February 12, 2008
Zele Community Table
Michael Conniff, Carol Bayley, Judge Bob Nix.
Michael Conniff: I know you’ve been thinking and talking a lot about your Uncle Abe in Milwaukee.
Stuart Brafman: I just did an interview on KAJX about my uncle as a matter of fact. My Uncle Abe came to the United States at age 15 in 1922 from a small town in the Ukraine with his father and two sisters. His mother was killed by bandits shooting up the town. The guy was incredible. Within two years of coming here his father died. He learned the language, got a job in shoe factories, and worked his way through high school. He applied to West Point after just four years and got a grade of 82. The Congressman was ready to recommend him until he realized “you’re not in my district.” That Congressman said: “I made an appointment for a guy who had a 68.” He said: “What about Annapolis?”—but Uncle Abe rejected it. Then he worked his way through the University of Wisconsin engineering school, selling fruit off a wagon in summer to make enough money. The third year he did ROTC in the summer and the family pitched in to get him through his last year. He graduated, got a commission, and was sent to Fort Sheridan, where he soon became the post engineer—he built Fort Sheridan into a major induction center and became a full colonel.
MC: A full colonel with a Russian accent.
SB: A full colonel with a Russian accent. He came home after the war and got into a real estate home and building operation in Milwaukee, where I’m from.
MC: What was your relationship to him?
SB: My relationship was he was married to my mother’s sister, and my mother was one of three sisters joined at the hip. They talked to each other three times a day, and they were inseparable, within walking distance of each other. A mutual support organization. My father died when I was 12. My Uncle Abe not a father but a role model.
MC: What kind of role model?
SB: He practiced hard work and persistence, the idea that you can do anything. He also had a deep sense of family—everyone was loved, no one could do any wrong. You learned to stand side by side through thick and thin. That was something passed down to me, to my son, I hope to my daughter, and to my grandchildren hopefully.
MC: It sounds like your Uncle Abe was also quite a storyteller.
SB: The stories he told were about life in Russia as a child, the links to the past life with lessons for all us. He could talk about how the men in town were ordered to come to village square with cattle, horses, and sons. He told about how the women would gather grain in the fields, milled for Passover matsah, and how he and friends watched the grain so no water and contamination would get in. How do you teach your children about Passover compared to that? Also his father was a manager of the dry goods store. His job was to sit there. He was disabled, he got a job, and he learned the Talmud and Torah. There was no safety net. He would tell stories about how Cossacks used to come and shoot up the town. Our children listen to this. His son-in-law, my cousin’s son, taped Uncle Abe to get his life story—the tapes were lost—but they just popped up. We put them on disc for our grandchildren in lieu of a bedtime story. We have three doses of Uncle Abe growing up in Russia—a hour and a half or three-quarters.
MC: What was your direct relationship with Uncle Abe?
SB: He was a role model. He was there. I wanted him to be pleased with me and I think he was. It was never a father-son relationship, though I almost grew up with him as siblings. Uncle Abe and I were just very, very good friends. I never felt any jealousy, so it was a very nice relationship. He gave me a lot. He knew it and I knew it.
MC: And you went into a similar business, the mortgage business.
SB: Very much so. He was in real estate. I was inclined to it and ended up in mortgage insurance largely because that was the business he was in and the business I knew. I worked for him, and I also him as a boss. That gave me some idea of what a good boss was like.
MC: What is a good boss like?
SB: He was fair and clear in his instructions—and high in his expectations. He never berated you in front of other people. I saw his carpenters and tradesman had great respect for him. After the war he knew how to build sticks and stones. They had great respect. That all trickled down. He’s the legacy for me and my children. An important guy in my life.
MC: What was it like growing up as a Jewish kid in Milwaukee?
SB: Milwaukee was a very anti-Semitic town. I had snowball fights, fistfights. A parochial school would come to my school when they used our shop. I knew to stay out of the way, though sometimes it was very hard to. There was usually a confrontation once or twice a week when they used shop. They’d pick a fight, push, shove, fight. But by no means was that even close to what Uncle Abe went through with the Cossacks!
MC: How so?
SB: The Bolshevik were not anti-Semitic, they were anti-bourgeoisie. You were their target and many Jews fit into that category. The Ukranians were not—they were truly anti-Semitic. The bandits were a product of all the unrest after the Russian Revolution. On a drunken night out, a bullet hit Uncle Abe’s mother and killed her instantly. My uncle’s sister was wounded in the eye—grazed. Uncle Abe talked in the tapes about his father, who gave up his job and packed up the wagon. He and two sisters and his father made for the Romanian border because it was open. We don’t know what happened between then and the United States. We don’t have it on tape. The irony is he left his house two days after Passover and arrived in the United States one day after Passover a year later.
