“Do you remember having a toy drum?”
There was a moment of quiet between Joe Smukler and Aleksander “Sasha” Shmukler, then Smukler began to cry.
The question serves as a culminating moment in The Tsar’s Drummer, an illustrated, 44-page book.
One of the men was a Philadelphia-area attorney and community activist who aided Jews in the Soviet Union. The other was a Ukrainian refusenik trying to support his family with chess lessons. But the toy drum they had both received as children connected them from across continents. The toy drum allowed these two distant cousins to persevere over generations of trauma that had torn their family apart, and find each other.
Though their last names were not spelled the same — Shmukler had been changed to Smukler in the United States — they were part of the same family, descended from a man who had been a drummer in Easter Europe and who had started a tradition of gifting toy drums to boys in his family.
In The Tsar’s Drummer, Connie Smukler tells a granddaughter the story of their family history. Connie Smukler and her late husband, Joe Smukler, were local activists in the movement for Soviet Jewry, who risked their own lives to help Jewish people in the Soviet Union find freedom in the United States and Israel.
It does all that by tracing the story of the Shmukler family who, across time and space, had kept up the drummer boy’s tradition of gifting young boys with toy drums.
“Sasha and I and Joe my husband, for years, had wanted to write the story for the family, just for the grandchildren and future great-grandchildren to know this story, because it’s really an incredible story,” Connie Smukler said. “It’s the story of Russian Jewry from 1865 to 1988 because it goes through the chapters. It goes through everything that happened to this family in Russia, so you see how things evolved for Russian Jews.”
But the story remained unwritten until one day, when Connie Smukler met with Bob Seltzer, senior director of major gifts at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. During that lunch, prompted by a question Seltzer had about her drum necklace, Connie Smukler told him this family history.
Seltzer was inspired, and it launched him on a journey to learn more and write a book. He studied the Holocaust, pogroms and Jewish life in Czarist Russia. He spoke with Smukler and with Aleksander Shmukler, who lives now in Montclair, New Jersey.
The Tsar’s Drummer tells three main stories from the family. The first is about a young boy named Yosef — changed to Yakov during his service — who was conscripted into the Tsar’s army and made to serve as a drummer. He leaves his service early and is granted the right to own land and fishing rights, a privilege denied to most Jews at the time. He also starts a tradition of giving toy drums to boys born in his family.
Seltzer, a drummer, even researched the drum techniques that a drummer in the Czar’s Army would use, when their hands were freezing in the winter, or when it was hot in the summer.
The other stories are about the Joseph Shmukler who survived the Holocaust and who kept a diary of his experience, which helped inform the book. The last is how the family reconnected.
“It’s about freedom,” Seltzer said. “It’s about courage. It’s about resiliency. It’s a universal message. I’m hopeful that the book makes its way to students who are studying genocide studies or Holocaust studies because the story is really about hatred, bias and prejudice through the generations, that it doesn’t go away and people, good people, good human beings, need to be vigilant in defending freedom through the ages.”
At first, Connie Smukler said, the story wasn’t going to have illustrations. But Aleksander Shmukler, an art collector with a substantial collection of Russian-Jewish art, connected with Michael Gleizer for the book. Shmukler had bought his work in the past.
“He’s one of the best and well-known Ukrainian Jewish artists,” Shmukler said. “He grew up in Ukraine … and was a very, very famous artist there.”
The illustrations, Connie Smukler said, are reminiscent of a Marc Chagall painting.
In the introduction, Shmukler encourages readers to reach out to their grandparents and learn about their own family history.
“It was a labor of love,” Connie Smukler said. “It was really a catharsis. We’d been living with this story for so many years now.”
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