Arthur Shutkin, Ukrainian Refugee(?) by
(166 Stories)

Prompted By Refugees

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Let me preface my story with a disclaimer.  When I was in high school, a bunch of us were discussing the Holocaust.  At one point, one of my classmates (like me, an affluent and entitled Jew) took a deep sigh and exclaimed, “Yes, we certainly have suffered!”  I kept my mouth shut at the time, but considered the statement to be offensive — indeed,  the height of narcissistic self-victimization.   As I Iater said to my girlfriend (another affluent, entitled Jew), “God knows six million Jews — and many more — have truly suffered, but she [classmate] sure isn’t one of them.”  So please understand that I would never try to suggest that my incredibly fortunate life in any way resembles what Ukranian refugees are now going through.  But, that said, I cannot deny feeling some hereditary connection to their situation.  Here’s why.

I had always vaguely understood that my paternal grandfather, Arthur Shutkin, and his many siblings had emigrated from Ukraine, but I was never entirely sure, and other family members had suggested the possibility that the family was instead from Minsk (in Belarus).  I never really thought about it; I just knew that we were “Russian Jews” on that side of the family and “German Jews” (actually Austrian) on my mother’s side.  However, three years ago, my cousin, who has far more interest in family genealogy than I do, decided he wanted to do some more digging into the life of our common grandfather Arthur. (My middle name is, not coincidentally, Arthur.)  The specific reason for this was that my cousin had  heard stories years ago from his mother (my father’s sister) that, after her mother/our grandmother had died at an early age, Arthur had had a brief second marriage that was later annulled and that there was a bit of scandal attached to it.

So my cousin, a theoretical physicist (are there any other kinds?), went on a research mission into the archives of the Milwaukee  Historical Society — Milwaukee being where Arthur had lived and my cousin grew up.  And he struck gold — no doubt because Arthur was a fairly high-profile lawyer and politician in Milwaukee. He was an Alderman for many years and once ran for Mayor of Milwaukee (and lost in a landslide).  As a result, Arthur’s name was frequently in the local newspapers and, in particular, my cousin found a number of semi-lurid articles about Arthur’s second marriage.

Per the articles (which my cousin shared and I’ve read, but the links to which have now expired), soon after my grandmother died in 1926, Arthur went off to rest — and, presumably, to deal with his grief —   in the Los Angeles area, staying with some relatives who lived there.  While there, he met a beautiful younger woman who claimed she was from Chicago and was vacationing with her “brother.”  She and Arthur had a whirlwind romance, and, several weeks later,  Arthur brought her back with him to Milwaukee (along with her “brother”) and they were immediately married.  But fairly soon after that, Arthur came to his senses and hired a detective who discovered that Arthur’s new wife was not what she apppeared to be and her “brother” wasn’t actually her brother.  In fact, the two were a couple of grifters from Kansas City who had previously preyed on other unsuspecting, lonely men of means. So Arthur then quickly moved forward to annul the marriage.

This is all by way of backstory, as interesting as it may be.  More to the point of this prompt, my cousin was also able to locate in the Historical Society archives the transcript of the deposition that Arthur gave in 1927 in his annulment case.  (Again, I’ve read it, but it is no longer available.)  At the very beginning of the deposition, Arthur’s lawyer asked him the usual background biographical  questions.  And, voila, there were Arthur’s own sworn words that he was born in “Kviv” in 1881.*  He then stated that he lived in Kviv until his family “emigrated” to Milwaukee in 1905.  Hmmmm…

1905 was a very interesting year in Russia and the surrounding “Russified” states, such as Ukraine and Belarus.  As in there was a revolution that year. And Russia, even before Stalin, was a pretty rough place to be a Jew, to put it mildly.  As the linked Wikipedia article notes:

For generations, Russian Jews had been considered a special problem.[10] Jews constituted only about 4% of the population, but were concentrated in the western borderlands.[13] Like other minorities in Russia, the Jews lived “miserable and circumscribed lives, forbidden to settle or acquire land outside the cities and towns, legally limited in attendance at secondary school and higher schools, virtually barred from legal professions, denied the right to vote for municipal councilors, and excluded from services in the Navy or the Guards.”

It does not take much imagination to conclude that Arthur and his many siblings came to Milwaukee in 1905 to escape their “miserable and circumscribed lives.”  Does that make them “refugees” or were they just “emigres,” along with millions of other Europeans of many nationalities, ethnicities and religions in the 19th and early 20th centuries?  To some extent, that is more a semantic question than a political one, given the many forces that compelled Europeans to come to  America at that time. But the Wikipedia article also notes that “some nationalists undertook anti-Jewish pogroms, possibly with [Tsarist] governement aid, and in total over 3,000 Jews were killed.”

