Landsman learned to hate the game of chess at the hands of his father and his uncle Hertz. The brothers-in-law were boyhood friends back in Lodz, fellow members of the Makkabi Youth Chess Club. Landsman remembers how they used to talk about the day, in the summer of 1939, when the great Tartakower dropped by to put on a demonstration for the boys of the Makkabi. Savielly Tartakower was a Polish citizen, a grandmaster, and a character famous for having said “The blunders are all there on the board, waiting to be made.” He came from Paris to report on a tournament for a French chess journal and to visit with the director of the Makkabi Youth Chess Club, an old comrade from his days on the Russian front in the army of Franz Josef. At the director’s urging, Tartakower now proposed a game against the club’s best young player, Isidor Landsman.
They sat down together, the strapping war veteran in his bespoke suit and harsh good humor, and the stammering fifteen-year-old with a wall eye, a receding hairline, and a mustache that was often mistaken for a sooty thumbprint. Tartakower drew Black, and Landsman’s father chose the English Opening. For the first hour, Tartakower’s play was inattentive, even autonomic. He left his great chess engine idling and played by the book. Thirty-four moves in, with genial scorn, he offered Landsman’s father a draw. Landsman’s father needed to piss, his ears were ringing, he was only staving off the inevitable. But he declined. His game by now was based on nothing but feel and desperation. He reacted, he refused exchanges, his sole assets a stubborn nature and a wild sense of the board. After seventy moves and four hours and ten minutes of play, Tartakower, not so genial anymore, repeated his earlier offer. Landsman’s father, plagued by tinnitus, about to wet his pants, accepted. In later years Landsman’s father sometimes let on that his mind, that queer organ, never quite recovered from the ordeal of this game. But of course there were worse ordeals to come.
“That was not in the least enjoyable,” Tartakower is supposed to have told Landsman’s father, rising from his chair. Young Hertz Shemets, with his unfailing eye for weakness, spotted a tremor in Tartakower’s hand, holding a hastily fetched glass of Tokay. Then Tartakower pointed to Isidor Landsman’s skull. “But I’m sure it was preferable to being obliged to live in there.”
Not quite two years later, Hertz Shemets, his mother, and his kid sister, Freydl, arrived on Baranof Island, Alaska, with the first wave of Galitzer settlers. He came on the notorious Diamond , a World War I – era troop transport that Secretary Ickes ordered taken out of mothballs and rechristened as a left-handed memorial, or so legend has it, to the late Anthony Dimond, the Alaska Territory’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. (Until the fatal intervention on a Washington, D.C., street corner of a drunken, taxi-driving schlemiel named Denny Lanning—eternal hero of the Sitka Jews—Delegate Dimond had been on the verge of getting the Alaskan Settlement Act killed in committee.) Thin, pale, bewildered, Hertz Shemets stepped from the Diamond , from the dark and the reek of soup and rusty puddles, to the clean cold spice of Sitka pine. With his family and his people he was numbered, inoculated, deloused, tagged like a migrant bird by the stipulations of the Alaskan Settlement Act of 1940. In a cardboard pocketbook he carried an “Ickes passport,” a special emergency visa printed on special flimsy paper with special smeary ink.
There was nowhere else for him to go. It said so, in large type, on the front of an Ickes passport. He would not be permitted to travel to Seattle, or San Francisco, or even Juneau or Ketchikan. All the normal quotas on Jewish immigration to the United States remained in force. Even with the timely death of Dimond, the Act could not be forced up the American body politic without a certain amount of muscle and grease, and restrictions on Jewish movement were part of the deal.
On the heels of Jews from Germany and Austria, the Shemets family was dumped with their fellow Galitzers at Camp Slattery, in a muskeg swamp ten miles from the hard-bitten, half-decrepit town of Sitka, capital of the old Russian Alaska colony. In drafty, tin-roofed huts and barracks, they underwent six months of intensive acclimatization by a crack team of fifteen billion mosquitoes working under contract with the U.S. Interior Department. Hertz was conscripted for a road gang, then assigned to the crew that built the Sitka airfield. He lost two molars when he was smacked by a shovel, working a muck detail deep in a caisson sunk in the mud of Sitka harbor. In later years, whenever you drove with him over the Tshernovits Bridge, he would rub at his jaw, and his hard eyes in his sharp face would take on a wistful air. Freydl was sent to school in a chilly barn whose roof rang with steady rain. Their mother was taught the rudiments of agriculture, the use of plow, fertilizer, and irrigation hose. Brochures and posters held up the short Alaskan growing season as an allegory of the brief duration of her stay. Mrs. Shemets ought to think of the Sitka Settlement as a cellar or potting shed in which, like flower bulbs, she and her children could be put up for the winter, until their home soil thawed enough to allow them to be replanted there. No one imagined that the soil of Europe would be sowed so deeply with salt and ash.
