Down with the CzarThe shtetl my mother was born in was a distance from Moscow. My mother would say it was a day’s trip, I guess by buggy or by carriage, because they had relatives that had moved to Moscow that some of them would visit. I think it took them a good day by buggy to get to Moscow. But this shtetl had about twenty homes only. One factor in their leaving was that it was before the Revolution, and my mother would recall that there was empty land near the shtetl. The Cossacks would come on horseback, and they were all so interested, and would tell them, “Down with the Czar!” They became zealots too—“Down with the Czar.” But then, when the Cossacks took over, they took the wealthiest brother’s money. He was very wealthy and he was helping everybody else. He put his money in various places in the ground and they dug it all up, found it.
The MatchmakerMy mother and father met through a matchmaker. My mother was very industrious — the Rosens — and she had made some money selling her produce. So the matchmaker knew she had a little money, and my father was a better-looking man, a more educated man. This came from my mother, she would say, “And I was a peasant, all I knew was Yiddish and he could speak Russian, but I had this little money.” So he came to town, she said, and everyone loaned her their finery. She had on the best boots and the best blouse, the best of what everybody had. They met, they had tea and whatnot, and he said he wanted her, it was fine. And she said the town—they just ran through the town—“Yonah wants Zelda,” she said. And then she’d say, “And then he loved me.” I grew up with that story and I loved it.
The Czar's Answer to the Jewish ProblemThere was a Polish pronunciation and a Jewish pronunciation. We call it “Kowasheem” and I think they call it “Kowazeem.” But that’s depending on who you talk to. I’ll tell you what I know about Kaluszyn, what my father told me about Kaluszyn. Friday night you were required to have the biggest meal you could have to usher in the Sabbath. And what they did to clean the house. When I came home on Friday, the house was sparkling clean. White tablecloth. Candles going. Just beautiful. You knew. No one had to tell you it was Shabbos. It was Shabbos. You knew that. Anyway so my father’s Shabbos was. They used to have dirt floors. They had chickens running around. He said, they would sweep the chicken droppings off the floors and everything else. And their sumptuous meal was a big bowl of katoflas, which I understand is a Polish word meaning potatoes. That was their big meal. But whatever it was, they had their biggest meal for Shabbos. That’s how dirt poor he was. Kaluszyn was either seventy-five kilometers or thirty-five kilometers outside Warsaw towards Russia and at the time he left, it was under Russian control. My understanding is the reason they were leaving in such a mass exit in 1910 is because Czar Nicholas—I don’t know who the Czar was—but the Czar’s answer to the Jewish problem, instead of killing them off, what he would do was conscript the young men into the army. And keep them in the army for thirty or forty years and not let them have families. That was the way he was going to get rid of the Jews. So, the Jewish young men said, that’s not for them. That’s my understanding of it. So, they left and came to America.
This Land is Not for UsI was born in a little town called Grajewo, G-R-A-J-E-W-O, Poland. It was on the border. We were three miles from Germany, right close to Leipzig, and everybody in our little town had a pass that they could [use to] go into Germany—everybody used the doctors there and all. Well, Grajewo was a town of ten thousand Jewish people, and it was a nice town, had a lot of well informed people. We had a yeshiva there, you know what a yeshiva is. For those days, it was a highly sophisticated town. My father—I’m not going to brag about him or my mother or our background, but it was a wonderful background. A lot of education. Always spoke to their children. My father went to school thirty-two years; he was an educated man. My grandfather wanted him to be a rabbi, but my father didn’t want it, and he became a businessman. My grandfather was in the import-export business. He had a big business in Kiev—that’s Russia, and Russia was very much of an agriculture country. Leipzig was in Germany and that was a manufacturing country. Germany had very little space; they didn’t have much land. And so my father was placed—and this was in 1908 or 1907, I think—he was placed in the Kiev office and he ran it. They had big trainloads of stuff that went from one place to the other. The export-import business, that was a big thing in Europe then. While my father was in his office one day, a bunch of Cossacks came in and broke a bottle and split his head open—only because he was a Jew, he wasn’t doing anybody any harm. He came home and he told my mother, “This land is not for us. We’ve got to go to America where our children can have education and freedom.”
