1.    Rose in Bud


        That enchanted evening in the spring of 1928 marked the beginning of the union of two Biblical names, Jacob and Rachel. This was her Jewish given name, inscribed in her Russian birth record as Rozalia, changed to Roza in daily usage, and converted to Rose in the United States. I was a bit luckier than the patriarch. While he labored for seven years to claim Rachel as his bride, was then duped into marrying her older sister Leah, and then served another seven years before he could embrace her as his beloved wife, I won my Rachel in just one evening. I don't know if I would have been strong enough to wait fourteen years for that blessed hour, but I do know this she was worth it.


            Rose's family name was Lebedinsky. I have no idea how her father, a full blooded Jew/acquired this Russian-sounding surname. Whatever its origin, it must have been help­ful in getting permission to live in Nikolayev, where residence to Jews was rarely granted.


            Nikolayev, where Rose was born in 1906, was an important river port in southern Ukraine to which steamers from the Black Sea went up the river Bug (not the same as the Brest Litovsk Bug) to load up with grain, the chief Ukrainian export. The city was also a center for shipbuilding and other industries. This was no shtetl, but a cosmopolitan city where individuals from many of the nationalities inhabiting the Russian Empire came into contact with each other as well as with seafaring men from Western Europe and the Mediterranean countries. In addition to Russians, Ukrainians and Jews one could meet there Armenians, Tartars, Greeks, Romanians; Dutch, German and Scandinavian sailors; and people of Central Asia and the Near East. In fact, Rose's father, Mordehai Lebedinsky, despite his Russian-sounding name, held Romanian citizenship during the Tsarist regime and because of that had certain privileges of residence and occupation that other Jews were deprived of. Rose was the youngest of three girls and had two broth­ers, one older and the other one, Aron, two years younger than she. While the parents knew Yiddish, the family language was Russian. Rose learned to speak Yiddish only after she came to the United States.


            Mordehai seems to have been like my father in many ways. He was a devoted family man and tried hard enough to provide for his wife and children, but was not too successful, and for the same reasons that my father failed to reach prosperity--both men were too decent and trusting. One of Mordehai's enterprises was that of a subcontractor for loading grain on ships. He hired his own gang of stevedores whom he treated more like a companion than as a boss. Instead of keeping them strictly to their work he would, right in the midst of loading, call out: "Allright, boys! Let's have a break for a smoke!" The men, simple laborers, were devoted to him, but since he was paid by the amount of grain loaded and paid them by the hour, his net earnings often dwindled to a pittance. How similar to my father's treatment of his gang of lumbermen! Nevertheless, in normal times both men managed to keep their children decently fed and clothed, and tried to educate them in the hope that their lives wi11 be better and richer than those of their parents.


            Rose's mother, Itta, on the other hand, apparently was of the same mold as my grandmother Freide Leie. Like the latter, she had a passion for cleanliness and kept house and children in shipshape condition. She was also a good manager of the home economy, and engaged the children in this task by taking them along to market to help bring home bushels of cherries, apricots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and cabbage (the Ukraine produced these in abundance and they were very cheap in season), to be made into preserves or salted away in barrels for the winter months. The children attended the government schools and were not discriminated against because of their Jewishness the presence of so many other ethnic non-Russians may have contributed to this tolerance. Rose still recalls with amusement how, during religious instruction, which was obligatory, the Russian priest used to present to her the crucifix which she dutifully kissed like all the other children. Most of her girlfriends were Christians, and she occasionally went with them to church where the pomp and decorum appealed to her more than the unembellished atmosphere of the synagogue, thus matching my own preference for the richness and grandeur of the Catholic liturgical music to that of the generally simple and plaintive, though deeply felt, Jewish counterpart, even if sung by an Avrom Velvl.


