Thursday, 10 March 2011
Meyer Lansky, doyen of the New York mobsters and last survivor of the Prohibition era, was born in Grodno in 1902 in what was then the Russian Empire, and was brought to the USA in 1911 as part of the great influx of Russian Jews fleeing Tsarist antisemitic pogroms. He once told a reporter that one his earliest memories was hearing an elder addressing a meeting at his grandfather's house after yet another outrage. "Jews!" he shouted, "Why do you just stand around like stupid sheep and let them come and kill you, steal your money, kill your sons and rape your daughters? Aren't you ashamed? You are men like other men. A Jew can fight. Fight back! If you're going to die, then die fighting!" Lansky said these words were "burned in his memory". He would always live his life on these principles.
He was, as far as I know, the only Jew ever to be refused permission to settle in Israel. Despite the fact that he had never been convicted of any major crime, he was still "Meyer Lansky, the notorious gangster". He died peacefully in 1983.
(Sources: Hank Messick, "Lansky"; Rich Cohen, "Tough Jews")
There is more information on Lansky and his colleagues in my blog entries on "American gangsters". I have also posted a summary of Cohen's excellent book, filed under "Non-fiction"