MC: Where did he arrive in the United States?
SB: New York. Somehow he got to France, to Ellis Island, then stayed in New York with some cousins, then his brother who came before him—my maternal grandfather. The brother came and Abe followed. Abe married the stepdaughter of my grandfather. One other thing about stories. The unique quality was he had lived the life but he also understood the global history that was taking place in the world. Not just his life on the ground but as it related it to the wars, the history—and not just in the Russian world. He had a grasp of the world and how he fit into it. He was a great reader, and he had an incredible memory. In his eighties, his lawyers would look for the documents and he would remember. He remembered the name of the man who leased the horse to his father. He remembers the dates of invasions in the First World War. An incredible memory—a databank. When I play the CD for my grandchildren, I re-realized the power of a story. It’s historic. Something about how he tells the story.
MC: How else are you preserving his stories?
SB: What I’ll do is this. There’s a Jewish heritage foundation in Milwaukee. I’m going to provide information about my mother and me. She was rather prominent in that community.
MC: What did she do?
SB: Primarily party planner in the Jewish community as a business. You had to wait two years to get a date with her. She had a wonderful combination of talents. She was an excellent cook herself, but she was also able to get ten farm women to make a dinner for 300 that tasted like a dinner made for you in the kitchen. And she had some sophisticated presentation techniques—it was a very big town, and she was absolutely adored in it. People just loved her. Nobody ever said anything disparaging about her, only praise. A marriage of talent and ability with great appreciation. People tell me to this day about her. And she did a cookbook fifty years ago as
a project for the synagogue. It was been given as gifts for people.
MC: Do you have a copy?
SB: I have the last four editions. At a dinner party, my wife asked me for the recipe and brought out the cookbook. She was kind of a celebrity.
MC: Are you going to do other interviews with you family? Will you be interviewed?
SB: I promised to do this: I’m going to have my daughter do the interview. I have a 95-year-old uncle married to 90-year-old aunt. I want them to go through the family history. My aunt was always very attractive and still is. We yell at him because he can’t hear and he won’t listen. That was a congenital defect of two of the three sisters and the brother and they all have lisps.
MC: Let me get back to growing up in Milwaukee.
SB: Anti-semitism is not overt in Milwaukee. If you scratch the surface, some say it comes back. Some say it’s dead and buried. I’ll give you an example, when I was a kid we used to sell shoes in high school and later in college. I worked on the South Side, and it was heavily Polish and anti-semitic. A man worked with me and he used to treat me like a son. He would always make sure I was treated fairly. One day he wouldn’t talk to me or acknowledge my presence. I asked someone: “Why won’t he talk to me.” I was told: “He just found out you were Jewish.” He never talked to me again. Never again. I was a kid but he was an old man. It wasn’t intentional. It just happened.
MC: What about your photography?
SB: It’s both visceral and reflexive. When I see something that really captures the time and place and the mood—I shoot it. I’m not even looking for it. I’m just there. I’m an observer by nature. I’m all antennas when I go to these less-traveled places. I see the sights, touch the ground, get a sense of the place. Some things fit into the process—I take the picture. Oftentimes in the photographs I shoot people going about their lives, not posed. If someone objects I don’t take their picture. There’s an unspoken dialogue. I never ask. The two times I did, I got a posed picture.
MC: How about this picture on the wall of an old man?
SB: I met him on the trail in Bhutan, on a long climb to this mountainous retreat.
MC: He has quite a face.
SB: I didn’t ask him and he didn’t pose. That picture is all about what Bhutan is.
MC: What do you mean?
SB: He’s a peasant who is part of a devout Buddhist culture in an almost a magical kingdom of mainly subsistence farmers, insulated from the vagaries of modernity. I’m getting the sense people who see it get a similar message. Something genuine that represents a particular moment, something that’s timeless. When I get back from these trips and lay these pictures out I ask people: “Where’s the common thread?” It’s this timeless spirit, a sense of time and place, people who signify.
Carol Bayley: The camels, that’s my favorite.
SB: I actually gave my camera to someone else to take that picture.
MC: As I look around at your pictures of Spain here in Zele, I see you have a strong geometric sense.
