The Kauffman family history reads like something out of a Dickens novel, which is probably why I’m still expecting some random stranger to walk up to me and hand me several million dollars. In our particular case, there wasn’t just one abandoned orphan who went on to incredible success (and drama), but several. The orphans in this case were my father, born Meyer but later adopting (no pun intended) an Americanized Michael as his first name, and his three younger siblings, brothers Charles Lawrence and Joseph Patrick (who went by Pat), and sister Sylvia Clarice (who went by Kay–it should already be obvious this was a family of assumed names). The stories of my father and these siblings are amazing and, in some cases, heartbreaking. The fact that it turns out these four Kauffmans were not the sum total of the family is another amazing fact, and one of the intriguing mysteries this blog will attempt to get into.
I grew up with a father who was (by the time I was four or five or so) a Major General in the Army, and in some ways at least one of the most recognizable “faces” of the military in Utah, especially in Salt Lake City. My Dad had also been one of most celebrated and written about battalion commanders in World War II, one whose exploits led not just to numerous decorations for himself, but Presidential Unit Citations and a really incredible host of honors for a number of his men (future posts are going to get into my Dad’s military career).
My Dad’s next younger brother Charlie was an incredibly successful real estate entrepreneur who owned numerous properties in Manhattan, Brooklyn and other boroughs, a career he came to after a series of rabble rousing adventures as part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and, not so coincidentally, the American Communist Party. Charlie became an almost legendary figure in show business and political circles in New York City through the years. Youngest brother Pat became famous for another reason–he was arrested for being a Soviet Spy right at the height of the Cold War, and at almost exactly the same moment my father had been nominated to become a Major General. Pat’s spy case was widely reported news across the United States in the early sixties (Walter Winchell reported about it and called it the biggest spy case since Alger Hiss)–with the notable exception of Salt Lake City media, which resolutely refused to cover the story out of respect for my father. It was, obviously, a different and vastly more deferential time.
My older sisters and I had what by all accounts was a pretty normal, even idyllic, childhood in Salt Lake City, growing up (in the early years, at least) on that most American of street names, Elm Avenue. But we learned early on that my father’s childhood had been far from ideal, and had in fact been so traumatic that we were expressly forbidden from ever speaking to him about it. We knew that he had been orphaned under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and had been raised in foster care in Manhattan, but that was about it. Our family bible which my mother kept had included the names of his parents as John and Katherine, and in one of the few things my Dad would ever discuss, he always stated that my eldest sister Kathie had been named after his late mother. The name Katherine in its many variations will recur throughout this story in ways that can only be thought of as serendipitous.
Part of the prohibition on speaking about my Dad’s past spilled over into the “little” fact that he was Jewish. My mother may or may not have known about this (she always claimed she didn’t, but I have my doubts), but one way or the other my sisters and I knew on some intrinsic level we were Jewish on our Dad’s side but also knew we were absolutely not allowed to discuss it. We frankly weren’t quite sure what being “Jewish” meant, just that it perhaps somehow accounted for the “otherness” I and my siblings felt. I don’t know how this information, either positive or negative, was imparted to us, I can only state it was an experiential reality for me growing up.
What’s kind of amazing about the story of my father’s family is that it took decades to unravel (including identifying several previously unknown relatives–but more about that later), with a lot of investigation taking place before the advent of the internet. I’ve joked that I have felt I grew up in an Agatha Christie mystery, and it was only circa 2015-16 that I finally got to the Moishe the Explainer part. This blog will attempt to rechart that territory.