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The IAMLA Announces a Generous Gift from
The Leno and Paul Sislin Family
The Leno and Paul Sislin Family of Los Feliz, California, 
made a major gift to the IAMLA
and has joined the Museum's

elite cadre of donors known as the Founding Families.

The IAMLA’s Founding Family designation was created as a way to recognize
individuals and families whose dedication, generosity and
achievements make them ripe for distinction.

Fanya Oscherov attempted to conceal her sadness as she boarded the SS Estonia on August 15, 1923, at the port of Libau, Latvia. To her, it seemed the family was abandoning everything they had worked so hard to create, leaving behind friends, relatives, and what had been their home for generations. As long as she could remember, Fanya’s parents, Simon and Mariase, had managed a large estate belonging to a wealthy landowner in their native Surazh, Russia, a town not far from the Belarus border. During their younger years, Fanya and her seven siblings were often recruited to pick fruit—apples, pears, plums, and cherries—during harvest time, and they came to know many of the orchard workers.

Fanya Oscherov as a young woman
  The Oscherov family shortly after their arrival to the United States

The Oscherov family, and Fanya in particular, were among the few literate residents of Surazh. As such, they were called upon frequently to decipher and transcribe communications and were well respected. When Simon and Mariase announced the family would be leaving Russia to join their sons,  Joe and Sol, who had immigrated to the United States years earlier, Fanya, was devastated. Opportunities for women to pursue advanced studies remained limited in 1920s Russia; options for Jewish women were even scarcer. Fanya, who was completing her second year of medical school, doubted she would ever be able to continue her studies.

Victims of Russian pogroms, early 1920s

Although pogroms—violent anti-Jewish riots—had taken place in Russia since the early 1800s, they intensified following the 1905 Russian revolution. Rhetoric by the Czarist government and the Russian media made Jews easy scapegoats for the political, economic, and social problems that had accompanied the rise of capitalism and industrialization. Jews comprised approximately 60 percent of Surazh’s population in 1900. Between 1905 and 1918, at least three pogroms took place, in the course of which many of Surazh’s Jewish villagers were killed or injured, their homes and businesses destroyed. The Oscherov family was warned of the attacks and consequently spared.

Following World War I, in response to growing public opinion against the influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe to the United States, Congress passed the Quota Act of 1921, which restricted immigration to 3 percent of the number of foreign-born persons of each nationality that resided in the United States in 1910. Recognizing it could be their last chance to flee, Simon and Mariase purchased passage for the family on that August 1923 voyage to New York City. Their timing was fortuitous.

1921 cartoon advocating for the Quota Act

Months later, Congress enacted the even more draconian Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act. It limited the number of immigrants admitted from any particular nation to 2 percent of the number recorded for that nationality in the 1890 census. Because most southern and eastern Europeans did not arrive until after 1890, the quota system favored “desirable” immigrants from northern and western Europe and limited immigration from countries alleged to be “polluting” America’s bloodline with “feeblemindedness, insanity, criminality, and dependency.” Whereas 200,000 Italians on average entered the United States each year during the first decade of the twentieth century, the 1924 act set the annual quota at fewer than 4,000 annually. Meanwhile, only 2,500 Russians were permitted to enter annually, and Asians and Arabs were barred from immigrating entirely.

Political cartoon, circa 1924, depicting immigrants from the “slums of Europe” as rats 
that  are dumped on U.S. shores, bringing criminality and other problems

Within two decades, the Oscherovs, whose name was changed to Osheroff upon their arrival to America, would be confronted with the horrific realization that remaining in Russia would have been the family’s death sentence. Although Surazh played an important role in the World War II resistance movement─its villagers destroyed a German cavalry unit and orchestrated the transport of tens of thousands of tons of food to the starving Soviet populace─its Jewish population was decimated. Between 1941 and 1943, occupying Nazi troops executed Surazh’s Jews in conjunction with anti-partisan operations. On a single day in August 1941, an estimated 650 Jewish villagers were taken to a linen factory and shot, their bodies buried in a mass grave. The Jewish residents who remained were forced into a ghetto, their homes looted and burned. In 1942, the Jews who had survived the ghetto’s deplorable conditions were taken to a neighboring village and executed. The archives of Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims, lists many Oscherovs among the murdered.

