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From Russia with Luck: Zino Davidoff, the Early Years Pt. I
The image of Zino Davidoff – well-dressed, a Davidoff White Label cigar between his fingers, and that welcoming smile – has become so iconic it conjures up words like “affluence,” “refinement,” and “grace.” As the embodiment of the Davidoff Cigars brand, Zino Davidoff (who passed away in 1994 at the age of 87) was, and still is, the poster boy for “The Good Life.”
Because his reputation as the world’s most influential cigar enthusiast had always preceded him, most cigar smokers today are only familiar with Zino Davidoff, the convivial bon vivant they see in pictures. His Russian heritage, how he learned about tobacco, or his remarkable business acumen is even lesser known to younger cigar smokers. Zino Davidoff, the man and the legend are as important to cigar history as Martin Scorsese is to film history. One cannot attain a full appreciation of either art form without having learned something about each man’s contribution to his craft.
Zino’s story begins 200 miles south of Kiev in the Jewish shtetl (or village) of Novgorod Seversk. Born to Hillel and Rachel Davidoff on March 11, 1906, he was named Sussele-Meier, but as he got older he adopted the nickname, “Zino” and it stuck. He was the second of five children, preceded by his older brother León. Zino would be followed by three more siblings, Joseph, Nina, and Helène.
Like most of the Jews who lived in Russia during the reign of Czar Nicholas II, they were no strangers to the rampant anti-Semitism and deadly Russian pogroms that had subsisted for decades.
Some of the worst violence happened between October 1905 and January 1906, when 3,000 Ukrainian Jews were murdered. For years the pogroms would continue, yet somehow, Hillel and his family managed to survive, though many of their friends, relatives, and neighbors did not.
The first screams could be heard shortly after midnight. The mob, accompanied by Cossacks on horseback, began setting fire to homes, storefronts and barns as the villagers scattered frantically for cover -under ox carts, inside rain barrels, a crawl space – anywhere they hoped they would not be found. Men were beaten with axe handles, held down while their beards were torn out, or hacked to death with farm implements. Women were raped, often repeatedly, while children were run down by dogs or cut down like underbrush by a Cossack’s saber.
“It’s happening again,” cried Rachel Davidoff as she gathered-up the four children.
Her husband, Hillel, rushed into the room.
“Come with me!” he said.
They followed him to a small shed behind the house where he kept his tobacco stocks. Hillel, a tobacco blender by trade, was prepared for this moment, but there were no guarantees. After the last pogrom, he had loosened the floorboards upon which sat the heavy sacks of tobacco. León, the oldest child, helped his father move the sacks out of the way.
“Get in and lie down, and don’t make a sound,” said Hillel.
There was just enough room for all of them to scrunch down as Hillel, lying on his back, pulled the boards seamlessly back into place.
“Dear Lord our God, please don’t let them burn down the house,” he prayed to himself.
There the family remained, under the floor, helpless. At one point they heard footsteps approach the shed. Some men were talking. Cossacks. The shot-like sound of a boot kicking the door open made their hearts race.
“Tabak!” said one of the soldiers, “Turkish leaf.”
“Forget it,” said his commanding officer. “Let’s move on!”
Once the din subsided and it was safe to come out, the family returned to the main part of the house. It was a wreck. Many items that hadn’t been broken were stolen. Hillel never understood why they didn’t take one of the sacks. Tobacco was valuable. The important thing was the family had cheated death again. All Hillel could do was consider himself very lucky.
Eventually, life returned to normal in Novgorod Seversk. Hillel and Rachel went back to making “Turkish blends” – a combination of blonde and black tobaccos imported from the Black Sea, Crimea, Smyrna and the Saloniki region. Blending tobacco earned Hillel a better than average living. At one point, he entertained the idea of opening a tobacco shop in Kiev. But with the city 200 miles away, and the odds of a Jew getting his own storefront being zero to none, he decided to continue working from home.
By 1911, the violence had reached a boiling point. Hillel and Rachel had come to the realization that living in Russia held no future for them. Emigration was the only recourse. They were not alone. Between 1881 and 1914 over two million Jews fled Russia to escape persecution.
“It’s time for us to leave this place,” said Hillel one night during their Sabbath dinner.
“And where will we go?” asked Rachel
“America? We don’t have the money.”
“I know, but I have a cousin in Geneva. I’ll write and ask if I can stay with him for now. Once I get settled, I’ll send for you and the children. We can start over, and when we have enough money saved, we’ll go to America.”
“It’s risky,” said Rachel.
