to an anarchist uprising and that the Jewish community will be blamed.Meanwhile, Brik and Rora travel to Eastern Europe. It is 2008; the Berlin Wall has been torn down for almost twenty years, and Communism has collapsed in Eastern Europe. In its wake, however, are countries still trying to define themselves ethnically, politically, socially, and economically. Crime is rampant, the mob is thriving, prostitution is widespread, and desperate people are meandering through life either starving or stoned—this, at least, is Brik’s view. Brik and Rora travel through the Ukraine where they visit a Jewish Center hoping to uncover information about Lazarus’s family for Brik’s novel. They then travel to Moldova, Bucharest, and Belgrade where they arrange to be driven to Brik’s hometown, Sarajevo, Bosnia, by a driver named Vasiliy who they soon discover is a pimp. Convinced that Vasiliy plans to kill them after the harrowing ride, they arrive in Sarajevo, free the young woman Vasiliy has been transporting, and practically beat him to death. Brik breaks his hand in the fight and Rora takes him to his sister Azra, a doctor, to be patched up. In spite of being gone for so many years, Brik feels at home in Sarajevo where the asphalt feels “softer than on any other street in the world.” An old high school friend asks him where he has been, validating his belief that “home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there.” Brik also realizes that the longer he is away from his wife, Mary, the less he misses her and America. A few days later, Rora is gunned down in a cafe while drinking coffee.

Who is responsible for Rora’s death? Brik believes it has to be a criminal named Rambo. Brik left Bosnia before the war with Chechnya, but Rora had remained during most of the siege. Rora was in Rambo’s unit in the Bosnian army. As Sarajevo fell, however, Rambo and his fellow thugs looted and pillaged their own city, killing neighbors and friends when they got in the way. After the war, Rambo continued his lucrative life of crime. During their long voyage through Eastern Europe, Rora entertains Brik with fantastic stories about Rambo and a myriad of Bosnian folktales, jokes, and his life experiences. Rora knows too much about Rambo, unfortunately. He knows about the many people Rambo has killed, including an American war correspondent named Miller. Brik asks if Rora fears returning to Sarajevo. He reminds Rora that everyone who knew anything about Rambo is now dead. Rora brushes off Brik’s fear, explaining that because his sister Azra operated on Rambo and saved his life, Rambo owes him. Besides, Rambo has “discovered Islam and now has prayer beads in his hand all the time.” Rora is not afraid. At Rora’s funeral, Azra tells Brik that most of what Rora has told him about Rambo is pure fiction. Miller is alive and well and reporting on the war in Iraq. Rora was shot by “a boy with a gun” who simply wanted Rora’s camera to sell for drug money.