Soviet Jews and members of  the resistance movement shortly before their public execution in 1941. 
The sign reads “We are partisans who fired upon German troops.”

During the family’s seventeen-day journey to the United States, Fanya was introduced to a young man from Surazh. Although he had lived within a few kilometers of her family’s home, they had not known one another. Five years Fanya’s senior, Lazar Sislin had been a printer’s apprentice in Surazh. Lazar’s extroverted personality and wit made him a popular figure among the passengers on board. Known as the ship’s “poet laureate,” Lazar frequently took to the vessel’s deck and performed dramatic readings of Russian poetry, which helped his fellow emigrants pass time on the otherwise dreary voyage.

The SS Estonia, the ship that transported the Oscherov and Sislin families to the United States

Lazar’s exuberance delivered the passengers from a dubious fate when the ship arrived at the Port of New York a day early and was ordered to turn around. Communicating with officials on shore, the ship’s crew informed the port that the boat simply could not be sent back, for it had a “famous Russian poet” on board. The SS Estonia was granted permission to enter United States waters, and as Lazar disembarked, his fellow travelers cheered.

The Sislin family’s original surname was likely Sizlin, but when transliterated from Russian or Hebrew to the Latin alphabet, its spelling was slightly modified. Lazar, who traveled with his father, Elkona, a Hebrew teacher, and mother, Beila, would settle in Detroit, where his brother, David, had immigrated a few years earlier.

Arrival record for the Sislin family

The Osheroff family, meanwhile, elected to live in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Jews had begun settling in Wilkes-Barre, a city near Scranton, as early as 1838. As the Jewish population in urban metropolises like New York ballooned, xenophobia spiked in the early 1900s, along with the movement for immigration restriction. The Industrial Removal Office formed under the auspices of the Jewish Agricultural Society to relocate Jewish immigrants from large cities to smaller towns, such as Wilkes-Barre, in an attempt to ease tensions, assimilate immigrants into American society, and assist them in securing employment. The Osheroffs were one such family.

The historic Ohav Zedek synagogue on South Franklin Street in Wilkes-Barre

Although Fanya and Lazar went their separate ways upon their arrival at Ellis Island, they maintained a written correspondence. Four years later, they were married. The couple moved to New York City, where they lived in a six-story walk-up in the Bronx. Due to the rampant anti-Semitism of the era, or perhaps out of sheer convenience, the couple adopted more “American”-sounding first names; Fanya became “Fannie,” and Lazar, “Louis.” Whereas their parents and siblings were devout Orthodox Jews, Fannie and Louis were less inclined to strict interpretations of their faith.

Fanya and Lazar, shortly after their marriage

Her dreams of practicing medicine dashed, Fannie mastered English and became a bookkeeper and interpreter for a Russian shipping company. Louis continued in his vocation as a printer. During the bleakest hours of the Great Depression, when Louis’s work was sporadic, Fannie supported them. The couple, like many Jews of the era, became active in social justice causes, including the labor movement, and participated in organizations that advocated for immigrant and working-class interests.

Fannie and Louis as a young couple

In 1934, Fannie and Louis learned they were expecting their first child. As a present for one of their most talented and dedicated workers, Fannie’s employers gave the couple a trip on the Panama Pacific Line, which sailed from New York to California via the Panama Canal. The Sislins fell in love with Los Angeles, its temperate climate, and integrated communities. Although many Russian emigres had settled in Boyle Heights, a historic neighborhood east of downtown, the Sislins selected Echo Park, one of Los Angeles’s first suburbs and a popular backdrop for silent films. An ethnically diverse community, Echo Park, nicknamed “Red Hill,” was home to a large population of progressive radicals at that time. Fannie gave birth to the couple’s son, Paul, at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Hollywood, which was one of the few medical centers in the city where Jewish doctors were permitted to practice.