BialystokMy father left the old country four weeks before Germany declared war on Russia. That was World War I. My mother wouldn’t go, because in those days you could own your home, but you could not own the land that it was on, because you were Jewish. So my mother wanted to stay the four weeks, or six weeks, and sell the house and sell the furniture. We had our tickets, we had our passports and the money to go—because we were not rich people, but we were comfortable people. We couldn’t go because the first place that the rails were torn up was in our little town. My mother thought she could make it, but when the Russian soldiers came in my mother was scared they would rape my sisters. Miss Kalinsky was sixteen years older than I was, and Miss Lourie was ten years older, and they were both beautiful women. My mother was scared to death that she couldn’t make it, that they would rape her children, so we went to Bialystok. Bialystok had sixty thousand Jews. I think today there’s three hundred from what I understand—I think they have in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, they have all the figures. My mother went there and she divided her children. She kept one. The rabbi of Bialystok was my uncle, he was one of the chief rabbis in Poland, his name was Alpern. My mother put one son with him, so he could teach him to be bar mitzvah and all—he was a child, you know, and he needed training. The other son she put with an uncle who was in the lumber business. [This brother, Sender, was married and lived in a town called Shepitova]. He was older than my sister Miss Simon—than Miss Lourie. I can’t ever call her Simon, she always will be Miss Lourie to me in my heart and in my mind. My mother took him there so my uncle could teach him business. He was twelve years older than I was. We had an aunt and uncle who had a very nice hotel in Bialystok—my mother’s sister—and they were very good to us, but after a few weeks we were told [we were leaving]. It took us ten days to travel a few miles. Bialystok was only ten miles from Gritse [Grajewo], but we only traveled at night because it was dangerous for Jews to be seen during the day; we stayed in the woods hidden ’til we got to Bialystok, I remember that distinctly. We stayed with this aunt and uncle and they made us comfortable, but my mother thought—she had hid all her jewelry and all her linens and all—that she could go back to Gritse and find enough where she could sell a piece of jewelry or something like that. We didn’t think the war would last four years, we thought it was a year, you know, but World War I lasted almost four years. Germany was very successful after a while, but first the Russians went deep into Germany. When she got [to Grajewo] the Russians were retreating and our home was burned down. There was nothing left. She came back to Bialystok and she separated her children. My sister, Annie, went with one aunt. Minnie and I—I was the baby and Minnie was always the spoiled one, you know that, you’ve heard that—my mother kept the two of us with her [in Grajewo, which was now occupied by the Germans]. We had a very hard time and then the war was over. I don’t know how we lived. It was tough. My mother opened up a tea house in Gritse and the non-Jewish people, the few better-class goyim—Catholics, all Catholics—they were very nice to my mother, they brought her furniture and things like that. And they had a great big German hospital in Gritse. In Jewish we called it Gritse, but it was Grawejo, the Polish name. This leading officer of the hospital—I don’t know if it was a doctor or what—he used to come and drink tea, and all his soldiers would come and drink tea. My mother knew how to make mandelbrot and sponge cake and blintzes and all, and they loved it. They were not Jewish. The headman fell in love with my sister Minnie—she was really pretty—and he came to see my mother and he said he’d like to marry her. Well, you know what intermarriage meant then, eighty years ago. It was the kiss of death. My mother got her little linens together—she didn’t have much—and her children together and she went back to Bialystok. She was afraid that he’d kidnap her or something, you know. So it was a hard life.
