Allan Gerson, a brilliant international lawyer who died in 2019, spent much of his career representing victims of terrorist attacks and human rights abuses, from the Lockerbie bombing to the 9/11 attacks. Gerson was best known for the creative legal theories he pioneered that allowed the families of such victims to sue foreign governments, seeking damages for their complicity in terrorism. He also served as senior counsel to two U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations and as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration.
His background was as colorful and unusual as his career, which also included writing books, traveling the world to shoot photographs, designing jewelry and running an art gallery. He was born in Samarkand in the former Soviet Union to Polish Jewish refugee parents who had fled the Nazis and come to Samarkand via Siberia. Eventually they reached a displaced persons’ camp in Germany and from there immigrated to the United States, using the names and documents belonging to another family.
After earning degrees from the University of Buffalo, New York University Law School, Yale Law School and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Gerson worked at the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI), which sought to identify ex-Nazis and prosecute and then deport them on charges of immigration fraud. That job, and the way it intertwined with his own family history and caused him to wrestle with complex moral issues, is the subject of his gripping memoir, Lies That Matter. This excerpt tells of one revelation in this fascinating life.
My Yiddish name is “Elle.”
That’s what my parents always called me, though my mom used “Ellenu,” adding the lyrical “nu” to denote affection.
My American name was Abraham Blumstein. My parents and my brother Sam were also named Blumstein.
I had no memory of what our surname was in Foehrenwald [the displaced persons camp in Germany], and I had no reason to think there was anything unusual about Blumstein. But there were some oddities about that name. My father’s cousin on Long Island, for whom he worked, had a different last name than my father—he was Morris Gerson. But I never gave it a second thought. I also collected stamps as a kid, and we would get letters from my dad’s brother in Israel. My younger brother, Sam, noticed that the return address had the name “Gerson.” Sam asked my dad why his brother had a different name. My dad blanched but never answered the question. Neither Sam nor I pursued the matter.
When I was about 12 years old, we were at the large Klein’s department store on Union Square. It was winter, and my mom had bought me a scarf—a shalikel, as she called it in Yiddish. As we left Klein’s, we saw a hot dog vendor, sauerkraut spilling from his cart. On spotting my dad, he yelled, “Mottel Gerson!” My dad seemed to panic. He curtly told my brother and me to wait behind while he and my mom spoke to the vendor. Hushed words were exchanged, and then they returned to us, visibly shaken. These were strange occurrences, but they were part of what went into that imaginary box of “Better Not To Know.”
I respected my parents’ secrets, or suspected secrets. I also assumed that I was Abraham Blumstein. But it was not my real identity. It was manufactured. I have no real memory of being told the truth other than that something happened in April 1958 after going on the subway with my parents and getting out at 42nd Street and then going into a lawyer’s office. I had never been in a law office, and I remember looking at the diplomas on the wall and remembering the lawyer’s name: “Kies.” Unknown to me, my parents went to court with the lawyer. I recall sitting by myself, and I saw blue papers that folded in three (they were subpoenas), and I had a sense that this is what you serve people, and I thought—what power.
Everything else is a total blur, except after we got home, I now had to tell people that I had a new name. I was now Allan Gerson. I recall going to get a haircut, and my barber said, “Abie, how are you doing?”
I said, “I’m no longer Abie.”
“What do you mean you’re no longer Abie?”
I doubt that I had a good answer for him or for anyone else, and certainly not for my classmates.
When we moved to the Bronx three years earlier from Brooklyn, I was enrolled in the Lubavitcher yeshiva on Allerton Avenue, an Orthodox establishment with strict rules of conduct. It was about a half-hour walk from our apartment, and I was still at the school when my name changed. I was already something of a misfit in the school. When our teacher had previously asked us where we were from, the other students mentioned different neighborhoods in and around New York.
I said, “The Soviet Union.”
This was Cold War time at its prime. The other kids were apparently as aghast as they were gleeful, for they all scrawled on the bathroom walls, “Abie is a Commie.”
Now I’d have to explain to my classmates that not only was I not a Commie, I wasn’t even Abie.
In the fall of 1958, I enrolled in DeWitt Clinton High School as Allan Gerson. I also had a new birthday. Abraham Blumstein was born on July 31,1944, but Allan Gerson was born on June 19, 1945. My parents and my brother Sam also had their last name changed to Gerson, though Sam got to keep his first name since he was born in Germany and wasn’t impersonating anyone else. I never sought any answers. I knew on some level this had to do with my parents’ history, but I also knew that those matters we did not discuss.
I had inherited my mom’s chronic diastema, a large space between my upper center teeth, which could be cured by orthodontic devices. But once the braces were installed, they rendered me, under the Surgeon General’s Standards for Fitness for Service in the U.S. Army, disqualified from service because the orthodontic device installed to cure the defect could result in injuries during training.
So, at the age of 25, I was free to do what I wanted. This took me in the direction of international law. In law school, I had taken a class on the subject with Professor Gidon Gottlieb and was sold on it. And so, in 1970, I enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Graduate Program for a Masters of Law in International Law. It was a two-year program, and during the second year, I took an internship with Israel’s Ministry of Justice, which led to one of my more interesting assignments.
The Ministry suspected that KGB agents were infiltrating the country with the wave of new Russian immigrants. It came to our attention that a group of Russian émigrés was going to hold a protest at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City; the protest would be over harsh punishments that Russia had meted out against Jewish refuseniks and the severe sentences handed out to a group of Russian Jews who had tried to hijack a Russian plane to take them to Israel. Ministry officials suspected that the leader of the group was a KGB agent. This leader was also an attractive young woman, so when someone senior in the Ministry suggested that I go to the demonstration and try to meet her and determine her true intentions, I cheerfully agreed.
