On December 13, 1923, ten days short of his fourteenth birthday, Barney was dressing in his ROTC uniform for a morning drill at the Joseph Medill School when a gunshot echoed on Jefferson Street.
Rushing downstairs, he heard a cry of “Gonovim!” A small crowd had formed around the grocery, and Beryl pushed his way inside. His father lay on the floor, blood soaking through his white apron, shot in the chest. Beryl tore at his father’s clothes, ripped off the apron and his shirt and tzitzis. “It’s alright, Beryl,” Itchik said. Ambulance attendants rushed inside the grocery; Beryl heard the sound of his mother shrieking as his father was carried away.
The shooting made the afternoon edition of the Chicago Daily News:
GROCER, 60, SHOT IN FIGHT WITH ROBBERS
Two Negroes entered the grocery of Isaac Rosofsky, 60 years old, 1303 Jefferson Street, this morning and purchased 5 cents worth of apples. The grocer handed the apples to the men and they drew pistols and ordered Rosofsky to “stick them up.” The grocer refused to obey and made for the men. He fell in his tracks with a bullet in his chest. Rosofsky’s family . . . heard the shot and came out just in time to see the robbers flee south in Jefferson street.
In the county hospital, Itchik hovered in and out of consciousness for thirty-two hours, then, as Barney later remembered, he “awaked once to put a hand on a rheumatic shoulder which had bothered him for years and whisper, ‘It doesn’t hurt anymore.’” He rubbed his beard and muttered “Sh’ma Yisroel [Hear, O Israel]” before dying.
The funeral was held in the cramped Rasofsky apartment, women wailing, mirrors draped with blankets. Barney and his older brothers stood to say Kaddish and the littlest ones—Sammy, Georgie and Ida—strained to see their father’s casket as it was carried through the crowd on Jefferson Street into the hearse for internment in Jewish Waldheim Cemetery. In the days following the murder, Sarah Rasofsky fell to pieces. She was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown, said she could no longer bear to live in the apartment across the street from the murder scene.
In Barney’s memory of the funeral scene, his mother had been so grief-stricken that she tried to throw herself into her husband’s open grave. Double-chinned, she is often seen smiling broadly in the photographs from Barney’s glory years as a world’s champion; yet the pain and rage was forever smoldering.
Years later, visiting her husband’s grave site—still so observant that she would not go with any of her kohain sons, only entering the gates of Jewish Waldheim in the company of nieces and female cousins—she would scare the little girls by convulsing as if in some kind of seizure, shrieking out an inchoate Yiddish rage at her husband’s headstone:
“Itchik, why did you do this to me?” Barney’s oldest brother Ben, married and working as a bookkeeper, arranged to sell the store and used the money to send his mother to live in Colchester, Connecticut, where Itchik’s sister and elderly mother lived. Ben didn’t have enough room to take in his other brothers—and his young wife was already pregnant.
It was yet another cruel twist in the fate of the Rasofsky clan: Isidore’s first grandson, named Yitzhak (Erwin) in his memory, was born a little more than a week after the murder. Barney and Morrie were sent to live with their father’s cousin Henry Rasof, and the three youngest children were taken in by the Marks Nathan Jewish Orphan Home at Albany and 16th Street. Barney later remembered standing in front of the “gray, dingy-looking orphanage,” with fists clenched hard, vowing he would make enough money “to get them out of there.”
In his autobiography, No Man Stands Alone, published in 1957 (as dictated to coauthor journalist Martin Abramson), Ross says that the two men who killed his father got away with the crime—an elderly customer had witnessed the shooting but was too scared to testify. The killers’ escape, in Barney’s retelling, fueled his rage at the world, and in every street fight to follow, he could see the faces of the men who murdered his father. “ The bitterness and hatred inside me made me a much tougher fighter,” he recalled. “Every opponent in a street fight seemed to remind me of Pa’s murderers and so I seemed to find extra strength in fighting them, or kicking them in the groin and making them scream in agony.”
With his mother drifting into madness on the farm in Connecticut, fourteen-year-old Barney lost his pain in the torrent of the Chicago streets. He wandered Roosevelt Road in the clawing cold—”a lost soul,” he later said. Technically billeted to his cousin Henry’s care, he was a ward of the wild West Side.
He started to smoke and curse, and learned he could throw back bootlegged beer like a grown man. He had no time for his oldest brother Ben’s lectures, scoffed when Rabbi Stein asked why he hadn’t been to shul. He screamed that he no longer believed in God.
“In my terrible bitterness and hurt, I wanted to take my feelings out on something, and religion seemed the most logical thing to hit at. Religion had been the biggest thing in Pa’s life and what had it gotten him?… To teach Hebrew—to have anything to do with religious work—was now the last thing in the world I wanted to do.” He stopped wearing tzitzis under his shirt, rode the streetcar and handled money on the Sabbath, and began to eat ham and pig’s knuckles in restaurants. “The only Jewish custom I continued to follow was to say the kaddish three times a day. But as far as I was concerned I wasn’t doing this for the sake of religion, but merely to pay my respect to Pa and to prevent his remains from turning to dust, which according to ancient belief was what would happen if he wasn’t mourned.”
Copyright © Douglas Century Literary Enterprises, Inc.
Barney Ross’s story is the stuff of legend. At 13, Dov-Ber Rasofsky witnessed his father’s murder, his mother’s nervous breakdown, and the dispatching of his three younger siblings to an orphanage. Vowing to reunite the family, Ross became a petty thief, a messenger boy for Al Capone, and, eventually, an amateur boxer. Turning professional at 19, he would capture three titles in his 10-year career. In 1941, at the age of 32, Ross requested combat duty in the U.S. Marine Corps and earned a Silver Star for his heroic actions at Guadalcanal. While recovering from war wounds and malaria he became addicted to morphine, a habit he would finally kick. Ross also ran guns to Palestine and offered to lead a brigade of Jewish American war veterans. This galvanizing account of Ross’ emblematic life is a revelation of both an extraordinary athlete and a remarkable man.
A powerful storyteller brings to life one of the most colorful boxers of the 20th century.