Larry Klein’s grandfather Lazar Kasofsky, born in 1884 in the rural town of Slonim, Russia, was the eldest of seven children in a Jewish family. Late 19th Century Russia was a dangerous place for Jews. In addition, the Russian army conscripted boys at age sixteen, many never to be seen by their families again. With these facts in mind Lazar’s parents, Jacob and Ester Hanna, decided soon after his fifteenth birthday to leave Russia and start a new life elsewhere. At the time, the Baron de Hirsch, a German philanthropist who set up charitable foundations to improve the lot of European Jews, sponsored Jewish immigration to the Americas. Through these foundations the Kasofsky family attained the money necessary to emigrate to Argentina.
Shortly before the family’s departure, Lazar informed his parents that he would not leave Slonim on account of his love for a fourteen year old girl named Dena, who would eventually become Mr. Klein’s grandmother. Dena was raised as an only child by her mother, a widow.
Lazar’s parents approached Dena’s mother and offered to bring her with them to the Americas, where she would be raised as their daughter and have access to a better life and much-desired social mobility. Dena’s mother accepted, knowing that there was very little opportunity for her daughter in Slonim.
In 1900, the Kasofskys, along with Dena, arrived in Argentina and were settled into Moses Ville, an agricultural colony named in honor of the Baron de Hirsch and his charitable organizations helping Jews. The Kasofskys purchased a tract of land but had little access to the water needed for irrigation. As such, Lazar and his siblings would pull a cart to a well several hours away and return with water to irrigate their land and supply their family. Meanwhile, Jacob worked as a carpenter as he had in Slonim. In 1902, at the age of eighteen, Lazar married Dena, as he had promised to do years earlier in Slonim.
After the family saved some money they emigrated to the United States in 1904. The Kasofskys first lived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, amongst other recent immigrants, and Lazar began working as a carpenter like his father. Dina was pregnant when they arrived in the United states and by 1909 gave birth to three children – among them Mr. Klein’s mother, Belle.
In 1910, Lazar and Dena moved their family north to Springfield, Massachusetts. Lazar initially worked as a carpenter but became a contractor and self-taught architect. He had a successful business for fifteen years (Mr. Klein points out that many of the buildings his grandfather designed and commissioned are still standing in Springfield today). In 1925, Lazar entered into a project in nearby Holyoke, but his co-partner in this venture absconded with all of the funding, leaving Lazar and his family in dire poverty.
Having lost everything, the Kasofskys moved to Mount Vernon, New York, where Lazar attempted to re-launch his once promising career. According to Mr. Klein, Lazar “never got his life back together,” and died of cancer in 1933, leaving Dena a widow at age 47. She eventually remarried, but had no more children.
Years later, Dena reportedly told family members that she preferred her second husband and “hadn’t cared that much for Lazar,”—“He was skinny and had a bad case of acne.” But Dena was determined to get out of Slonim. The Kasofsky’s emigration to the Americas was indeed fraught with hardship and loss. Mr. Klein asserts that Lazar and Dena’s story is not one of romance and joy, but rather, one that depicts what people, especially immigrants, really experience.
Mr. Klein’s mother Belle was the youngest child of Lazar and Dena. Belle met Klein’s father, Benjamin at high school in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Benjamin’s father was also an immigrant who owned a shoe store.
This story was shared by Larry Klein a Palo Alto city council member and former mayor. The interview was conducted by Olivier Torchiana.