Aron Simanovitch was born February 15, 1872 in Vilna, Poland. Little is known about his youth, although he did have brothers and at least one sister, Libby (my paternal grandfather’s mother). Libby died within a year or two from the birth of my grandfather (1889). According to a 1903 Belarus census (and a family tree compiled by his brother’s granddaughter), Aron had a brother named Khaimysl, a gold and silver merchant. Aron was listed in the 1911 census as dealing in watches, although he also dealt in gold and silver, and later, diamonds. Both he and his brother resided in the Mozyr district of Minsk. Another brother, listed as Aron’s destination on Ellis Island ship records from 1923, was G. Semenovitch (spelled differently from Aron’s name, note that both had been phonetically transcribed from the Cyrillic Russian characters) who lived in New Jersey.
Ellis Island records from Aron’s 1923 visit to the United States show his father’s name as “Jeofilie” Simanovitch, although Aron’s patrynomic (derivative of his father’s name and generally seen as a ‘middle’ name) has been listed in other places as ‘Samuilovitch’ and ‘Simkha’. So, it’s not know whether his father’s name was Jeofilie, Samuil, or Simkha.
Simanovitch only briefly mentions his wife in his memoirs, though not by name, and states that her family owned a construction company. Although he may have had other children, he only mentions two, Ioann (John) and Semyen (also referred to as Salomon). The latter was the eldest and often aided his father in writing petitions, requests and legal documents. The former was younger and quite ill, as a boy, until Rasputin intervened. A third son, Iosif (Joseph) is mentioned in a 1914 census, and may have been the youngest.
Before moving to Saint Petersburg, and after leaving Mozyr, Simanovitch and his family lived in Kiev where he owned a jewelry store. In 1905, as in many other times and places, the military conducted a pogrom (an organized massacre of Jews and destruction of their homes and property) in Kiev. Simanovitch had been in St. Petersburg at the time, but rushed back to Kiev. His shop was ransacked, but his immediate family was spared, owing to the fact that he paid the chief of police for protection. As he and his family were given safe conduct out of Kiev, he was shaken by the sight of his dead friends and neighbors who’d been slaughtered outside the synagogue after a holy service. He saw corpses, burnt houses and broken windows. At that moment, he vowed to do what he could to acquire equal rights for Jews and abolish this terror. He saw his association with Rasputin as a means to this end.
In his memoirs, Raspoutine par son Secrétaire Aron Simanovitch (a French translation of the original Russian which was titled Rasputin and the Jews), Simanovitch introduces himself as one of the few Jews tolerated by the royal court who, through Rasputin, was able to aid the oppressed Russian Jews and lighten their load. He actually arrived in St. Petersburg before Rasputin did, selling jewels to the nobility. He gained access to the aristocracy by frequenting theaters, cabarets, race tracks and gambling parlors, where he developed his client list. In addition to selling jewels, he also assisted people in business affairs. Simanovitch was appalled at the ignorance of the nobles with regard to business dealings such as the establishment of credit or the purchase and sale of valuable objects.
His friendship and dealings with the Princes Wittgenstein (Gritzko and Nicholas), who were the Tsar’s body guards, led to introductions to Princess Orbeliani (handmaiden to the Tsarina), officers of the Imperial Body Guard, Vyrubova, Von Dehn and many other members of the court. He was presented to the court as a jeweler and diamond connoisseur, which led to an introduction to the Tsarina. Knowing how thrifty she was, often paying for things on the installment plan, Simanovitch always sold her jewels at a very low price, to gain her favor. After each purchase, she would always consult M. Fabergé, the court jeweler, as to the fairness of the price, and he was often stunned at the bargains she received.
Simanovitch felt that Rasputin’s 1905 arrival at and acceptance by the court was facilitated by the aristocracy’s superstitions and ignorance, qualities which, as he noted, the nobility and the peasants had in common. The Tsar was always looking to the mystical world for answers and the Tsarina was also an adamant believer. Many spiritualists, hypnotists, astrologers, and oracles had been brought to this tsar and prior ones, long before Rasputin arrived. Almost all of the Russian aristocracy had similar tendencies to religious mysticism. There was a constant search for miracle-makers, hermits and preachers who transmitted the word of God, absolved people of their sins, healed illness, and gave direction for the future. As Simanovitch tells it, they wanted to procure the path to heaven and their faith was often misplaced in objects, rituals and living men.
