Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Case for Kishinev: More on Anton LaVey's Grandmother (Now With Excerpts!!!)

When I began research on To Reign in Hell, I was trying to figure out the reality behind Luba Coulton's stories to her grandson. It has been an uphill battle.  The Coultons were working-class folk who received little media coverage. The European records were subject to several wars and a well-funded, meticulously organized effort to wipe them from memory.  But by comparing those stories to history and to the scant available evidence I have been able to trace a tentative roadmap of Grandma Luba's early career.

Every available document -- census forms, marriage licenses, birth certificates, etc. -- lists Luba Coulton's birthplace as "Russia." Luba was also Jewish: among other evidence, her August 1955 funeral was held at San Francisco's Sinai Memorial Chapel. Hence she was almost certainly born in the western part of the Russian Empire, as Jewish residence in the Russian Empire was ruled by the Pale of Settlement. With very few exceptions, Mother Russia was "beyond the pale" for Jews so this would place Luba's birthplace in the area of modern-day Poland and Ukraine.

On the 1940 census Luba Coulton tells the census taker she had four years of education. This may not sound impressive but few Jewish girls in 1880's Russia were so lucky. Religious schooling was the only education available for most Russian Jews and that only for boys.  There was one notable exception, the region between the Pnut and Dneister Rivers known as the Bessarabia Oblast.

The Russians won Bessarabia in two of their many conflicts with the Ottomans -- the 1806-1812 and 1828-29 wars, to be more precise. But gaining territory is one thing: ruling it is quite another. Bessarabia was mostly wild, the populace largely Romanian-speaking peasants who were no more sympathetic to the Russians than to the Turks or Austrians. To cement its hold the Empire passed laws encouraging emigration. Farming, inn-keeping and other jobs forbidden to Jews elsewhere within the Pale were allowed in Bessarabia: secular schooling was available to Jews in Bessarabia's main city, Kishinev.  Many found these opportunities irresistible. In 1847 Kishinev was home to 10,000 Jews: by 1897 50,237 Jews made up 46% of Kishinev's population. 

Russian primary schools of the time were open to students 8-11 -- a four-year curriculum. Only a small fraction of the Russian Empire's children received even that much schooling. Luba could read and write in several unrelated languages which each used different alphabets. In 1894 only 21% of the Empire's subjects could read and write at all. Those four years of schooling suggest that education was deeply important to Luba's parents. And they also suggest that her family was of relatively modest means since they could not afford further private education for their daughter.

In Secret Life of a Satanist  LaVey recounts Grandma Luba's accounts "of bloody battles fought against Turkish and Russian invaders [and] between Hungary and Romania over the rights to rule." The Ottomans and Russians fought yet again in 1877-1878, when Luba was nine. Kishinev was a major staging area and Luba would have seen Russian battalions and artillery parading through the streets. But though there was a large Romanian population in Kishinev there were few ethnic Hungarians, certainly not enough to fight for the right to rule.

Still, there is linguistic and other evidence linking Grandma Luba to Hungary. LaVey talks about his great-uncle Laszlo and claims he took "Szandor" to honor a relative: both names are more Budapest than Bucharest.  And in the Chicago Sentinel we find entries linking Gertrude Levey's older sisters to activities at Agudas Achim, a synagogue for Chicago's Hungarian Jewish community.  It is difficult to explain these anomalies.  But one of the more plausible answers lies in a location near the Empire's border which had a sizable population of Hungarian-speaking Jews -- a wooded land the Hungarians called Erdély and the Romanians Ardeal or Transilvania.

At the end of the 17th century the Austrian Empire won Transylvania. There as in Bessarabia the ruling Austrians faced a restive Romanian population: there they also encouraged Jewish emigration as a buffer against unrest.  In 1785-86 there were not quite 9,000 Jews in the Transylvania region (the Principality of Transylvania plus the neighboring counties of Partium and Banat): by 1867 there were over 100,000.  These Jews spoke Hungarian -- one of the official languages of what became after 1867 the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- and typically identified as Hungarians of the Mosaic faith.