A Better PlaceBefore World War I, we were very comfortable people. In those days—I don’t know if it’s necessary—but when a young nice Jewish boy married a nice young Jewish woman, the shiddach was made by the parents. Shiddach means the marriage. And for four years my mother and my father lived with my father’s parents. That’s why he had such a great education, they paid for his education, and my mother lived with them while my father finished school. And then for the next four years, they lived four years with my mother’s parents, who were very comfortable people. They had a big plant in Warsaw, they manufactured brushes and everything pertaining to that, like—what do you call them here?—the Fuller Brush people. The little town they lived in was called Trestani [Poland]. All the Pearlstines and all the Jacobs come from Trestani, as well as all the Kareshes. They had a big plant there—just family workers, that’s all, it wasn’t big like the one in Warsaw. So when I was born we were very comfortable people. I guess we’d be considered not comfortable here, ’cause a ruble then was a lot of money, which a dollar today is nothing. They were very comfortable, and in Trestani they had a Jewish school, a small yeshiva for thirty orphans. As soon as some would graduate, they’d get more, and they paid for it and kept them up. So my mother came from a very comfortable family, and so did my father. My father’s father was not educated like my mother’s father, nor was he as philanthropic, but they used to call him Moishe the Chochem. He was so smart, he was a genius. A lot of time when somebody would tell my mother, “You got smart children,” she would say, “Of course, takes after my father-in-law, Moishe the Chochem.” “Moishe the Chochem” means his name was Moishe and chochem means you’re very smart. He was smart. I guess my parents might have known of some anti-Semitism, but I was a small child and I didn’t know. I had not even started school when the war started, and then, during the war, it was very, very bad. You couldn’t go out. My mother would not allow the children to go on the street on Sunday, because when all the people came up in the small towns—they were mostly farmers and they were not educated people—they hurt a lot of Jewish children on their way to church. The churches were not out in the country, they were in the cities. That was very bad. After the war, we left right away. We were the first Jewish family to leave our little town, and when we came to Charleston there were not too many Jewish immigrants. They started coming a lot, like the Sokols and the Altmans and all those people started coming after World War I, but they were not prepared to come like we were. Two things: We were all educated. My sisters and all, they were smart and educated. And another thing was, we had our tickets before the war started, so all we had to do is go to Warsaw, renew our visas, and we came.
A Very Happy HomeI grew up in a home that was, by the way, a very happy home. I had a wonderful childhood. My parents would not work on the Shabbos. They would not even turn on the lights on the Sabbath day. And their way of giving charity, and I remember this distinctly, was to feed the poor who came on Sabbath, on Saturday morning. At services, they always had like a small luncheon afterwards, and so my father, that was his way of giving charity, without his name—people didn’t know who it was—and he felt good doing that. So I grew up in a very Orthodox home. I learned Hebrew. I had a Hebrew teacher who came to the house when I was eight years old and stayed with me until I was bar mitzvahed, was a wonderful teacher—he didn’t stay with me but three times a week, I should say. He was a wonderful teacher because he taught me more than Hebrew, reading Hebrew and translating it. He also taught me the history of Judaism, and the culture and the morals and the ethics, and I have to say to you, today, that that to me is really the core of Judaism. Is how you should live and how you should behave. And so he helped me a great deal to understand what my heritage is. I’m still grateful to him for that. But even [though] Vienna was known for the city of love and music and life, there was a lot of anti-Semitism. Even when I was a little boy, I would always fight. I would have to fight, because I was attacked going to school. I was a Jew. And you sort of take these things for granted. You grow up a certain way and you think that’s the way it has to be.
A Letter in YiddishI was taught how to translate the Hebrew into German, and how to write in Yiddish, and my grandparents—who thought that living in Vienna means living near the devil, and that there would be no Yiddishkeit [Yiddish culture] left—they were so thrilled when I would write a letter in Yiddish to them. My parents wanted me to know that.