In any event, in reading of the daily horrors in Ukraine, and especially of the tragedy of the millions of refugees from Kviv and throughout Ukraine, I could not help thinking to my own grandfather and what he and his siblings must have endured and, ultimately, survived in departing from that country.  And, while I wish again to stress that their suffering in no way translates into my suffering (I have led an entirely cosseted life), I cannot help but feel particularly connected and empathetic to the Ukraine tragedy because of my own family history.


* I was amused at the time that the transcript used what we then considered to be the archaic spelling of “Kiev;” though, with current events, we now realize it is actually still the preferred spelling.


Photo Appendix (sort of)   

As I’ve previously bewailed, I am the “anti-Betsy” of Retro in having such a pathetic collection of family and ancestral photos.  Indeed, I don’t have any photos at all of Arthur.  So here’s the best I can do:

When my genealogy-minded cousin visited us in Milwaukee about ten years ago, he had a good idea of the cemetery where members of our family had been buried.  So we drove there — it was in the shadows of the Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium, Miller Field, which I thought was pretty cool  — and quickly found a plot, marked by a large gravestone with “Shutkin” on it and smaller stones marking where Arthur, his “real” wife Susie, and my cousin’s parents were buried.  Also cool, though also a little creepy seeing a gravestone with one’s own surname on it.  Anyhow, I posed in front of the gravestone and that is my featured image.

As to Arthur himself, I did come across a photo of him when I was young and was going through a box of old photos my father had in his study. When I first saw it, I though it was my father wearing an all white wig and wire-rimmed glasses; they looked that similar.  So here’s a photo of my father as an older man, and if you can imagine him with all white hair and those glasses, this is exactly what Arthur looked like:


Finally, a couple of years ago I got a message from out of the blue in my LinkedIn account.  It was from a gentleman in suburban Milwaukee named Brian who was reaching out to see if I was related to Arthur Shutkin.  (Sometimes it helps to have a fairly rare last name.)  Brian said that he was cleaning out their house in preparation for a move and had uncovered a huge old safe they had not known was there with the name “Arthur Shutkin” inscribed on it.  Brian knew nothing about the history of it or how it had ended up in their house. It was unlocked and empty, so no chance of riches or family secrets within it. But, before disposing of it, he thought he’d check to see if there were any Shutkins still around and whether they would like to have this family relic.  Here’s a picture of it:

I told Brian that Arthur had been my grandfather, but that I also knew nothing about the safe or its provenance — nor did my brother, cousin or any of the other relatives I then reached out to.  We assume Arthur probably kept it in his law office.  In any event, as curious as a find as it was, none of us had any interest in actually owning the safe, to say nothing of dealing with the cost and logistics of moving it.  (My older daughter was briefly intrigued, but then starting thinking about the risk of it crashing through the floor of her upper floor apartment.)  So, in the end, I thanked Brian for his efforts, but we all took a pass on what is presumably the last vestige of Arthur’s legacy.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin

Characterizations: funny, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Thanx John for your usual clever take on our Retro prompt!

    Your story reads like a humorous /thriller / mystery! And thank goodness you listened to you daughter, and so no ten-ton safe came crashing through the floor!

    When we replaced a second-floor bathtub, the contractor advised us NOT to get a heavy porcelain tub – he knew from experience what can happen!

    And may the Shutkins under that impressive gravestone rest in peace!

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Interesting story, John. Though not about your grandfather’s entrance into this country, that second wife scam is a good yarn and warning about how the lonely heart can be deceived. At least he was a smart lawyer and got his annulment quickly and the documents led you to greater discoveries.

    My story this week isn’t about my grandparents, but at the bottom, I link to that story, written in 2017. They came from Lithuania in 1906 AFTER surviving horrific pogroms (as your Wikipedia article describes).

    You certainly can feel a link to the Ukraine of today and your ancestors’ arrival in the US, more than a century ago. We all came from somewhere (unless we are Native Americans, and that’s another horror story). At least we of the Jewish faith used to feel safe here. Now…with the rise of antisemitism and the “Jews will not replace us” crowd that supports the Republicans, I’m not so sure.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    We have similar back stories when it comes to our ancestry, at least on your father’s side. I wish I had asked my grandparents more about their life in the “old country” (what they called it). I used to try to imagine myself coming here in my teens like they did, often alone. Immigrants/refugees get the job done, as Lin-Manual Miranda tells us, if given the opportunity to escape their oppression.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    Fascinating story about what a little genealogical research can uncover. The picture of you with the gravestone is perfect—funny how finding something like that can push the past into more immediate relevance. And knowing your ties to Ukraine surely affects your relationship to current events. If only we all learned better from history.

