CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
REUNION IN AMERICA
1. Postwar Ferment
During the early 1920s, like everywhere else in postwar Europe, many changes took place in Shershev. The town became part of resurrected Poland, and the new Polish regime, always fearful of the Russians, tried in every way to strengthen its sway over the Eastern provinces where the ethnic Roman Catholic Poles were in a minority among the largely Russian Orthodox and Jewish population. Polish became the official language for dealing with the authorities and in the government schools, where Polish history and literature were obligatory subjects. In order to foster the Polonization of the region new schools were established in many small towns, including Shershev, which became Szereszow. My younger brothers and sisters were thus enabled to attend school without leaving home, like I had to do.
With the resurgence of nationalism throughout all of Eastern Europe and the establishment of several new States on the ruins of the Russian and Austro Hungarian Empires there also came a reawakening of the national spirit among Jews. The Balfour Declaration, proclaimed in England in 1917 and ratified by the League of Nations, promising a Jewish National Home in Palestine, the ancient Eretz Yisrael, gave a tremendous impetus to the Zionist movement. This was also spurred by the reemergence of anti Semitism in Poland, where it was never too deep beneath the skin. Accordingly, the study of Jewish history, modern Hebrew and its literature, and the works of Zionist advocates like Mapu, Ahad Ha'am, Herzl, Smolenskin, Pinsker, Zhabotinsky, and others became widespread. Private Hebrew Tarbut (Culture) schools sprang up like mushrooms throughout the land. One such school, under the name "Yavneh", was established in 1926 in Shershev despite the financial difficulties and interference from some members of the gentile population. Even prior thereto a group of youngsters, under the leadership of my brother Abraham, then fourteen years old, started a fund drive for the purchase of books, collecting donations, selling raffles, and contributing what little money they themselves had. The score or so books which I had assembled before leaving for America became the nucleus of the library, which by 1928 counted over 250 volumes--no small achievement for that time and place.
The ferment that was engendered by all this aroused a restlessness among the youth and an urge to get away from the narrow confines and lack of opportunity in the small towns. The United States was the most desirable goal, but the Quota Act of 1924 shut the door to all but an insignificant number of potential immigrants, with the available visas oversubscribed for years to come. This situation brought a flow of illegal immigration to this country: seamen jumping ship; visitors remaining after the term of their temporary admission; stowaways; and people smuggled across the Canadian and Mexican borders. This phenomenon has now been going on for over fifty years and is still a problem that taxes the government at the present time.
A considerable number of Jews settled in Palestine during those years, and many thousands more would have done so were it not for the limitations and restrictions imposed by the British Mandatory Government, despite the promises of the Balfour Declaration. Only some Latin American countries, notably Argentina, Brazil and Cuba, were still permitting immigration, but also under certain restrictions.
One problem that has been plaguing would be emigrants in recent years did not exist at that time the prohibition of departure imposed by certain countries in Eastern Europe. During the 1920s the Polish government was quite content, if not outright pleased, to let its Jews go, and readily issued passports to them if only they could find a country willing to let them in. If only. . . how many would have been saved from the Nazi gas chambers?
Brother David, at the age of twenty, was the second family member to leave home. This was in 1924, three years after my departure and shortly after our youngest brother Eli was born the cadet of the family. The only countries open to immigrants at the time being in Latin America, David applied for and received a Cuban visa, on the strength of being an agricultural worker. His experience in agriculture consisted of growing potatoes and tending our grandmothers' vegetable gardens, but since he had no other trade or profession the designation of agricultural worker did not strain veracity too much cutting sugar cane was not beyond his ability. He spent two years in Cuba, working at odd jobs, learning Spanish, and starving in between. Most of the time he lived (if that is the proper expression) in Pinar del Rio, and he does not know himself how he ever got to that place he apparently followed some other boys who may have had friends or relatives there. Together with five of the boys he shared a completely bare rented room, without even a floor, sleeping on improvised cane or grass mattresses lying on the damp ground, until they had enough money to buy some cots. Among the odd jobs he had, one nearly killed him. He was mixing cement at a construction site, and stripped himself down to the waist because of the heat. The powdered cement he was shaking out from bags adhered to his sweat covered body, causing very severe burns. He was saved only by the ministration of the boys who shared the miserable abode with him, who applied an ointment obtained from some natives there either was no doctor or they had no money to pay him with. After he learned enough Spanish to get by, he started peddling small articles of merchandise given him on consignment by a local storekeeper. He did this until he left for the United States.