I Can Smell the SoapMy grandfather on my mother’s side—he was a very religious man, even more so than my father. His whole life was his synagogue. He lived across the street from the synagogue. For him, to blow the shofar was the greatest honor there could be. And he had a wonderful profession. He was an artist. He would carve patterns into a board—different patterns, whether they be flowers or what have you. People would come who wove their own linens—in those days, you didn’t go out and buy a yard of this and that—and he would print that pattern, whatever the pattern was. So he would print fabric that had little flowers or other designs. I would just love to sit there and watch him do this. He would tell me about his parents, but he talked more about religion, more than anything else, because to him—he was not a worldly person, as we think of today. He was a very simple man, who believed in God, had total faith, with all the pogroms. “Whatever it is,” he says, “God’s going to protect us.” That was his whole life. My grandmother, his wife, her head was shaven as they do, the very Orthodox. She wore a wig and a cloth, a kerchief. Her job was to feed the family. And some of her family lived in the same house with them. They were very poor, but they were the cleanest people I ever knew. I can smell the soap today. So these are the memories of my grandparents, and they become very important. My grandfather, when he would send me to get him cigarettes—he was a heavy smoker, his white beard was a little yellow—I loved to smell that tobacco. This is what I remember today. It seems unimportant at the time, but if that’s all you have, you hold onto it. And I wonder sometimes what will our children hold onto from their lives with us. One thing is important to know—I don’t know if it’s any significance for this purpose. People often wonder why Jewish people are so imbued with education. My father, where he grew up in this little town in Poland, the public school system would not allow Jews to go to school. His parents had a large farm and they engaged a teacher who lived with the family. He was like part of the family. And he taught them mostly the Hebrew, of course, and the Yiddish, and Polish. My mother was self-educated, because when she left the little town of Lubaczów where she was born, she went to Krakow. She had to live with a family, a relative, and she had to do housework and take care of the children, and yet, despite all of that, my mother educated herself. My father educated himself. They had a business, they ran a business, and education was the most important thing in our lives. That and music, believe it or not—Jewish music, any kind of music. And so there is a reason to understand, even today, that most of your Jewish people support education. If it’s anything a parent wants, they want their child to have an even better education than what they had. And this is the kind of thing we give our children. They’re imbued with that, and their children are imbued with education. It’s the greatest gift that a parent can give a child.
The Angel of DeathBack in the early part of the l800s one of the Pearlstines was killed by a windmill. Before that time their name wasn’t Pearlstine, their name was Farber. He was killed by a windmill blade. They must have started it up and it killed him. They changed their name from Farber to Pearlstine so the Angel of Death wouldn’t find them.
Saving BreadMy mother always told me her father rolled cigarettes, and, of course, he studied and learned. She was very close to her father. There was a card, a postcard, that my grandfather wrote to my mother. Nobody ever read it to me–it’s in Yiddish–but my brother Sidney had it read to him. I understand it was a very poignant thing, how my grandfather missed my mother as a little girl. Mrs. Goldberg, ca. 1920When she left Europe she was eighteen, going away she didn’t know where. She had a brother here, but at that time America was so far away. Today it would be totally different. You can hop a plane and you go. Looking at a picture of my grandmother, she just looked worn out, sad—like most of the women in those days that were poor and they had to work hard and you were fixed up with a husband and you had to wear your head shaved. That was the type. They were typical “Fiddler on the Roof.” My grandma wasn’t as strong as Tevya’s wife, but my mother always told me that that’s how she lived. They lived with the dirt floor in the house and on Friday they would sweep out the hay. They put hay on the floor. So they would sweep out the hay and put fresh hay and that was clean. She worked at a farm when she was a little child, not ten years old, she worked at a farm about ten miles away from where they lived in order to make a little bit. But she said she never ate her bread all week. She would save her bread and her mother would come Friday morning, walk five miles, and she’d give her mother the bread to take home for the Sabbath. My uncle