SB: The geometry of Bilbao struck me— the tunnel, the dome. Spain is the most civilized country we’ve gone to in ten years.
MC: Where else have you gone?
SB: India, Bhutan, South America—the backwoods. In Spain I started to wonder why the people all look like me, very uninteresting. Then I looked at Gaudi the architect and these Disneyesque shapes. I saw Picasso, Miro, I started seeing their shapes and figures. It was no longer people, but places that I was seeing. Then I saw Gehry’s Bilbao, I had a field day. I got very lucky. It was a dreary day. Had it been a bright day, the reflection would have washed out the prints. What you see is this dramatic effect from the weather.
MC: So you had always focused on people before?
SB: This was completely different. It represented a new page. And it was unintentional. It was a hot bed of modernism there with the people who participated in it. I had a different focus. No longer the timeless spirit, it was a rush of modernistic shapes and forms. I had never been attracted to modernism. I had a completely blank slate. I know what they did but by no means am I educated.
MC: How did you get started with photography?
SB: I used to bring the camera along to places I was interested in. Then people got interested. I’ve had good reaction. Am I there for photography or travel? The photography can get bothersome. Some times I’m focused more on what I can shoot than the travel.
MC: That’s the artist in you.
SB: There’s a tension there between me and my photography. You’re seeing the world through a viewfinder.
MC: When did you start?
SB: 1997. I was 60. My wife Lotta was the photographer in the family. We took our first trip to Vietnam. I said to her: “Let me use the camera.”
MC: So she was the photographer.
SB: She really is wonderful at composition and she’s a great director. She helps me. He’s got a good eye.
MC: These shot here in Zele are in black and whit.
SB: I shoot in color and black-and-white. I have two cameras when I go. The color is our record of a trip which I form in a scrapbook. Come over some time and I’ll bore you with them but my grandchildren really love to look at them. Then I have a black and white camera.
MC: What kind?
SB: A Nikon M 90 S 35-millimeter. And I use some kind of professional black-and-white film.
MC: Do you ever think of what would have happened if you had started earlier?
SB: I’d be impoverished or dead because I gravitate toward photo journalism, because I don’t have artistic flair. I would say had I picked up the camera at 20 and pursued it I either would have starved or been shot. I was way too young for Korea so it would have been Vietnam. I got out of the Army just when Vietnam started. They transferred me to JAG. I served two and a half years at Fort Benning and Fort Ord. I had an infantry company but then they switched me. I was at Fort Ord as a JAG officer. I had some great trial experience. No one would ever give a young lawyer in a firm that responsibility.
Judge Bob Nix: When were you at Fort Ord?
SB: 1960 – 1962
BN: Was there a guy named Neuheisel?
SB: Not that I knew. My experience is quite dated. If I were ever in trouble, rather be tried in a military court.
MC: Why is that?
SB: The judge is at least a major who goes to school to be a judge, and in my experience in civilian life, the judges are usually politically appointed. I didn’t think the system worked as honestly and as fairly. That was my sense with very little experience.
MC: What about the military trials at Guantanamo Bay? As a JAG officer, you’re a good person to ask about that.
SB: The trials are so unusual, but the people defending them are good lawyers and it will be okay. There’s even more pressure to be fair than in an ordinary trial. The command influence was a real factor in the military justice system up through the Korean War, then the pendulum swung the other way—any suggestion of influence and it’s a mistrial. We became a politically insulated body. Two examples. Before I got to Fort Ord, a commanding general said to the lawyers: “I put him up and he’s guilty and that’s the result I expect.” He put the whole JAG office on infantry detail. He was relieved of his command within 24 hours. When I had a case the commanding officer felt deeply about and I won it, he never influenced me. I bumped into him in the barber shop. He congratulated me although he didn’t like the r
esult. I asked for an enlisted jury, a very unusual request. A colonel said: “You’ll get it, but if you lose the case there could be hell to pay.” He was very sincere. I took the enlisted court and won.
MC: What’s your next trip?
SB: We’re scheduled to go to Croatia in the fall. We take one big one in the fall, at least three weeks up to nine weeks. We used to take on in spring but I want to be closer to the grandchildren.
MC: Will you ever go to Uncle Abe’s town in Russia?
SB: I might. But I often offered to take him back and said I would go with him. He never wanted to go. He had no interest. He had no interest in travel, and I could never understand it because he had such vivid memories of that time, and they weren’t bad memories.”