            How susceptible children are to music and how instinctively they react to it is well illustrated by two incidents with my own offspring. At our home we have always listened mostly to classical music on the radio or phonograph, and our two children, Adele and Victor, have developed a strong appreciation of it. At one time, as we were listening to a rendition of Jewish liturgical music by a well known cantor, Adele, then barely three years old, came over, her little face full of sadness, and asked: "Mommy, why is the man crying?" Many years later Adele's own child; our youngest granddaughter Debbie, displayed a similar sensitivity. A number of relatives and friends were gathered at Adele's house on some occasion, when I began singing a jolly tune. Debbie, then ten months old and just getting the feel of her legs, was standing up holding on to a chair. As I began the song she started heaving her little body in rhythm with the tune, to everybody's amazement and delight. I deliberately stopped singing, and she stopped heaving, looking at me quizzically. I started singing again, and she resumed her motions. This was repeated a few times until she flopped down on the floor. Some of our friends still talk about Debbie's dance now, nine years later.


            Basically, Rose had a happy and carefree childhood. Her mother and especially her older brother Naum, whom she adored, greatly influenced the development of her character, and taught her to behave and act properly, but they apparently also showed considerable indulgence toward her, so that her spirit remained free and uninhibited. She was a bit of a tomboy, running about with her girlfriends, wading and bathing in the ditch that ran behind their house, catching crayfish, and being scared to death when Nyurka, even more of a tomboy, used to swim up under water and pull her down by the legs, all the kids screaming, laughing, and splashing about in their long nightgowns which served as bathing suits.


            Always a keen observer of people, and capable of strong attachments, Rose was deeply affected by, and shared in, the joys and sorrows that she witnessed. Unfortunately, the joys were few and the sorrows plenty for everybody during the bitter years in which she passed her adolescence, so her memories are not happy ones. Nyurka, for instance, so cheerful, mischievous, and full of life was at the age of thirteen or fourteen married off by her parents to an old but rich villager to avoid starvation during the hunger years and underwent all sorts of miseries at his hands. Another of her friends met with an even more tragic fate. Her father disappeared during the war, her mother died during the famine, and the child was taken in by some relatives who themselves had nothing to eat. After the Russo-German peace treaty of Brest Litovsk in 1918 the father reappeared. He had been taken prisoner at the beginning of the war, managed to survive the prison camps and find work in Germany, and came back only to find his wife dead. He decided to take his daughter with him to Germany and start a new life there. The overjoyed child went for a last swim in the ditch with her girlfriends, and drowned on the day before she was to depart with her newly found father.


            Many and varied were the tragedies witnessed by Rose in her young life, and great was her anguish at what went on all around her. And then came the excruciating blows that fell upon her own family, tore away her loved ones, and destroyed the warm nest in which she was reared and found shelter during the cataclysmal events of those years.


2.    The Four Horsemen


            The years 1918 and 1919 were disastrous for all of Russia, but especially so for the southern part of it, in the region of the Caspian and Black Seas. There the remnants of the Tsarist adherents, the so called Whites, were making their last stand against the increasing power of the revolutionary army, the Reds. The Whites had the advantage of a trained officer corps and of some support from western governments, but they were not united under one command, fighting instead in separate groupings led by such generals as Yudenich, Denikin and Kolchak. There were also smaller detachments, or bands, led by Petlura, Makhno, and others, which soon degenerated into bloodthirsty brigands. The main weakness of the Whites was lack of support by the population. The Reds, on the other hand, were united under the over-all leadership of Trotsky as war commissar, and though possessing only a small trained cadre of professional officers, had the tremendous advantage of active support of the workers; ethnic groups (Latvians, Estonians, Jews, Georgians, Finns, and others) who all still smarted from the Tsarist oppression; and, at least tacitly, of much of the peasantry who hoped to appropriate the land of the estate owners. There was no established front, the battles raging sporadically in seesaw fashion, with some localities changing hands several times within weeks or even days. No rules of war were observed, no prisoners were taken, and no quarter was given by either side. Execution of civilian hostages was common, especially by the bands of Petlura and Makhno, and anyone under the slightest suspicion of adherence to the other side was shot on the spot. The Jewish population suffered most from the White bands, who staged pogroms in many small towns; the Reds took reprisals against landowners, former officials, and other "bourgeois" elements. Enough blood was shed to make the rivers run red.


