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My Grandfather’s Russian Passport

When my grandpa died over three decades ago, I recall rifling through his desk drawer for clues of his life and finding only a few relics from before he left his Russian homeland for America. There was some paper currency with the Czar’s picture on it and a few other incidental momentoes. Quite frankly, I didn’t know where grandpa was born or what he did before landing here. But neither he nor my grandma, who had emigrated from Lithuania, ever talked about the old world—and I was too young to know what to ask them. My father couldn’t fill in many of the blanks, except that our family name in Russia was Geller, changed at Ellis Island when grandpa mistakenly stood on the “H” line.

Both of my parents passed away during the last five months. My dad (95) took an eternal nap just a week after surviving Hurricane Sandy in his 12th floor apartment that was hit by the blackout. My mom (93), died a few months later after enduring the indignities of the New York health care and nursing home system.

Cleaning out their apartment (an all too common ritual in the cycle of life and death) I found many small surprises, including my parents’ birth and wedding certificates, rare photos from the teens and early twenties, thirties and forties, Air Force discharge papers, and more. One of the discoveries is my grandpa’s Russian passport (below). It was issued in 1909, the year he left on a boat for the new world, presumably to escape the antisemitic pogroms—and as fate would have it he met my grandma on the same ship.


When I first saw the passport’s virtually pristine, blank blue cover, I thought it was a Moleskine cahier. Then I opened it to find the seal and typography of the Czarist Russia (above). 1909 was a momentous time in Russia: The year the Okhrana (the Imperial secret police) restored order after the failed revolution of 1905, which led to limited democracy. It was the year that the Police reported that not a single revolutionary group was still functioning in the Russian Empire; It was a moment when the Russian intelligentsia broke ranks with revolutionary Bolsheviks, the Czar’s government initiated a campaign of repression of national minorities, Stalin escaped from internal exile, and returned to his home in Baku, and student strikes protested the Czar’s repressive policies against women and Jews.

1909 was momentous in many ways. Not the least it was the year my grandpa and grandma landed at Ellis Island, entered New York, moved to the Bronx and became Mr. and Mrs. Isadore Heller.


For more Steven Heller, check out Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, one of the many Heller titles available at MyDesignShop.com.

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