This made them especially unpopular with the Romanian peasants. Anti-Semitism was already deeply ingrained in Romanian culture: in 1716 Demetrius Kantemir wrote the Moldavians (Romanians) "considered it hardly a mortal crime to kill a Turk, a Tatar, or a Jew."  Throughout Europe ethnic communities were coming together to demand recognition as the age of empires gave way to the age of nations.  In October 1784 an uprising began amongst Romanian serfs in Transylvania: it ended in February 1785 with Hungarian authorities publicly torturing the rebels to death. To Transylvania's Romanians the Jewish newcomers were agents of their oppressors, devils who broke Horea and Cloșca on the wheel like they had broken Jesus on the cross.  

But while tensions were high in 19th-century Transylvania, Luba Coulton's parents might have left for other reasons. Transylvania was a remote part of the Austrian Empire with little in the way of industry and little opportunity for advancement. Kishinev, by contrast, was a booming town strategically located along the route to Odessa and the Black Sea. This excerpt from Pinkas Hakehillot Romania (Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Romania) might explain how Hungarian-speaking Jews wound in the Russian Empire:
In the 1850s and the 1860s the [Russian] authorities encouraged trade with Romania, Austria and Russia. The Jews who came from those countries were permitted to reside in Kishinev and other places and to deal and trade and be craftsmen. The permit was good for one year and could be renewed. Many Jews who were foreign citizens were able to deal in trade and to establish industrial plants and craft workshops. 
The case for Kishinev is largely circumstantial, but it is the best explanation I can find for the data at hand. Anybody with evidence that would contradict or confirm this narrative is urged to contact me:  I also welcome alternative explanations which better address the available information.  In the meantime, I leave you with an excerpt from the actual manuscript itself -- a few paragraphs from Chapter 4: The Dogs of War (1938-41).

On Thursday, May 27, 1937 the Golden Gate Bridge opened: some 200,000 pedestrians made their way over the 6,450-foot bridge spanning San Francisco and Marin Counties across San Francisco Bay. Though he did not cross riding a unicycle, tap-dancing or walking backward as some did, Howard Levey was among those making the crossing. He and his parents would soon cross again. Ninety years earlier fortune-hunters came to San Francisco to strike it rich: in 1938 the Leveys left San Francisco for a comfortable life and home with a back yard.

If Mike and Gertrude Levey hoped things would get better so too did Mill Valley. The Great Fire of July 2-5, 1929 burned 2,500 acres and 117 homes: a few months later came the Great Depression. The town's businessmen hoped the bridge would bring new families to their community. Perhaps they were discussing prospective townsfolk over breakfast at Espoti's the morning the Leveys moved in.  Mill Valley needed people more polished than the WPA workers slurping coffee at the counter, they might say, but more sensible than those artists and Bohemians taking over summer cottages San Francisco's ex-wealthy could no longer afford. Had they known of the Leveys as the sun drove the last of the diaphanous redwood-scented fog from Mt. Tamalpais they would have certainly declared the family just the right sort.  

As America was gearing up for the horrors of war, Howard was perusing horror novels like Bram Stoker's Dracula. He combined the Gothic imagery therein – and later the peasants and pitchforks of Universal films – with Grandma Luba's tales. The Transylvania she knew only from her parents' accounts was re-envisioned as a dark wellspring of magic, a place where he could set himself apart from the suburban blandness that surrounded him.  Like many first-generation Americans of the day, Gertrude and Michael Levey were products of the melting pot. They showed little interest in their heritage or in what was transpiring in the Old World: neither were they affiliated with any of the local synagogues or Jewish organizations. While Howard knew little about Judaism and felt little affinity for his Jewish heritage, Count Dracula was a far more accessible and welcoming presence. And because Luba came from Vlad Tepes's kingdom her grandson could claim a link to the vampire prince and his power.