“It’ll be fine. I’ll take the train from Kiev to Switzerland, and get word to you as soon as I arrive.”
Little more than a week later, Hillel arrived at the train station in Kiev and purchased his ticket to freedom. The platform was overflowing with people, mostly Russian Jews laden with whatever belongings they could manage to take with them. Like Hillel, many of them would also be seeing their native Russia for the last time. The cars were just as crowded. There was barely room to stand, no less, sit. As Hillel negotiated his way through the throng, the train whistle blew. A deafening blast of steam belched from the immense engine and the train began to move out. Ultimately, it would wind its way through the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it reached Hillel’s final destination – Geneva. All Hillel could do now was pray that his family would be safe for the time being.
As the train pulled-in to the Geneva station Hillel could see his cousin running along side it on the platform. Six weeks later, the scene repeated itself as Rachel and the children arrived in the peaceful city that would eventually become their permanent home.
In Geneva, Hillel and Rachel continued doing what they did best – blend tobacco and make cigarettes with gold tips, which were highly popular at the time. In 1912, Hillel finally opened his own tobacco shop. The shop was a three room space in the Plain Palais quarter of the city that would also serve as the family’s home. The store itself, which faced the Place des Philosophes, was a 16 x 10 foot room, while the remaining two rooms would be divided between Hillel and Rachel, and the five children, respectively.
Now six years old, Zino began attending elementary school. After school, he would work in the shop sorting tobacco leaves with his brothers. This was Zino’s first introduction to working with tobacco. He had to learn how to identify the different tobaccos, strip the stems, sort the tobaccos by their different strengths, and eventually, learn how to blend.
Each day, Zino would sit quietly as he worked and observe the continual ebb and flow of customers and how well his father treated them. It was a busy place and Hillel was a shrewd businessman. He didn’t just blend cigarettes; he also offered custom-made blends for his more upscale clientele and charged them accordingly. Many of these clients were faculty and administration officials from the University. For an extra fee, he would add the customer’s initials to the cigarettes. Word spread quickly. Now even more men were coming in to purchase their custom blended cigarettes. Afterwards, they would stay to enjoy a smoke, while sharing conversation about news, politics, and gossip with the other smokers, as Zino listened intently from the shadows. Sometimes the room would become so thick with smoke he could hardly see in front of him.
In the years that followed, the shop began selling all forms of tobacco, including cigars. Geneva had grown considerably in population, especially during the years prior to World War I. Hillel’s store served as a meeting place, especially for other emigrants and Jewish refugees who had left their homelands for the same reasons as the Davidoff family.
The shop was also frequented by exiled Russian Social Democrats, including a particular group of regulars who were always talking about planning a revolution. One of these Russian customers made a permanent impression on young Zino. He had “a lean face, burning eyes, and he spoke in a loud voice,” Zino would write years later in one of his memoirs.
“Papa, who is that man with the loud voice,” Zino asked.
“That, my son, is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, but many years ago he changed his name to Lenin,” said Hillel. “He’s a very important customer.”
“Why doesn’t he ever pay for his cigars?”
“That is between me and Lenin, and that’s all I have to say about it.”
On March 11, 1917 Zino turned 11 years old. It was also the birthday of the Russian Revolution. While Zino was blowing out his birthday candles, “the man with the loud voice” was already headed to St. Petersburg to make history.
One year later, Zino Davidoff entered College Calvin. Founded by the reformer, Jean Calvin, in 1559, it was one of Europe’s most reputable secondary schools. Most of its graduates would continue on to study at a univeristy. Called College de Geneve today, the school is known for some of its distinguished alumni, like the famous Argentinean writer, Jorge Luis Borges and the Belgian King Albert II, among others.
Academically, Zino was not proficient in every subject. He was more inclined toward the humanities, languages, and the arts, rather than the sciences. He was a decent athlete, but had no desire to pursue sports past graduation. Above all, he loved music. If he’d had his way, he would have studied the violin as a child and spent his post secondary school years at a conservatory.
As an upperclassman, he joined Omnia Amicitia, a fraternity-like school club. Most of the boys enjoyed verbal jousting with each other on everything from sports to politics, but Zino, always the observer, had no interest in joining these discussions, which occasionally would lead to an all-out brawl.
During his senior year, Zino knew that his lackluster performance in math and the natural sciences would keep him from passing the final exams. That meant no diploma, and no diploma meant no university. So, in January of 1925, he left Collège Calvin. Yes, Zino Davidoff was a high school dropout. He wasn’t proud of it, but it was one of the smartest decisions he ever made.
~ END PART 1 ~