Fannie and Lazar with Paul at the beach

Fannie’s and Louis’s respective talents  were a great source of inspiration for their son. Paul watched with pride as Fannie became a city librarian and educator, teaching at Northeast Los Angeles’ Franklin High School. Her determination to support others achieve their vocational goals never ceased. Louis’s gregarious sense of humor brightened the Sislin home and helped the family build strong relationships in the community. Paul fondly recalls visiting the Hollywood Bowl during his youth and watching in awe as his father climbed on stage and proceeded to sing a Russian folk song a cappella while the orchestra was rehearsing. Just as it had been on the SS Estonia, Louis’s exuberance was contagious, and he received a standing ovation from the musicians.

 Louis, standing, with Fannie, left, Paul seated at bottom, and Fannie’s sister, Gertrude, right.

An early view of the Silverlake Reservoir

Louis and Fannie, along with a partner, started a stationery business, Coast Stationers, in downtown Los Angeles. They later established their own stationery store, Associated Stationers. With their savings of $5,000, and the support of their families, they purchased a vacant lot on Lyric Avenue in Silverlake, an enclave north of downtown where they built a modest home. After completing a long day at the stationery business, Fannie returned home and made a wholesome supper for the family, which often included foods reminiscent of her homeland: borscht, a soup made with beets, potatoes, beef, and onions; fresh liver; and meat loaf. Paul particularly loved her homemade layer cake, with creamy chocolate frosting.

Walt Disney Studios in Silverlake, now Gelson’s Market

For Paul, growing up in Silverlake offered an idyllic childhood. The ethnically heterogeneous neighborhood was home to many children his age with whom he spent his afternoons, weekends, and summers, riding bikes, capturing tadpoles in the Los Angeles River, and scaling Silverlake’s famous Baxter Street, one of the steepest in the country. On many occasions, Paul and his chums would visit Walt Disney Studios, which was then located on Hyperion Avenue and Griffith Park Boulevard, steps away from the Sislin home. Sifting through the studio’s discard pile and refuse bins, Paul and his friends invariably found hand-colored production cels from Disney films and other objects of interest.

Although Fannie and Louis were among the founders of the Silverlake Jewish Community Center, a sense of Jewish identity was largely absent in the home. Paul attended public schools─Franklin Avenue Elementary and Thomas Starr King Middle School. Paul joined a Hi-Y club, a service program of the Young Men’s Christian Organization, the YMCA. Fannie and Louis did their best to de-emphasize the family’s differences, as defined by their ethno-religious origin, but they would not escape discrimination entirely.

Fannie and Louis

After establishing a close relationship with a prominent Southern California utility company, Fannie and Louis were disheartened when an executive from the company divulged the reason the firm would not do business with them. “We would love to buy from you, but you’re Jewish,” he stated.

Paul’s USC yearbook photo

While attending John Marshall High School, Paul began working at the family stationery store and gradually assumed a greater role in the business. He was accepted into the University of Southern California (USC), where he studied business. Interested in Greek life, Paul rushed several fraternities. At the first social event for prospective members of one of the fraternities, as Paul was chatting with several fraternity brothers, one of the organization’s leaders pinned a name tag that read “Sammy” to Paul’s jacket. At first, he thought the term was a nickname for a freshman student. At the second fraternity’s social event, Paul received another name tag; it also read “Sammy.” He then understood the word identified him as a Jew. Neither fraternity granted him membership. Undeterred by the groups’ slight, Paul joined Tau Delta Phi. Referred to as the “fraternity of firsts,” Tau Delta Phi demonstrated a progressive philosophy within the fraternity system. It was the first to end fraternal segregation and one of the first to accept members based on the content of their character, rather than their race, faith, or origin. 