When Simanovitch met Rasputin, he immediately saw that they could benefit each other. Rasputin received a stipend from the Department of the Interior, per the Tsar’s order, according to Simanovitch, although Beletsky (director of the Department of Police) claimed Rasputin’s rent was paid by Taneev (Anna Vyrubova’s father), and Spiridovitch (Chief of the Tsar’s Secret Police) claimed the banker Rubenstein paid his rent. However, he needed someone to attend to his daily needs such as housing, food, clothing, bills, correspondence, and appointments, as he didn’t concern himself with such worldly affairs. So, Simanovitch became his secretary and saw to all of his needs, as well as keeping a watchful eye over his safety. They became close friends. In the course of their relationship, he educated Rasputin about the plight of Russian Jews. With his access to the royal couple, Rasputin could obtain permission for many Jews to receive educations, occupations, and the residences of their choosing. In addition, he helped free many who had been falsely imprisoned or exiled, as well as averting a number of pogroms. Petitioners (sometimes up to 200 in a day) would contact Simanovitch or line up at Rasputin’s door to ask for assistance or healing.
Beletsky, who became adjunct to the Minister of the Interior, noted that Simanovitch was close to Rasputin and his family, “jealously protecting Rasputin from dubious encounters … He is an excellent father who comports himself with dignity and who selflessly obtains the right for some of his people (Jews) to live in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with Rasputin’s help.”
Simanovitch learned that Rasputin was knowledgeable in the healing use of Siberian, Chinese and Tibetan herbs. Apparently, oak bark was an herb he often used to stem the bleeding of the hemophiliac tzarevitch, Alexei. He was also an empathic healer, able to lay his hands on the ill to alleviate their suffering. Both Simanovitch and his younger son, Ioann, recount how Rasputin healed Ioann of his affliction, St. Vitus’ Dance, which had weakened his limbs and often kept him bedridden and occasionally paralyzed. The boy walked with great difficulty. Rasputin had Aron bring Ioann to his apartment, then told Aron to leave. He put his hand on the boy’s head and peered into his eyes. Ioann experienced a strange sensation. After ten minutes, Rasputin told the boy, “It’s alright. It will pass.” The boy ran home, a feat he was previously incapable of, and never again experienced the symptoms of St. Vitus’ Dance.
The particulars of Rasputin’s aid to Jewish groups and individuals are detailed in my book, “Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History.” Nearly all of these events were via requests sent to Simanovitch. Government officials tried twice to exile Simanovitch to Siberia. Both times he was saved by the Tsarina because of his close association with her spiritual advisor, Rasputin.
Simanovitch was constantly worried about Rasputin’s safety and doubly so because the latter seemed to have no regard for security. In his chapter on Rasputin’s murder, there is an undercurrent of guilt – a sense that he failed in his self-imposed duty to keep his friend safe. No doubt, he also suspected that his own safety was in jeopardy without Rasputin’s protection. But this didn’t manifest until the Revolution.
At the start of the Russian Revolution, Simanovitch and his family were arrested, along with Rasputin’s daughters. His family was freed the next day. Simanovitch, upon interrogation by the Provisional Government’s Extraordinary Commission, testified that he’d done nothing but sell jewels to the nobility and help his fellow Jews whenever possible. The attorney Sliosberg even telegraphed Kerensky, head of the new Provisional government, on Simanovitch’s behalf. Simanovitch, however, was sent to Peter and Paul Prison, transferred to Prison of the Cross, and finally sent to St. Petersburg Prison. He offered Minister of Justice Peraversev 200,000 rubles for his freedom and was released with the proviso that he leave St. Petersburg as soon as possible. Once freed, however, he paid another 40,000 rubles in attorney’s fees to have the order lifted. He then moved to Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, then to Novorossiysk.