None of us, of course, had any inkling of what David was going through. Though he wrote occasionally, he said nothing about his difficulties because he did not want to worry us and did not want any help from me since he knew that every spare dollar I had was sent to the family in Poland. We learned about his Cuban "adventures" many years later, after he successfully adjusted himself in this country and no longer felt constrained at the revelation of his past unpleasant experiences.
To everyone's great surprise David showed up at uncle Philip's house in the fall of 1926, tall and skinny as a rail, his face darkened by the sun, but otherwise in fairly good shape. He refused to talk about how he got here, and only asked to be helped out until he could find work. Again, as with his difficulties in Cuba, we found out years later that he had been smuggled in on a small fishing boat and dumped somewhere on the Florida coast, after having been relieved of whatever he had by way of money or possessions. The smugglers obviously had accomplices on this side, because he was kept prisoner in a shack for almost two days until they felt that it was safe to let him go. He was then given a railroad ticket, a bag of food, and put on a train for New York, warning him not to talk to anyone about the manner of his arrival, under threat of dire consequences.
After he was married here and acquired a business of his own David reported voluntarily to the Immigration Service and made application to be granted permanent residence. After a formal hearing and investigation his application was approved, and he subsequently became an American citizen. He now lives in Washington, D. C. with his wife, Ida, who bore him two fine sons who also reside in Washington with their own spouses and children.
Now that the two oldest sons, myself and David, were in the United States, and with conditions in Poland not improving for Jews, the logical decision was made that the rest of the family should come here. To bring all of them at once was out of the question we just did not have the money for passage. We managed to scrape together enough to send a steamship ticket for father, and I, by then an American citizen, executed an affidavit on the basis of which he obtained a preference quota visa. He arrived on the S.S. Berengaria September 14, 1928 and went to live with uncle Philip and aunt Esther at the Longwood Avenue apartment which was my home for five years; relinquished to David for two years; and then became the abode of father until the rest of the family arrived in 1930. This apartment in the Bronx was the way station of our life in the United States, with aunt Esther as the guiding spirit therein.
At the age of fifty, without knowing any English, and what was worse, not having any trade, father found it exceedingly difficult to find gainful employment. The previously mentioned relatives who owned two dairy stores gave him a job as a delivery clerk, but they as well as their customers found it awkward to order him around in this menial work, usually done by young boys, and he was reluctantly discharged. He then resorted to peddling various haberdashery articles, but his lack of aggressiveness, distaste of haggling, and innate sense of fairness combined to make this endeavor unsuccessful too.
After mother and the rest of the children came here, and he had a home of his own, father began teaching boys the prayers and chapters of the Torah in preparation for their Bar Mitzvah ceremony. In this he found a vocation he liked and was successful in. With his natural conscientiousness he spared no time or effort in making sure that the boys really learned the Hebrew and understood what they were chanting, unlike some others who merely learned the phonetic sounds which they mouthed without knowing their meaning. There was, however, one problem he could not overcome. Every Bar Mitzvah boy is customarily expected to deliver a speech at the ceremony in English. I must confess that I had a hand in overcoming this difficulty. Father used to write the speeches in Yiddish and I not only translated them into decent English, but changed some of the hackneyed phrases to give them a modern slant and also inserted references to important Jewish topics of the day. This found favor with the boys' parents and even more so with their Americanized relatives, with the result that father became renowned for the success of his pupils; acquired the appellation of rebbe in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of the Bronx where he lived; and had plenty of students. But, as usual, his financial rewards were minimal because of the inordinate amount of time he devoted to each boy, and the occasional free tuition he gave when the child's parents claimed poverty or made only a token payment. By then, however, the older children were already working and father's income was not a critical factor in the maintenance of the family, although mother was not very happy about using the "children's money" for her frugal household expenses.
Though observant of all the prescribed religious practices, father was not fanatical and tolerated deviation, provided the basic tenets of honesty, fairness and justice were not infringed upon. To him the essence of Judaism was in good deeds, not in striking one's breast on the Day of Atonement. He did not hesitate to criticize certain Jews, including rabbis, who used their long beards and outward show of piety for their personal benefit and aggrandizement. At one time, when he was still peddling and desperately trying to earn enough for his family's support, he was offered a job of visiting Jewish homes to collect money from the pushkes (tin boxes) that most housewives kept in the kitchen and dropped an occasional spare coin into for charity. He was told that he would get a percentage of the collection and "make a nice living." Father was outraged that supposedly religious Jews would take for themselves money that poor people who could hardly spare it set aside for charity, and he almost had a fight with the man who proposed it to him.