Paul was elected his fraternity’s president and helped the organization achieve considerable prominence. He co-organized the fraternity’s annual dance, “The Chase,” which took place in spring and was the nation’s largest college dance at the time. Paul and his fraternity brothers interfaced with film studios to secure major Hollywood stars such as Anita Ekberg and Rita Moreno to appear as “Queen of the Chase” in promotional campaigns for the dance. At the time, the USC football team included several celebrated Jewish players. Paul developed a friendship with the athletes, and they made regular appearances at fraternity activities.

Paul as a college student

Paul’s first business venture, Associated Stationers  on 8th and Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles. He purchased the building in 1974 to house his thriving business.

Following his graduation, Paul was drafted into the army. At the completion of his military service, Paul returned to Silverlake and purchased his parents’ stationery business upon their retirement. Although the store was successful, Paul became increasingly enchanted with real estate and bought his first buildings, also in Silverlake, in 1969.

It was August 1968. Los Angeles was still reeling from the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel two months earlier. Seismic social and political change was taking place across the United States, in the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements. Students in East Los Angeles, demanding educational reform, walked out of their classes in what would later be known as the Chicano Blowouts.

The Los Angeles Times announces Robert F. Kennedy’s shooting

One Saturday afternoon, as Paul was washing his car, he noticed a striking young woman entering one of his tenant’s apartments with a mysterious bundle in her arms. Quite captivated, Paul approached her. “What do you have there?” Paul asked, as the package began to move. The woman gave him an incredulous look. “It’s a puppy,” she responded. “Dogs aren’t allowed in the apartments,” Paul informed her.

 

Leno as a young woman in France

Softening his stance considerably, Paul learned the gorgeous transgressor was named Leno Francen and was a guest of one of his tenants. Smitten, Paul invited Leno for a glass of wine and she graciously accepted.

Leno in a publicity shot for a television series

Born in New York, Leno was the daughter of revered Belgian actor Victor Francen and his American-born wife, Eleanor Kreutzer. Victor appeared in dozens of American and European productions, including La Fin du Monde (The End of the World, 1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), Hell and High Water (1941), and A Farewell to Arms (1957). Francen starred in the 1938 masterpiece J’Accuse (I Accuse), directed by Abel Gance, which catapulted him to fame in France. In that film, Victor played the role of Jean Diaz, a young soldier who survived the bloodshed of World War I and sacrifices his dream of becoming a poet to devote himself to science and invent a device that will make combat obsolete. His pacifist invention is later stolen so that it can be utilized for military purposes.

 

Leno as a baby with her parents

Francen, right, with Hedy Lamarr in The Conspirators (1944);
Francen played the role of a German diplomat

Victor performed alongside legendary actors such as Hedy Lamarr, Gary Cooper, Vittorio De Sica, and Olivia de Havilland. A heartthrob in France who had rubbed elbows with the likes of Renoir, in European pictures Victor was typically cast as a leading man and played distinguished, debonair types. Following the German invasion of Paris, Victor, who had experienced first-hand the horrors of war in the trenches of the Western Front, immigrated to the United States.

With the assistance of fellow French actor Charles Boyer, Victor, who spoke English fluently, achieved success in Hollywood, but his roles changed dramatically. In the United States, he was considered “exotic,” and played the parts of Nazis, spies, or other foreign-accented villains. Passage to Marseilles, Hold Back the Dawn, and To the Victor were some of his memorable roles.

 

Francen,  starring in the 1936 French film La Porte du Large, released in the United States as
The Great Temptation. Francen played  the role of Commandant Villette.

Leno’s mother, Eleanor Kreutzer, pictured right with her sisters Josephine and Margaret, was born in New York, the daughter and granddaughter of New York police officers. The Kreuzter family, who are of German and Irish origin, trace their history in the United States to the 1860s and had lived in the Bronx for many generations. Eleanor met Victor while on vacation in the French Alps in the late 1930s; he was 25 years her senior and had been married twice previously. The couple was married, and soon thereafter, Leno was born.

