Thursday, March 18, 2010

FAMILY HISTORY: The Forger - Our family's secret savior?

I don't have a photo of Joseph Rubinsky, but here's something better: a sample of his work. What you see is a 1926 American entrance visa, a rare gem at a time when millions of refugees from war-scarred Eastern Europe were still trying to reach the US but were blocked by newly-imposed immigration quotas. This visa was worth a fortune on the black market. It was a beautiful, profitable, elegant fraud. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of illegals, mostlty Polish and Russian Jews, fooled the Ellis Island inspectors with these Rubinsky forgeries between 1922 and 1926 before officials finally caught on.

Beating the immigration rules made Rubinsky a criminal. Police arrested him at least four times during the 1920s in Poland, Germany, and France. But each time, he managed to buy or connive his way out of prison and went immediately back to business.

His final known arrest came in July 1926 in Danzig, just a few days after German police had seized six people in Berlin traveling with forged Polish passports and forged German and American visas -- Rubinsky originals. By then, Rubinsky, just 35 years old, had had enough. He bought himself out of jail one last time, then disappeared, slipping back into the USA under a false name then vanishing into Canada. Not even J. Edgar Hoover could find him.

A few months ago, digging through old diplomatic files at the US national archives while trying to reconstruct the story of how my own grandparents came from Poland to America in the 1920s, I happened to come across the original 1926 cable from US diplomats in Berlin reporting on the arrests there, and was more-than-slightly surprised at seeing the names of the six people arrested for carrying the fake Rubinsky documents. One was listed as Hinda Bronfeld -- my future mother, then just 14 years old -- and two others as her siblings, my future uncle and aunt.

Was the forger Rubinsky the secret hero who saved our family from the holocaust by sneaking us out of Eastern Europe before the Nazi disaster? Or were we victims of a gigantic hoax?

No one in my family had every heard such a story, and all that generation -- our parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents who made the immigrant journey in the 1920s -- had died years ago. Had the Berlin arrest been a secret they carried to the grave? A case of identity theft? Or something else? Now, for the last six months, I have been trying to figure out what went on.

So far, all we know about Rubinsky comes from an investigative file kept by the US Immigration Bureau, plus a letter from the FBI and a few related cables from US diplomats. We know that Rubinsky was short and skinny, stood five feet three inches tall and weighted 112 pounds with brown hair and brown eyes. He spoke Russian, Polish, Yiddish, French, German, and perhaps a few other languages along with English, born in Kiev, raised in New York City, a fast talker with good hands. He had a wife named Ida who stayed behind in New York while he traveled the world, and two daughters named Henrietta and Dora. He and his gang -- police say he had at least seven accomplices -- operated out of two crowded apartments, one in Warsaw and the other in Danzig.

What made Joseph Rubinsky leave his home, cross the ocean, and become an underworld smuggler? Was it just the money? What mental demons could have been driving him to face repeated arrest and prison, deal with the lowest swindlers, extort the last pennies (zlotys) from destitute refugees? Did he glory in his own brilliance as a swindler, a forger-artiste, a street operator? Did he see himself a hero, a profiteer, a gambler?

I aim to find out more about this Joseph Rubinsky and the underworld of 1920s forgers and smugglers who, in their own gray, selfish, compromized way, apparently saved many many lives. Is he hero or villain? Stay tuned. Thanks.

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