Sol, she remembers, as a child blew up like a balloon, because he was starving. He was starving and his stomach was so distended. They were very poor. She also told me about the pogroms, when the Russians would come through and knock the houses down and throw things at them, to try and get rid of them. The Russians wanted the Jews out of there. They wanted the Jews to go to the cities, they didn’t want them in the little towns. That’s why they had all the pogroms. They wanted to get them out of the little shtetls. But she had a very hard life. She said they were very afraid of the Russians. Now, my father came to this country because he was going to be inducted into the Russian army. Most of the men at that time came from Poland because they wanted to avoid going into the Russian army. They were always scared and always poor–just grew up like that. That was their life. So when they came to America, they really appreciated it. They knew the difference and took advantage of it by learning and working and building. My mother told me something that I’ll never forget. She told me that it always surprised her, but in Europe the man who was the professor, he was the most respected person, as opposed to America where the one with the most money is the most respected. The most peculiar thing she always felt–it was odd to her because from her childhood she knew learning was the most important thing. I think that’s something we have to get back to. This thing of making a lot of money and getting the respect of the whole community because you have the money and then the other one who is such a learned man, that’s so brilliant, they are looked down on if they don’t live in a beautiful house. If they have books all over and it’s sort of messed up, it’s not decorated, you know, you’re not looked up to. My mother kept all the traditions. On Yom Kippur we couldn’t tear toilet paper. She used to tear the toilet tissue before Yom Kippur so we wouldn’t have to tear the toilet tissue. There were always candles in the house. She used to put dirt in a tin can, like a soup can, and stick a candle in it. Those were all over the house for Yom Kippur. At that time they were very Orthodox, and she said it was because in Europe they had to show they were Jewish. The more that they observed, the more they felt like they were Jewish. When they came to America, my father liked the Conservative Jewish congregation better. I think he would have loved the Reform. But they carried on like from the old country.
A Baker by TradeMy mother’s side of the family were Austrian Jews. My grandfather was a baker by trade, and [he] came to Charleston and established a Jewish bakery. He had seven children, two sons and five daughters. The oldest daughter, Jenny, was the one born in Austria. The next daughter was Rachel, and the next daughter was Mary, who was my mother. The next daughter was Annie, or Anne, and the last daughter was Paula. Most of them continued and lived either in the Columbia or Charleston area. The two sons were the youngest two children. One was Benjamin. For all practical purposes, he was never married. He was the youngest of the crowd, died in 1987 at the age of eighty-seven. The next to the youngest child was a son named Israel Edward Blatt—everybody called him Ed. He lived in Charleston a great portion of his life, and then from about thirty-five years old [he] resided in Columbia, South Carolina. He married a nice Baptist lady and has one daughter. My grandfather on my mother’s side of the family, and all of them, left because of the persecution of Jews. Now, I’m no big geography person, but Galicia really was closer to Poland, in that area. All of the Jews there felt the anti-Semitism. My grandfather immigrated to this country in about 1888, when he first hit Philadelphia. He was a baker in the old country, and he brought that trade over with him. He baked kosher Jewish bread, like pumpernickel and rye. My mother used to tell me the story that it was like the old days, like they delivered milk—you had a bread route, and you delivered your bread with a horse and wagon. I think somewhere my sister has a picture of my mother as a young woman standing next to the horse, which amazed me, because she was so scared of most animals. The ones that came South really came, probably, because they were looking for a way of life that was more agrarian than [in the North]. In Europe, my grandfather and grandmother on my mother’s side lived more or less in a farm area, a small-town area, and apparently they didn’t like Philadelphia. The same thing was true with my father. All I heard them say was Galicia, which is a province, not a city, and for that reason I just assumed they lived in a rural area, not really in a town or village. I know my mother used to say that my grandmother used to brag about the fact that she saw the Emperor, Franz Joseph. He stopped and watered his horse at their farm in Europe. She was really Austrian; she loved