            The terrible times were not without their moments of grim humor. A girl from a small town who escaped to Nikolayev after having survived a pogrom, while telling about the atrocities she witnessed, kept on exclaiming: "It was a koshmar {nightmare}! What a horrible koshmar we had!" An old Jew, whose understanding of Russian was limited, made this comment after she finished: "You know, daughter, all these you mentioned, this Petlura, Makhno, we had them in our town too; but this Koshmar he seems to be more terrible than the others him we did not have."


            The civil war, coming on top of the four-year war with the Germans; devastated the country's commerce, industry and agriculture. A terrible famine gripped the Ukraine, erstwhile the breadbasket of Europe as well as of Russia, and people were literally dying of hunger, especially in the cities. Dead men, women and children, their bellies bloated, became a common sight in the streets. Rose saw a man stab a little boy who grabbed some breadcrumbs that fell to the ground as the man was cutting a piece of bread. There were instances of mothers going insane from watching their starving children, others abandoning or even killing them. One of Rose's neighbors had a two year old boy, Pet'ka (little Peter), whose mother managed to obtain some dry sunflower-seed cakes, left over after the oil had been pressed out, which in normal times were used as fuel. This stuff, which Pet'ka called cookie, was rationed to him sparingly three times a day, and the child spent the time in between crying and begging: "More cookie, I want more cookie." Money was valueless, and people bartered whatever they had for any bit of food they could get. Any food obtained was eaten behind closed doors and shuttered windows, out of consideration for the neighbors. It was each man for himself a matter of sheer animal survival.


            Pet'ka became a byword with us the symbol of a starving child. Not long ago we saw a woman on television complaining about the inadequacy of her government welfare allowance. "All I can give my children is chicken or pork chops; only chicken and pork chops!" Rose and I looked at each other the same image came to our minds Pet'ka.


            The Lebedinsky family fared a little better than many others. Itta's brother was a coppersmith whose work was much in demand by the peasants, who naturally had more food than the townspeople. He and his wife lived alone, their children having emigrated to the United States before the war. He was thus able to share whatever food he received in barter for his work with his sister's family. The Lebedinskys also had the good fortune of being very friendly with a neighbor, a Russian woman whose husband was a militia man, a position of considerable importance in those turbulent times. This good woman every once in a while would knock quietly on their rear window late at night, so as not to be observed by other neighbors, and would hand Itta a piece of bread or a handful of dry beans, or whatever. In one way or another the family managed to keep just about one jump ahead of starvation.


            A pathetic incident, which would have been comical under normal circumstances, happened to Rose. One of her girlfriends came in the evening and stealthily gave her a small piece of pork, which Rose hid in the hallway in order not to affront her parents, intending to eat it after they went to bed. As luck would have it they had some visitors that night who were in no hurry to leave, with the poor girl's mind constantly on the pork during the interminable hours. At last the visitors were gone, the parents retired to their room, and Rose sneaked out quietly into the hallway in eager anticipation, arriving just in time to see a cat finishing off the last morsel of the precious food!


            And then the final calamity struck a double epidemic of typhus and swine flu broke out and spread like a wildfire, taking the lives of thousands upon thousands of the hunger weakened population. Rose's family was not excluded and paid its heavy, heavy toll. The parents were the first to succumb; then brother Naum and sister Zhenya died within a few days of each other; and then the other sister, Manya, was stricken, but survived. Rose and brother Aron escaped the plague, but the state they were left in needs no description. The apocalyptic cycle was completed: war, famine, pestilence, and death. The four horsemen rode over the land and did their job.