  5. Suzy says:

    Very interesting story, John. Thanks for the link to the Wikipedia article, which verifies a lot of things I already sort of knew. But why the question mark in your title? Are you questioning whether Arthur was Ukrainian, whether he was a refugee, or both?

    Also, I must take issue with your first paragraph. I think your classmate was entirely correct to say “we have suffered.” The rabbis teach us that what befalls any of our people befalls us all. The Passover Haggadah says WE were slaves in Egypt, not THEY were slaves in Egypt. No matter how comfortable we may be, we still suffered all those historical atrocities.

    • John Shutkin says:

      I should have been clearer. The question mark was because of the mystery — to me at least — of my grandfather’s country of origin. Which mystery is now solved, at least for this lawyer.

    • John Shutkin says:

      I’m afraid I also didn’t make my first paragraph point clearly either. Apologies.

      I understand and fully agree with the rabbis’ expression of empathy and solidarity with those of our religion who have so terribly suffered. That is indeed a noble belief and one reflected in Jewish teachings. However, I viewed my classmate’s statement (and you probably had to know her) not as that, but as a form of self-victimization and a demand that she be afforded equal sympathy for horrific things that did not happen to her personally. And I’m sorry, but I can’t feel the same sympathy for an affluent American teenager in high school in 1967 as I feel for a Nazi concentration camp prisoner who was gassed to death 25 years earlier. Nor, to bring it back to my own story, do I, as an affluent American of Ukrainian descent, deserve any sympathy for the plight of Ukrainian refugees, either in 1905 or today.

      And, by the same reasoning, I also do not feel I should be held responsible for the sins of, for example, Roy Cohn or Bernie Madoff.

  6. Your story pulled together several strands and you did a nice job puling them together and segueing from one to another.
    I find the distinction between refugees and immigrants in many cases a matter of semantics, as you suggest (though I realize that the distinction is legally important in seeking asylum). We usually speak of the wave of Irish immigration in the mid 1800s, for instance, but about a quarter of the country died of the Great Famine, and weren’t they refugees in search of food and survival?

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Dale. And thanks, too, for agreeing with me that the distinction between refugees and immigrants is not always clear — and, indeed, the label given in a particular situation may be highly questionable.

  7. Dave Ventre says:

    Comparing the relative suffering of one group to another can be problematic. That said, I am sure that whatever drove my ancestors here from Italy and Norway, it was not someone trying to kill them!

    And “a couple of grifters from Kansas City” sounds like a great start for a crime novel.

    • John Shutkin says:

      I agree, Dave, about the difficulty of such comparisons. It reminds me of the old TV show “Queen for a Day,” which seemed to me to be a competition among very sad women as to who had led the saddest life. And for that, they gave the winner a washing machine.

      I also agree about the “couple of grifters.” Sounds like something Damon Runyan would have written.

  8. Marian says:

    Great story, John. It seems many of us trace roots back to what is now Ukraine, for lack of a stable geography. It’s hard to imagine how rough it must have been for these immigrants/refugees at the time, but they understood well what they were leaving. My mother has told me that she wished my grandmother had lived to know that I’d gone to college–then all the sacrifices were worth it.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Marian. And, yes, I am aware that my grandfather and his siblings (I believe there were nine of them) were all the happy storoes. But there were so many such stories that did not end that way. Which is, of course, probably why they wanted so much to get out.

  9. Dang, John, the depth and intriguing nature of your family exploration made me mute the ball game! From the saga of the Shutkin grifters to the grand and promising inscribed safe, to your integration of the 1905 Revolution into the family story, I followed the complexities, wry humor, and information you wrote into this terrific synthesis of family and history. We know of The Education of Henry Adams, now we have been enlightened by The Education of John Shutkin. Bravo!

  10. Vis a vis the 1905 Revolution, I highly recommend A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I’m guessing you’d love it as much as I did.

    • John Shutkin says:

      You guess right, Charles. And I’ve loved Towles’ other books. Indeed, after reading and enjoying “The Lincoln Highway,” I had a very nice correspondence with him telling him as much but also advising him that, back in the 1950’s, goalposts did not have just the single central post they now have and as he erroneously described, but were shaped like an “H” (as you probably also remember). Believe it or not, he promised to correct this in his next edition.

  11. Ah, a shared enthusiasm over A. Towles. Yes, anyone who has torn down a goalpost in the 1950s, knows: two posts, 4×4 Doug fir until repeated attacks necessitated 3” steel pipe. And pardon the typo. Two Ds indeed!

  12. I KNEW you have a flair for the theatrical! Place kicker, eh? All eyes upon you in that horrendous moment… glory or ignominy hanging on a toe! Bravo, John! 🦶🏼

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