Despite the agricultural palaver, the modest homesteads and farm cooperatives proposed by the Sitka Settlement Corporation never materialized. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The Interior Department’s attention wandered toward more pressing strategic concerns, such as oil reserves and mining. At the conclusion of their term at “Ickes College,” the Shemets family, like most of their fellow refugees, were kicked loose to fend for themselves. Just as Delegate Dimond had predicted, they drifted up to the raw, newly booming town of Sitka. Hertz studied criminal justice at the new Sitka Technical Institute and, on graduating in 1948, was hired as a paralegal by the first big U.S. law firm to open a branch office here. His sister, Freydl, Landsman’s mother, was among the earliest Girl Scouts in the settlement.
Nineteen forty-eight: Strange times to be a Jew. In August the defense of Jerusalem collapsed and the outnumbered Jews of the three-month-old republic of Israel were routed, massacred, and driven into the sea. As Hertz was starting his job at Foehn Harmattan & Buran, the House Committee on Territories and Insular Affairs began a long-delayed review of status called for by the Sitka Settlement Act. Like the rest of Congress, like most Americans, the House Committee was sobered by grim revelations of the slaughter of two million Jews in Europe, by the barbarity of the rout of Zionism, by the plight of the refugees of Palestine and Europe. At the same time, they were practical souls. The population of Sitka Settlement had already swollen to two million. In direct violation of the act, Jews had spread up and down the western shore of Baranof Island, out to Kruzof, all the way up to West Chichagof Island. The economy was booming. American Jews were lobbying hard. In the end, Congress granted the Sitka Settlement “interim status” as a federal district. But candidacy for separate statehood was explicitly ruled out. NO JEWLASKA, LAWMAKERS PROMISE, ran the headline in the Daily Times. The emphasis was always on the word “interim.” In sixty years that status would revert, and the Sitka Jews would be left once again to shift for themselves.
One warm September afternoon not long after, Hertz Shemets was walking down Seward Street, prolonging his lunch break, when he bumped into his old chum from Lodz, Isidor Landsman. Landsman’s father had just arrived in Sitka, alone, aboard the Williwaw , fresh from a tour of the death and DP camps of Europe. He was twenty-five, bald, and missing most of his teeth. He was six feet tall and weighed 125 pounds. He smelled funny, talked crazy, and had outlived his entire family. He was oblivious to the raucous frontier energy of downtown Sitka, the work crews of young Jewesses in their blue head scarves, singing Negro spirituals with Yiddish lyrics that paraphrased Lincoln and Marx. The lively stench of fish flesh and felled tree and turned earth, the rumble of the dredgers and steam shovels grading mountains and filling in Sitka Sound, none of it seemed to touch him. He walked with his head down, a hunch in his shoulders, as if only burrowing through this world on his inexplicable way from one strange dimension to the next. Nothing penetrated or illuminated the dark tunnel of his passage. But when Isidor Landsman realized that the grinning man, hair slicked, shoes like a couple of Kaiser automobiles, smelling of the grilled-onion cheeseburger he had just consumed at the lunch counter of Woolworth’s, was his old friend Hertz Shemets from the Makkabi Youth Chess Club, he lifted his eyes. The eternal kink went out of his shoulder. He opened his mouth and closed it again, speechless with outrage, joy, and wonder. Then he burst into tears.
Hertz took Landsman’s father back to Woolworth’s, bought him lunch (an egg sandwich, his first milk shake, a decent pickle) and then led him down to Lincoln Street, to the new Hotel Einstein, in whose café the great exiles of Jewish chess met every day to demolish one another without pity or heart. Landsman’s father, half demented at this point by fat, sugar, and the lingering ill effects of typhus, mopped up the room. He took on all comers and sent them out of the Einstein so soundly thrashed that one or two of them never forgave him.
Even then he displayed the mournful, agonized style of play that helped ruin the game for Landsman as a child. “Your father played chess,” Hertz Shemets once said, “like a man with a toothache, a hemorrhoid, and gas.” He sighed, he moaned. He tugged in fits at the patchy remnant of his brown hair, or chased it with his fingers back and forth across his pate like a pastry chef scattering flour on a marble slab. The blunders of his opponents were each a separate cramp in the abdomen. His own moves, however daring, however startling and original and strong, struck him like successive pieces of terrible news, so that he covered his mouth and rolled his eyes at the sight of them.