3.      Brother and Sister


            The three orphaned children found it impossible to continue living together as a unit. Manya, the oldest, somehow managed to shift for herself. Rose and Aron, then thirteen and eleven years old, stayed for a while with their uncle, the coppersmith, but they had to separate too. The Soviet administration, by then firmly established, made special efforts to save the young children and opened orphan homes where they received barely enough food to sustain life, and a modicum of education. The want was so great, however, and the available means so limited, that they took in only children who had absolutely no one to take care of them. Many desperate mothers brought their hungry tots to the vicinity of the "Children's Home", telling them to go there and say that they have no relatives. The kids were taken in, given some food, and questioned about their identity. Most of the time the truth came out and they were returned, painful as it was for the kind attendants, mostly volunteer women, who had to stifle their compassion for the unfortunate children and their despondent mothers.


            Little Aron also applied for admission, but was of course rejected. He was drawn to the "Home" not only because of the food, but more so because he found out that they were giving drawing and painting lessons there. He had a passion for drawing since early childhood and already showed considerable talent. So, entirely on his own, he went there day after day asking only to be allowed to attend the classes. After a while the attendants just could not send him away hungry, started giving him some food, and finally took him in. Rose's eyes still fill with tears when she recalls how he ate only the soup or gruel they served, and saved for her the small ration of bread that came with it. 


        After Aron's admission to the "Children's Home" Rose went to live with her sister-in-law, the wife of Naum, who was left with an infant at the death of her husband. Rose took care of the house and of the little girl, whom she became passionately fond of, which enabled her sister in law to go to work. There developed certain unpleasant circumstances in this arrangement, a very important one being Rose's inability to attend school. Nevertheless, she stuck it out for quite a while out of her love for the child, but eventually went to stay with her sister Manya who got married in the meantime. The next momentous change in her life came with the decision to emigrate to America.


            Rose's oldest sister, Zhenya, was left with two little boys when her husband went to the United States in 1913 or 1914. It was planned that he would send for her and the children as soon as he got established there, but the outbreak of war nullified the hoped for reunion, and they never saw each other again. After Zhenya died the boys were cared for by their mother's uncle, the coppersmith. When communication was reestablished after the war, the boys' father and other relatives who all lived in Chicago sent steamship tickets and the requisite documents for the boys, the uncle and aunt, and Rose and Aron. Various complications arose because the United States and the Soviet Union had no diplomatic relations at that time. Another problem was that young Aron, already fifteen, refused to come along because he did not want to give up his painting studies, having been told that all he could hope for in America was to become a newsboy or sell matches and shoelaces in the street. His opposition was overcome only when Rose stated that she would not go without him. it took several months to get the departure permits, police and medical clearances, and the various entry and transit visas. Eventually all difficulties were overcome, and in 1923 the four children and their adult escorts arrived at Ellis Island, went through the immigration routine, and proceeded to join their relatives in Chicago, Illinois.


            Aron's misgivings about pursuing his cherished desire of a career in the fine arts in the United States were not altogether unfounded. But to him nothing else seemed worthwhile, and he persisted in his efforts towards his goal by all means, despite the urgings of his relatives to engage in something more conducive to earning a living. Only fifteen at the time, he had to attend school but found all kinds of jobs after school hours to earn money for art lessons. He washed dishes in restaurants, made deliveries, and so on, but his irresistible magnet was the Chicago Art Institute where he found work mopping the floors, glad to do it so long it gave him an opportunity to contemplate the paintings of the great masters and get some lessons. His talent was soon recognized, and he was granted a scholarship at the Institute. He did achieve his goal and became an accomplished artist. A number of his paintings, done in the 1920s and later, hang in our house and at the homes of friends. But, as predicted, he could not earn a living from his art work, and after he was married in 1931 the problem became acute. The Great Depression was on, and the future looked bleak.


            Russia, with its grandiose projects of industrialization and development, was at that time recruiting westerners on a large scale, and many Americans, thrown out of work and reduced to selling apples on street corners, went there to seek a livelihood. Aron and his young American bride Helen did likewise, and left for the Soviet Union in 1932. Despite the severe trials they underwent there Aron achieved his objective and became an accepted and respected artist. His oils and murals decorate many public buildings in the Soviet Union, which he did under official government contracts, since there is no legitimate private market for art works in that country. He and Helen, who taught English there, lived in Moscow until 1979 when they were allowed to depart upon the Soviet government's relaxation of its emigration restrictions, and returned to the United States. Thus brother and sister were reunited after a separation of forty seven years.

