The city of Seattle and town of Shamki, Belarus, are separated by one ocean, two continents, and more than 5,000 miles. That expanse was bridged in one afternoon this summer through the bonds of two families.
Members of the Lawson and Steinberg families gathered in the Seward Park backyard of Louis Treiger and Bayla Friedman Treiger in August to retell the story of how the two families fled the oppression of Russian rule to make their way to America. Members of both families can trace their roots to the tiny collection of log homes known as Shamki, northeast of Minsk, and to two remarkable sisters, Chaya Tzivia and Shima Esther Rossman, who married Chayim Leib Steinberg and Yisroel Pesach Lawson, respectively.
Shamki was home to just eight Jewish families in the mid-1800s and grew to more than 65 before the start of World War I. According to Karen Treiger, who organized the backyard reunion, that was about the time her great-grandmother, Chaya Tzivia, sent Chayim Leib to Seattle. “After a few months, Chayim returned to Shamki because he was unhappy with the prospects available to him in America,” Treiger says. “His wife demanded that her husband return and make it work, because she did not want her sons to be forced to serve in the tsar’s army.”
Chayim Leib crossed the Atlantic for the third time, this time with their eldest son, Sam. The pair settled in Seattle and began peddling items from a pushcart. Soon they made enough money to bring over the rest of the family.
“We are all related by blood and share a common history,” Treiger told the 50 people who gathered for the reunion. “We all grew up hearing the same stories about the shtetl of Shamki and how our great-great-grandmothers forced their sons to move to America to escape an enlistment of 25 years in the tsar’s army.”
Relatives came from Georgia, New York, and Los Angeles. “Of course I am here,” says Hersch Lawson, who flew in from Atlanta. “Where else would I be when my family comes together like this?”
Shim (Mark) Elyn, 83, the grandson of Shima and Yisroel Lawson, spent many years on the stage as a world-renowned opera singer. Now speaking in a whisper, he shared legends of the shtetl, like that of Mordechai the fool.
The majority of both families still live in the Seattle area and have stayed close. “We have all lived within five or six blocks of each other in Madrona for most of our lives and saw everybody on a regular basis at shul,” says Terrie Lawson Paine, who lives in Ballard. “We all attended Franklin High School. Now that we’ve all grown and have our families, we rely on Facebook to keep up with the activities of our nieces and nephews.”
The family’s unofficial patriarch, Alan Lawson, took his role seriously, organizing family gatherings and leading Passover seders until his passing in April at the age of 86. His daughter Linda Lawson Elman, says he would read the prayers in both Hebrew and English so everybody felt welcome. “Seders would last until almost midnight,” she says, “because he refused to skip a single word.”
According to Paine, the August date for the reunion had originally been reserved for her parents’ 65th wedding anniversary celebration. “My father had been looking forward to his anniversary and to the bar mitzvah of his grandson,” she says. Her mother, Rita Lawson, tears up. “He made sure we had regular events,” she says, “so all the cousins could stay in touch and nobody could get too far away from family.”