It didn’t work out as planned. The Jerusalem Municipality foreign press attaché, whose job was to introduce foreign reporters to the protesters, kept intervening between me and the young woman, so I never found out if she worked for the KGB. But my sojourn was still productive. The name of the attaché was Joan Nathan, and although at the Western Wall we kept getting in each other’s way, we happily overcame our differences when she later visited Yale, where I had enrolled in 1972 in its doctoral program. She was escorting Jerusalem’s deputy mayor on a speaking tour. We married in 1974 and have raised three amazing children.
It was in Israel as well, through a remarkable coincidence, that I learned more about my true identity.
In pursuing my doctoral dissertation on Israel’s administration of the West Bank, I had returned to Israel the following year for research, conducting interviews with most of the mayors of towns and villages on the West Bank. Joan was in Israel while I was there, assisting the renowned filmmaker Charles Guggenheim on a documentary. Both of our projects would soon be complicated by the Yom Kippur War. But just prior to its outbreak, we met for brunch at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. The hotel was a special place: a small, resplendent old Ottoman palace that had been run for generations by a missionary family and was known as an island of neutrality that welcomed patrons of all faiths and nationalities. All the waiters were Palestinian, and it had a fabulous buffet.
While I was standing in line, I started chatting with an American woman who was then teaching political science at Hebrew University. She said her name was Naomi Kies, and she was standing there with her father, a lawyer from New York. He was an avuncular sort, on the plump side, exuding the confident warmth of a man who had already accomplished all that he had ever sought.
“Hi, I’m Allan,” I said, reaching out for his hand.
“Saul Kies,” he said, extending his palm.
I blinked as if I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Saul Kies?” I asked slowly. “Funny, I had an immigration lawyer by that name when I was about thirteen. I even remember his office: on West 42nd Street up from Grand Central Station, across Fifth Avenue. First time I had ever been in a lawyer’s office.”
“Well, I’m an immigration lawyer,” he said. “And that’s where I had my office. I’m retired now. What did you say your last name is?”
“I didn’t. But it’s Gerson. I’m Allan Gerson.”
Now it was his turn to squint hard as he looked me over. “Allan, don’t you remember me?” he asked with a strange look. “Actually, when we met before, you were still little Abe Blumstein.”
I froze, as if caught in the crevice of a time warp. I hadn’t heard that name, Abe Blumstein, for nearly 15 years, and I had no recollection of this man before me, though I remembered his name, his office and the diplomas on the wall.
Seeing how stunned I was, Kies picked up the conversation. He said that my parents had hired him to revert their names, and mine and Sam’s, to what they had been before we immigrated to the United States. We had used a false name, Blumstein, to gain entry, which is illegal, and Kies had to convince a judge to exonerate my parents for immigration fraud. Kies did so, he told me, by citing “fear of political persecution.” Once the court had granted our family the right to return to our original name Gerson—someone had to tell me who I really was. According to Kies, he was the one.
“Your father implored me to be the one to tell you on his behalf,” he said. “Surely, you remember.”
My pulse quickened. Wheels of recollection began to whir as if trying to work their way through the fog of memory. I recalled being ushered into an office with a brass nameplate on a heavy wooden door that read “Saul Kies, Esq., Attorney at Law.” Inside, framed diplomas hung on the walls, and subpoenas and briefs, bound in blue covers, some with red ribbons, were stacked on a desk. For all the clarity of that vision, I had zero recall of being told by him or anyone else that the name I had gone by since coming to America— Abraham Blumstein—would be no more, or that I would be Allan Gerson from then on.
Kies pressed me: “Don’t you remember? I congratulated you on now being free to become bar mitzvah under your real identity. And since under your new, or original, identity, you had extra time to prepare for your bar mitzvah. I knew you were anxious about that.”
He explained the deep risks that our family had confronted. We had lied on our entry visa to gain admission under an assumed name; that allowed us to circumvent U.S. quota restrictions, but it also meant that we could face deportation. My parents, according to Kies, had shown true courage in going to court. “It could have gone the other way,” he said. “You could have been deported. Don’t you remember me telling you that?”
I stared at him blankly. “I don’t remember any of it,” I said. But I had no doubt that he was telling me the truth. His precise memory of these long-ago events surely reflected his recognition of the potential trauma of the moment: telling a boy he wasn’t who he thought he was could have been cataclysmic. And maybe it was. Abraham Blumstein was born on July 31, 1944, while Allan Gerson was born on June 19, 1945. In an instant, I was thirteen months younger. Demoted to being an 11-year-old.
That I was given this news on the cusp of my bar mitzvah would have made it all the more unnerving—as if my imminent ascent into manhood had been taken away, like a ladder yanked from under my feet. In time I would learn a bit more about Saul Kies, an immigrant himself who came to America from Latvia in 1922. Active in the Labor Zionist movement, he clearly forged a bond with my parents, who invited him and his wife to my rescheduled bar mitzvah in June 1958. In a typewritten letter that he sent to me, Kies regretfully declined the invitation due to another commitment, but he wrote: “We hope that your bar mitzvah will be an important milestone in your growth as a Jew and as an American.”
In addition to that letter, my parents kept Kies’s invoice for his services: $1,000, in three installments, which was a lot of money for my parents. Reverting our identity to Gerson was clearly important to them, but even after my chance encounter with the lawyer who made it possible, I never asked my parents why. It remained in the “Better Not To Know” box.
From Lies that Matter by Allan Gerson (New Academia Publishing/VELLUM 2021)
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