Leno's grandmother, Lila Anne White

After the clouds of war had passed, the family returned to Europe so that Victor could resume his career. Eleanor soon grew tired of life in France, however, where her husband’s fans gathered frequently below their apartment window and screamed, “Victor! Victor! Show your face! We know you’re home!” Victor relished the adoration and would stand on the balcony to speak with his admirers. When the family traveled to their country house in the south of France, Victor’s devotees, recognizing his car, would run to the road to greet him. The demands of Victor’s career, his dizzying social calendar, and Eleanor’s attempt to compete with the many distractions of her husband’s stardom allowed little time for parenting.

 

At the age of five, Leno, who spoke no French, was sent to live and attend school at a French convent. When Eleanor could no longer tolerate her husband’s lifestyle and wandering eye, she returned to the United States with Leno. It was one of more than a dozen transatlantic voyages Leno would take over the next decade as her parents attempted to reconcile many times, only to find their differences were insurmountable. Between the ages of 5 and 15, Leno attended 16 different schools. 

Leno, pictured to Walt Disney’s right, on the set of  Salute to Peter Pan

Victor and Eleanor divorced when Leno was 16, and she returned to the United States with her mother. While working in Beverly Hills, Leno was “discovered,” and numerous acting and modeling jobs followed. The entertainment world was familiar to Leno. Beyond the experience she had acquired as her father’s daughter, Leno had appeared in several productions as a child, including Walt Disney’s Salute to Peter Pan.

Leno feeds Paul cake at their wedding

After spending nearly a decade together, Leno and Paul decided to sell the business, which had grown to a sizable office supply enterprise, and travel the world. They visited eighteen countries, including Spain, Portugal, France, Denmark, Hungary, Turkey, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino. While in Athens, Leno discovered that she was expecting a child, and the Sislins returned to the United States.

The couple continued to invest in real estate, which allowed them the flexibility to be full-time parents. As property owners, Paul and Leno embrace a philosophy they refer to as “capitalism with a conscience.” Believing profit should never be gained at the expense of others, and that character and determination are of greater importance than a prospective tenant’s net worth, the Sislins have provided opportunities to small business owners that served as catalysts for success. Paul and Leno have played an integral role in the revitalization and historic preservation of central and northeast Los Angeles communities.

Leno, wearing a custom made áo dài, the traditional clothing of Vietnam,
and Paul during a recent trip to Southeast Asia

Paul and Leno travel frequently and have visited over one hundred countries and the North Pole. Their journeys, often to seldom-visited parts of the world, influence their lives long after they return home. In recent years, Leno and Paul, through their daughter, Caitlin, who has been associated with several NGOs, have supported programs to improve the health and safety of women, reduce deforestation, and increase economic sustainability in Africa.

Leno and Paul at the North Pole

The couple has also supported initiatives that ensure access to clean drinking water in communities in India. Through the Jewish National Fund, Leno and Paul have established a recovery and learning lounge for children at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel. They have also donated seven fire trucks to the Israel Fire Service, with more to follow.

Leno and Paul Sislin with Dr. Miriam Ben Arush of the Rambam Medical Center,
the Rambam Medical Center and its children’s recovery and  learning lounge.

The Sislins reside in a historic home in Los Feliz and have four children, nine grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. Their daughter, Caitlin, is the development director of an NGO dedicated to environmental justice, women’s empowerment, and legal advocacy, among other causes. Paul’s son, Dean, and daughter, Julie, are financial advisors residing in Orange County, California, and Oregon, respectively. Leno’s daughter, Karine, is a professor of English literature and the head of the English department at the Lycee Français in Athens, Greece.

Left: Paul with his son, Dean, and family
Top Right: Four generations of Sislin men: Left to right- Paul, his son, Dean,
grandson Jared, and father, Louis

Bottom Right: Karine, Leno, and Caitlin in 2016

Above: Leno and Paul at the IAMLA's Taste of Italy in 2016

For information about becoming an
IAMLA Founding Family

please click here.
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