HARLINGEN — He’s an easy going guy with a fascinating history.
The life of Fernando Russek, owner of Alef Professional Services, extends beyond his birth in Mexico City. It goes all the way back to the small town of Boleslawiec in Polish Russia. That’s where his great, great grandfather, Marcos Max Russek, started his journey to Mexico around 1860.
“He married somebody he met in Mexico,” said Russek, a member of Temple Beth Israel Jewish Temple and Synagogue along with his wife Alma and their two daughters, Yafah and Rebekah.
Russek moved his family from Queretaro, Mexico, to Harlingen in 2004, completing another phase of the family journey. Religiously, they’re practicing Jews active in their synagogue. Ethnically, they consider themselves Hispanic and speak Spanish in the home along with a little Hebrew.
Their bloodline is tightly interwoven with their native Mexico and their Jewish roots. The family’s oral history states that Max Russek left Europe at age 12. This took place in the late 1800s at a time when parts of Poland had been split between the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy.
“The story is that around the time that he left, the Russians used to draft young kids into the army for 10 or 20 years,” Russek said. “So they would go to your house and you have like a 13-year-old and they draft him and put him in the army.”
So, as the story goes, he left just before being forced into the military by a country that refused him the same rights and privileges accorded others.
“He crossed the Atlantic, supposedly he was a stowaway in a ship,” Russek said.
This is where the story gets a little murky.
“We find him in California when he was 15,” Russek said.
At some point, the young Russek immigrated to the Mexican state of Chihuahua where he met his wife.
“We think that either she was Jewish or she converted,” Russek said. “But not all of his descendents are Jewish. There is only one branch that remains Jewish.”
Max Russek opened a store in Chihuahua at the crossing point of two railroads. One of those was the main rail from El Paso, Texas, carrying U.S. goods all the way to Mexico City.
“There were a lot of mines at the time,” he said. “We’re talking about 1870s, 1880s. Mexico was a very good place to try to make a fortune.”
The elder Russek became wealthy and contacted relatives in Germany, Lithuania and other locales to join him in Mexico. Over a period of years, a large number of Russeks arrived and made their homes in Mexico. They did very well but, alas, the Mexican Revolution arrived in 1910 and the family lost everything.
“His store was burned so the whole family moved to the United States, some to El Paso and some to California,” Russek said. “After the Revolution they went back to see what they could save. Eventually my grandfather was born and then he moved to Mexico City where my father was born. Eventually I was born there.”
Russek grew up in Mexico City but then moved to Queretaro where he met his wife Alma who converted to Judaism. His family had a real estate business both in Harlingen and in Mexico in the 1990s and they were traveling back and forth.
“We used to have a house in Mexico and a house here,” he said.
They finally decided to move here permanently in 2004. Their first daughter, who served three years as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, was born in Mexico. His other three daughters were born here.
“I can tell you I really love Harlingen and the school district and everything,” he said. “If you go to a big city, the public school system, it’s very hard to give a quality education. There’s the inner cities.
“Here at the public schools the kids are safe and they can get a good education. Harlingen, it’s very affordable.”
Fernando Russek’s family today is as diverse as it has always been.
One brother in Guatemala is married to a Russian.
Two other brothers live in Israel, one married to a British woman and another to a Venezuelan.
He has a sister who lives in Miami and is married to a man from Argentina.