Uncle Hertz’s style was nothing like that. He played calmly, with an air of unconcern, keeping his body at a slight angle to the board, as if expecting very shortly to be served a meal or to take a pretty girl onto his lap. But his eyes saw everything, the way they’d seen the telltale tremor in Tartakower’s hand that day at the Makkabi Youth Chess Club. He took in his reversals without alarm and his chances with a faint air of amusement. Smoking Broadways end on end, he watched his old friend squirm and mutter his way through the assembled geniuses of the Einstein. Then, when the room was laid to waste, Hertz made the necessary move. He invited Isidor Landsman home.
In the summer of 1948, the Shemets family lived in a two-room apartment in a brand-new building on a brand-new island. The building was home to two dozen families, all of them Polar Bears, as the first-wave refugees called themselves. The mother slept in the bedroom, Freydl got the sofa, and Hertz made his bed on the floor. By now they were all staunch Alaskan Jews, which meant they were utopians, which meant they saw imperfection everywhere they looked. A barb-tongued and quarrelsome family, in particular Freydl Shemets, who at fourteen already stood five feet eight inches tall and weighed 110 kilograms. She took one look at Landsman’s father, hovering uncertainly in the doorway of the apartment, and correctly diagnosed him to be as unreclaimable and inaccessible as the wilderness that she had come to regard as her home. It was love at first sight.
In later years it was tough for Landsman to get much out of his father about what if anything he had seen in Freydl Shemets. She was not a bad-looking girl. Egyptian-eyed, olive-skinned, in her short pants, hiking boots, and the rolled sleeves of her Pendleton shirt, she exuded the old Makkabi movement spirit of mens sana in corpore sano. She pitied Isidor Landsman deeply for the loss of his family, for the suffering he had endured in the camps. But she was one of those Polar Bear kids who handled their own feelings of guilt at having escaped the filth, the starvation, the ditches and killing factories by offering survivors a constant stream of advice, information, and criticism disguised as morale boosting. As if the choking, low-hanging black pall of the Destruction could be lifted by one determined kibitzer.
That first night Landsman’s father slept, with Hertz, on the floor of the Shemets apartment. The next day Freydl took him shopping for clothes, paying for them out of her own bat mitzvah nest egg. She helped him rent a room from a recent widower who lived in the building. She massaged his scalp with an onion, in the belief that this would cause his hair to renew itself. She fed him calf liver for his tired blood. For the next five years, she nudged and badgered and bullied him until he sat up straight, made eye contact when speaking, learned American, and wore dentures. She married him the day after she turned eighteen, and got a job at the Sitka Tog , working her way up through the women’s page to features editor. She worked sixty to seventy-five hours a week, five days a week, until her death from cancer, when Landsman was in college. During that time Hertz Shemets impressed the American lawyers at Foehn Harmattan so much that they took up a subscription and pulled the strings they needed to pull to send him to law school in Seattle. He later became the first Jew hired by the Sitka detail of the FBI, its first district director, and eventually, having caught Hoover’s eye, ran the Bureau’s regional counterintelligence program.
Landsman’s father played chess.
Every morning, in rain, snow, or fog, he walked two miles to the Hotel Einstein coffee shop, sat down at an aluminum-topped table in the back, facing the door, and took out a small set of maple and cherry chessmen that had been a present from his brother-in-law. Every night he sat at his bench in the back of the little house on Adler Street where Landsman grew up, in Halibut Point, looking over the eight or nine correspondence games he had going at any one time. He wrote notes for Chess Review. He revised a biography of Tartakower that he never quite finished or abandoned. He drew a pension from the German government. And, with the help of his brother-in-law, he taught his son to hate the game he himself loved.
“You don’t want to do that,” Landsman’s father would plead after Landsman released, with bloodless fingers, his knight or pawn to meet the fate that always came as a surprise to Landsman, no matter how much he studied, practiced, or played the game of chess. “Take it from me.”
But in the service of his own small misery, Landsman could be stubborn, too. Satisfied, burning with shame, he would watch unfold the grim destiny that he had been unable to foresee. And Landsman’s father would demolish him, flay him, vivisect him, gazing at his son all the while from behind the sagging porch of his face.
After some years of this sport, Landsman sat down at his mother’s typewriter to write his father a letter in which he confessed his loathing for the game of chess, and begged his father not to force him to play anymore. Landsman carried this letter in his satchel for a week, enduring three more bloody defeats, and then mailed it from the Untershtat post office. Two days later, Isidor Landsman killed himself, in room 21 of the Hotel Einstein, by an overdose of Nembutal.
After that Landsman started to have some problems. He wet the bed, got fat, stopped talking. His mother put him in therapy with a remarkably gentle and ineffectual doctor named Melamed. It was not until twenty-three years after his father’s death that Landsman rediscovered the fatal letter, in a box that also held a fair copy of the unfinished biography of Tartakower. It turned out that Landsman’s father had never even opened the letter from his son, let alone read it. By the time the mailman delivered it, Landsman’s father was already dead.
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