Father was also unhappy with what he considered the high fees charged by the local synagogues for attending services during the High Holy Days. He knew of course that money was needed for the upkeep, but thought it wrong that a Jew should be barred from services if he could not pay. He felt that grand and expensive temples were ostentatious, and prayers were just as acceptable in Heaven if they came from more modest quarters. He believed that the essential element was the sincerity of the inner devotion rather than the outward trappings. Accordingly, he resolved to do something about this situation. Together with a few other like-minded men he rented a basement in the vicinity and established a shul (prayer house) where anyone was welcome at services, the small expenses of the upkeep being covered by voluntary contributions.
The above action still further enhanced father's reputation as a righteous man, and he was loved and respected by all who knew him. When he suffered a stroke in his eighty-second year I chanced to go down to the corner drugstore to fill a prescription. The druggist, seeing a strange face in those days neighborhood storekeepers knew personally all their customers inquired who the patient was, and when I told him he threw up his hands: "My God, the rebbe is sick! You better go back to him and be with him. I'll bring up the medicine myself right away!" which he did a few minutes later. He must have spread the news, because a constant stream of well-wishers kept coming to the apartment to visit father. He died on February 12, 1960, and a goodly crowd came to pay their respect at his funeral.
My second youngest brother Avreml, as he is known to us, underwent the longest separation from the family. Of my five brothers and two sisters he resembles me most in his personal traits and attributes. Like me he is deeply interested in cultural matters; is passionately fond of classical music; loves poetry; has a facility for languages; and is basically a romantic. In at least two ways he excels me: he taught himself to play the mandolin, which he does very well indeed; and he does not have my stubborn streak. It was his romanticism that brought about his separation from the rest of us for fourteen years. At the age of seventeen, just as it happened to me, he fell in love with a beautiful girl in our home town. But in his time (he is seven years younger than I) the post war sophistication of the youth led to a more worldly relationship between the sexes.
Additionally, he was much more impetuous than I was, as is evidenced by the following incident.
The principal of the newly established school in Shershev was a handsome thirty three year old Pole, a former army officer, who fancied himself a Don Juan despite the fact that he had a wife. When he began paying inordinate and unwelcome attention to Hannah, then sixteen and still at school, brother Abe wrote him an insulting letter and challenged him to settle accounts man to man. The challenge was ignored, but the letter apparently fell into the hands of the philanderer's wife and other members of the town's Polish gentry, who all knew of the man's proclivities, resulting in a scandal that led to his transfer to another district.
Having thus demonstrated his manhood in this chivalrous manner and at the same time proved his devotion to the young lady if indeed proof were needed a more serious impediment to the realization of their love arose. When after a long courtship they decided to get married, mother strenuously objected, first because Abe was only twenty and had no means of supporting a wife; and second because she did not like the girl's pedigree her father was a blacksmith! Grandma Freide Leie, still alive and indomitable as ever, may have had a hand in this remember how she frustrated Father's desire to marry the girl of his choice twenty nine years earlier! This time, however, love prevailed. The young couple, imbued with the spirit of the new postwar trends, eloped and were married in another town. This previously unthinkable act cost Abe the chance of coming to the United States. The marriage took place in 1929, and when father sent affidavits for mother and all the younger children to come to this country in 193O, Abe was ineligible for a preference under the immigration quota because he was already married. To wait for a nonpreference visa would have taken years, so he borrowed money from his father-in-law and emigrated to Argentina the same year, leaving his young bride with her parents in Shershev.
In Argentina he went through the same hardships that befell all new immigrants. He worked for a while as a gardener for next to nothing; then on a railroad gang laying tracks, where the pay was better but the unaccustomed labor almost beyond his strength, causing him to be injured in an accident. There was of course no compensation, so after recuperation he went back to Buenos Aires, penniless, and starved for several months while trying all sorts of jobs, including work in an iron foundry where the heat affected his eyes requiring him to wear glasses. Finally he found steady employment as a cutter in a garment factory. It was not until four years later that he had enough money to send for Hannah. Their two children, Lucy and Pola, were born in Argentina. Life for them there was a constant struggle to keep their heads above water, Hannah doing her share by subletting part of their small apartment, with the four of them crowding into just one room; and by selling cloth remnants in the market place. We in New York corresponded with them, but their letters contained no hint of the deplorable conditions under which they were living.
In 1944, with immigration from Europe at a standstill due to the war, quota numbers became available so we decided to bring them to this country. Father and I sent them passage money and affidavits of support, and they all landed at New Orleans in December of that year after a long and arduous sea voyage lasting six weeks because the Atlantic was still closed to commercial traffic, so they traveled circuitously first south, then west through the Magellan Strait, thereafter north along the entire Pacific Coast of South America, and finally through the Panama Canal into the Caribbean and to their destination.
