When I was growing up, my father, Samuel, was one of four siblings: my Uncles Abe and Harold, and my Aunt Rose Schulman. They’re all gone now, but I have fond memories of them.
Then there was Eugene, who died very early in the 20th century. My father and I visited his grave a few times, but nothing much was said.
My grandparents came to Buffalo from “the old country,” met at the Pan-American Exposition and married. They were both “frum” – very observant Orthodox Jews – and poor as church mice (no pun intended).
Precious little is known about Eugene. There are no stories, no memories and no photos. There are only two documents: his birth and death certificates.
Eugene was born in 1904, and his birth certificate named him as “Gustav Axelrod.” Sometime during his life, Gustav was Americanized to Eugene. I immediately felt a bond, as I was named after my grandfather, Hymen Axlerod, but my parents had the good taste to Americanize it to Harvey. Eugene was born as “Axelrod,” but died as “Axlerod.” There is a family story that when my grandparents became citizens, one of the children misspelled “Axelrod” as “Axlerod.” A hundred years later, the Axelrod/Axlerod confusion persists, another bond between us.
His death certificate lists his occupation as “schoolboy.” From the cemetery in which he is buried, I know he prayed at the Jefferson Street Shul (still standing in disrepair at the corner of William Street).
Cemeteries are intriguing places, so let me tell you what I discovered. Eugene is buried in the oldest section of a rather old Jewish cemetery on Pine Ridge Road. In Jewish tradition, a visitor often leaves a small stone on the gravestone as a sign of remembrance and honor. In that section, none of the gravestones had small stones on them. I’m sure most of these people are long forgotten, but not Eugene. I left a small stone on his gravestone.
Next, his gravestone was tilted. Orthodox Jews always bury their loved ones in a pine box, designed to decay and become part of the earth. So, after 99 years, a tipped gravestone confirms that he had a “frum” burial. The gravestone itself is revealing: very small, with a lamb on one side. I’ve never seen a lamb on a Jewish gravestone, because lambs usually connote Christ. On the other side, there is none of the traditional Hebrew detailing parental lineage, just the brief inscription “Eugene Axlerod, age 10, died on May 30, 1914.” I’m sure that poverty had a great deal to do with all of this.
That’s all I know. I’m sure he played, laughed, cried when punished and ran like all boys do. I’m sure he was the apple of his mother’s eye, and grew up in a loving, but disciplined, family. One has to wonder, what were his dreams? Did he want to become a Ty Cobb, a Teddy Roosevelt, a teacher, a doctor or a rabbi? We’ll never know. But he did have one accomplishment, even if unknown to him. He was my Uncle Eugene.
The loss of anyone is a loss to all of mankind, even a little boy a century ago. With the publication of this article, his story will be memorialized on the Internet, long after the papers and gravestone have decayed.
On May 30, the 100th anniversary of his death, I will say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer), light a memorial (Yahrzeit) candle and toast him with some fine scotch. Here’s to you, Uncle Eugene!