He tried to help Rasputin’s daughters as best he could. Marya Rasputin escaped to France with her husband and, after his death, to the United States. Simanovitch had made arrangements for her younger sister, Varya, to go to Germany in 1923, but when Soviet authorities searched her at the train station, they found a journal chronicling the life of the Imperial Family in Ekaterinburg. Varya was detained and mysteriously died of poisoning.
Aron finally escaped Russia, probably assisted by the many grateful Jews whom, with Rasputin’s help, he saved from punishments, war, and oppressive legal restrictions. Initially, he moved to Berlin, which is stated as his permanent residence on Ellis Island records, in 1923, when he came to the United States, at the age of 51. He was coming to visit both his brother, G. Semenovitch who then resided in New Jersey, and his nephew (his sister’s son, and my grandfather), originally named Gershon Liniovitch, but assimilated as Harry Linowitz, who lived in New York.
At some point, probably in the late 1920’s, but by 1930, Aron and his family moved to Paris. There, on March 23, 1943, Aron’s eldest son, Salomon (also referred to as Semyen) was transported by the Nazis to Camp Sobibor, where he was murdered, according to Yad Vashem and a list of deportation, found in 1978, at the Deportation Memorial of French Jews. However, a 1989 document, witnessed and signed by Aron’s grandson (and Salomon’s nephew), Henri Simanovitch of Switzerland, states that Salomon was gunned down by Nazis at Mont-Valéries in 1942.
On July 31, 1944, at the age of 72, Aron was deported to Auschwitz Birkenau Camp and was murdered there, according to the List of Deportation from France, found in 1978 in the Memorial of Deported French Jews. Aron Simanovitch’s memoirs, published in Russian (Riga, 1928, and subsequently in other languages in 1930), showed Rasputin to be sympathetic to the Jewish cause for equal rights. The Nazis twisted and rewrote Aron’s memoirs to depict Rasputin as a tool of the so-called Jewish “plot to conquer the world.”
His younger son, Ioann, escaped to Monrovia, Liberia, where, at least into the late 1960’s to early 1970’s, he operated a Russian restaurant called “Rasputin”. Ioann Simanovitch corresponded with Rasputin biographer R.J. Minney in the late 1960’s from his home in Liberia, stating:
“My father’s duties as Rasputin’s secretary were rather unlimited: he used to read to him letters of all kinds asking for help and assistance; and also expressed his point of view on various matters. Very often my father acted as intermediary for Rasputin and talked to various high officials and their wives, all of whom wanted Rasputin to help them with various propositions; and at times it was not possible for callers to meet Rasputin without first explaining to my father what they wanted to see Rasputin about.”
Simanovitch’s account of Rasputin’s activities is often discredited due to the inclusion in his memoirs of bizarre court gossip and exaggeration of his own importance in the court, although the cases of Rasputin aiding Jews are substantiated by many reliable sources and are indisputable. Simanovitch has also been dismissed because, although he was a jeweler, he also ran gambling parlors. These were frequented largely by the military, the nobility and government officials. And he has been disregarded because he was a Jew who, through his ten year association with Rasputin, had to resort to bribing officials to save the careers, families, homes, educations, and lives of countless Russian Jews who, at that time (and for centuries before) were denied basic human rights. The anti-Semitic veil through which the aristocracy viewed Aron is evident in their memoirs and testimonies, through their references to him as “the Jew Simanovitch” or, more commonly, “the Yid Simanovitch.” (For those not familiar with the word, “yid” is a derogatory term for “jew”.)
Some regarded him as a criminal (although no particular crimes are ever cited) merely because the Tsar’s secret service described him so. It seems that the only ‘crime’ he committed (other than spreading or fabricating court gossip in his memoirs, as was widespread practice among society) was that of circumventing unjust laws, in order to aid the oppressed and disenfranchised Jews, and the poor in general.
At the end of his memoirs, Simanovitch leaves us with a memorable eulogy for his friend Grigory Efimovitch Rasputin:
“I never saw him do anything evil or wrong. In fact, his mission was to be good to everyone. If Nicholas II was a bad tsar, Rasputin was not to blame. With my assistance, he helped thousands of people, with a real and sincere goodness, and no personal profit involved. Numerous were those he saved from misery, death, humiliation and suffering. This I will never forget.”