Under the still prevailing war conditions employment was plentiful, so Abe began earning good wages as a garment cutter, and they started living decently for the first time since their marriage fifteen years earlier. But poor Hannah did not enjoy her easier life for long. In 1958, at the age of forty seven, she died just when fortune really began smiling at them, and only a short time after they were able to buy a house of their own, of which Hannah was so proud. At least she had the satisfaction of seeing her daughters acquiring a good education and developing into two very fine young ladies.
5. All Together Again
After father's arrival in 1928 we were anxious to get mother and the remaining younger children to this country, but it was not until two years later that we managed to scrape together enough money for their passage. By then I already had my position of Immigrant Inspector, earning the princely sum of forty dollars a week. Accordingly, after going through the usual formalities of affidavits, passports, police and medical certificates, and visas, all arrived at New York aboard the S.S .Mauretania in August 1930. To the best of my knowledge some sort of precedent was set in the annals of the Immigration Service at time of their entry. I was one of the Inspectors assigned to examine the arriving passengers, and the officer in charge proposed that I myself inspect my family, decide on their admissibility and sign their landing cards. While there was nothing in the regulations prohibiting this, I wanted to avoid any possible shadow of impropriety, and requested that another officer examine them, which was done. There was quite a discussion at the office about this event, including some banter at my expense, since even the oldest members of the force have never heard of a similar case a young boy arriving as a penniless immigrant; becoming an Immigrant Inspector after only eight and a half years in the country; and seven months later welcoming his mother, brothers and sisters while wearing the uniform of the United States Immigration Service.
Father, with the help of aunt Esther, found an apartment in the vicinity of aunt's residence; some furniture and household necessities were acquired; and the newcomers had a place of their own to go to straight from the boat. Sisters Helen and Rose found work within a short time in the needle trades. Brother Leo, sixteen, also did odd jobs after school; and the two youngest ones, Harold and Eli, the latter not yet seven, also attended school. Before long the family became self sufficient and were on their own.
Of all the children my two sisters carried most of the burden in the everyday maintenance of the household. Mother, who never learned to speak English well and was unaccustomed to the American way of life, depended upon them to help with the shopping, laundry, housecleaning, and similar chores; all of which they did in addition to working full time and attending evening school. It left them no time for social activities, and in my belief is the cause of their never having married. They looked after father during his illness, and showed extraordinary devotion, almost to the point of self sacrifice, in the trying task of nursing mother who was partially paralyzed for a number of years, and remained so to the day of her death in March 1976 at the age of ninety-two. Our sisters have always been equally devoted to their brothers (this is a strong family trait, almost to a fault), and to the present day never fail to offer their services whenever they think they can be of help.
Speaking of devotion reminds me of an incident in 1938 when my then four year, old son suffered a ruptured appendix and required blood transfusions. This was not such a simple matter then as it is now, with the tremendous advances that have since been made in medical science, the many new drugs that have been developed, and the establishment of blood banks. All family members volunteered their blood, of course, the one selected by the hospital attendants being Harold, then twenty years old. The nurse who participated in the transfusion later asked Rose: "Who is this young man? In all my years of practice I have never seen anyone giving blood so cheerfully!"
During the war Leo and Harold were drafted into the army and served in Europe and in the Pacific zone throughout. Eli, as soon as he became eighteen and completed high school, reported to the local registry board and volunteered for service, but was rejected medically because of a deviated septum. He argued with the board or whoever it was that gave him the verdict, but it did no good. They told him that in order to be acceptable he first must undergo an operation, at his own expense, to correct the deficiency. He came home all excited and demanded money for the operation. "I am not going to be a 4 F and stay home while my brothers are out there fighting!" He had no money of his own, of course, and neither did our parents. Father and mother tried to persuade him to make peace with the situation, pointing out that he did his duty by volunteering; that he was not to be blamed for having been rejected; and that as far as they were concerned two sons in the army were enough. This reasoning seemed not at all logical to the boy. He went to work, saved enough for the operation, went through with it, returned to the draft board, was inducted at once, and shipped overseas after only a few weeks of training, and arrived just in time to participate in the D Day invasion.
The irony of it all was that of the three brothers who served (David and I were past drafting age and family men, and Abe was still in Argentina) Harold, who was the most robust, got the softest assignment with the quartermaster corps, and fired his rifle only during the breakthrough made by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, when all available manpower was thrown into the affray to stem the enemy advance; Leo, the most squeamish one, was attached to a field hospital where the bloody sights and screams of the wounded kept him sick most of the time; and Eli, who had the least basic training, did the fighting with the infantry, battled his way from the Normandy beaches to the Black Forest, and earned his Purple Heart there when hit by a German sniper. As the saying goes: "That's the Army!"
( End of the book )