4.       Fulfillment

            After that fateful evening in the spring of 1928 Rose and I saw each other at every opportunity, mostly on weekends. At that time I had a furnished room on Pinehurst Avenue, on the very spot where one of the pylons supporting the George Washington Bridge is now anchored. I worked in the vicinity as a stationery clerk, seven days a week, from 6:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. except on Sundays, when I quit at noon. Rose shared on apartment with two other girls in the Brighton Beach area, at the opposite extremity of the city. So every Sunday afternoon I made the long subway ride, spent the evening and a good part of the night with the girls and other young people who frequented their apartment, then made the trip back in the wee hours of the morning, napping in the train between stations and arriving just in time to go to work. What does a little lack of sleep matter when one is young and in love!


            By the end of summer, with my schooling behind me, we decided to get married. Neither of us was religious, and we had no money for a formal wedding anyway, so we resolved to have a civil ceremony under the Common law. In fact we both considered this to be a higher and nobler form of union, based on complete confidence in the strength and permanence of our love and trust in each other, rather than on a written contract. Accordingly, on the evening of September 1, 1928 we declared ourselves man and wife in the presence of half a dozen friends, celebrating the occasion with food, drink, and music played by one of the girls on the rickety piano in the apartment. Ignace Jan Paderewski was very popular at the time, and we always enjoyed telling people how original we were in having had Paderewski's minuet played for our wedding march.


            The confidence in the strength of our attachment was not misplaced. It was immeasurably enhanced by the arrival of Adele in 1931, the most beautiful child ever of woman born; and still more by the addition of Victor to the family three years later, a son to gladden the hearts of parents. When in due course we were blessed with three granddaughters and a grandson, they too were the sweet fruit and fulfillment of our love.


            People often talk about the reasons for their having had just so many children, or none at all. In our case this was once the subject of a dinner-table debate between our daughter and son, when both were still in primary school. Said Adele: "They were so happy with me that they wanted more like me; but you turned out to be such a dis­appointment that they were afraid to take any more chances." "No, it wasn't like that at all," came the immediate retort. "It was you they were disappointed with, so they tried again and were lucky to get me they were so satisfied that they did not need any more!"


            That enchanted evening in the spring of 1928 was the beginning of a lifetime union between Rose and me which continued unbroken for fifty three years, indeed until death did us part on March 11, 1981. For more than half a century we walked hand in hand, whether under sunlit skies or threatening clouds, always in the knowledge that we belonged to each other and were part of each other, snuggling in the nest we had built in which our two fledglings were raised until ready to fly on their own. 


        Sweet were the hours when we talked about our lives before we knew each other; when we shared our views about literature, music, art, politics, people; when we dreamed together and revealed our innermost thoughts and feelings so that nothing should remain concealed from one another. How happy were we when our children were born, and how proud to watch them grow and develop into the fine human beings they are. What unsurpassing joy we derived from our adorable grandchildren, whose love and devotion brightened our declining years. Gratifying were the hours spent with our lifelong friends, some of them now gone too, chatting, reminiscing, telling stories and jokes, Rose always the center of attraction with her geniality, apt remarks, and infectious mirth. Her bright spirit enriched all around her, and she was loved by all who were privileged to know her.


            Yes, our life was full, we were true to our resolve and proceeded on our course, always with hope and never with regret. Indeed, we had our sorrows, there were misunderstandings and occasional bitterness, but these fade into insignificance against the background of a lifetime of harmony and contentment. Even the pain and suffering of her long illness were borne by Rose bravely and uncomplainingly, her main concern being not to inflict her woes on those around her. She remained true to herself to the last day of her life.