all of the Austrian waltzes, loved to waltz and stuff like that. My grandma on my mother’s side of the family was very Orthodox, kept all of the dietary laws, never would eat out. My grandfather got in the world, because he ran a bakery, [but] she never really talked English real good. My recollection is whenever we visited, she’d always hug me and say “Boychik” and “Dumichik,” pinch my cheeks like that. She died when I was about eight. My grandfather, Morris, he died before I was born. You know, according to Orthodox tradition, that’s how I was named after him. My grandfather—my mother always said that he never really accumulated a lot of wealth ’cause he was a rolling stone. But in those days, you know, you didn’t have much money to roll far, so he lived primarily between Columbia, Charleston, and Augusta. My mother said every time she thought he was doing real good, he decided he’d rather go back to Charleston or go back to Columbia. My mother grew up, in fact, she was confirmed—and this sounds funny, because the family was Orthodox—she was confirmed in Augusta, Georgia, and attended public school in Augusta. She was real Southern. My mother was four years old when they moved South from Philadelphia, but she sounded real Southern—I guess like me. The landsman, or good friend, from the old country that they knew in Charleston was a Henry Hirshman, and Henry Hirshman had become a prosperous wholesale grocer in Charleston in the early 1900s, when my grandfather on my mother’s side moved down. They went to Charleston because they knew Henry, who they called Herschel, not Henry—in Europe he was Herschel. And when they went down—what Jews would do, back in those days, is they wouldn’t give charity, they would give you credit, they would help you get started. Henry Hirshman sold my grandfather his first supply of flour and whatever he needed to make bread.
Fiddler on the RoofMy mother always said—and she wasn’t picking on them—she said that among the Austrians and the Hungarians, the women were the businesswomen and the men were all regular playboys, they never could settle down too good. That’s what she said. She said that when she married she was looking for a Russian, and she married one. [The Russians] davened all the time. But Hungarians were the worst! [Laughter.] The Russians were traders. I mean, they were just natural drivers. My father had that nature, too. He was very adventurous, loved to take chances on enterprises. My father was born in Russia. He was born in a city called Kobrin, in Russia. It was in a province—and don’t ask me how to spell it—called Grodny Gobernya. It was about two hundred miles east of Warsaw, right near the area they called the Pale; that was an area that sort of went back and forth between Russia and [Poland]. Actually, he didn’t live in Kobrin. It was like the county seat of the province and his family were wheat farmers–grain farmers. His name was Abraham Isaac, but no one ever called him Abraham. He was “Abe.” I don’t think many people knew his middle name in this country. He was always Abe. There were about ten or eleven children and my father was the youngest. Dad always said that one reason he left Russia was because there was no freedom, no civil rights, and they weren’t allowed to go to school except in rare circumstances. Jews were very down trodden in Russia but they survived. Most of the Jews who lived in the town of Kobrin were the type you would see in “Fiddler on the Roof.” I’ll never forget the first time my father saw the Broadway play. He said, “That’s it! That’s the conditions under which I grew up.”
Sharecroppers of the JewsHe got all of his education in what was called “cheder,” which was Hebrew school. It was primarily because of the Jewish admonition to read the Torah. Everybody had to be literate and Jews were literate while the Russian mojik, who were serfs, were not. I think it was during the days of the Tsar, Peter or Alexander, who knows, when they freed the serfs. Now, they were freed somewhat the way the blacks were freed after the Civil War—they were given forty acres and a mule, and they couldn’t read or write. What happened is that the Jews came and leased land; they couldn’t own land, but it was a legal subterfuge. They said they owned it, and they leased land from the mojiks, who didn’t know anything about managing, and produced wheat. Actually, the mojiks were the Russian peasants who were like their sharecroppers. It was a reverse of where the whites own the land here and the sharecroppers are the blacks. The mojiks owned the land but they were still sharecroppers of the Jews. My father said at one time they had leased well over a thousand [acres]. The oldest brother—that was Uncle Louis, really Lazar, but when he came to this country they called him Louis—was like the patriarch of the family, and they leased this land. My father grew up under those circumstances. His mother and father had died by the time he was eight years old. But Louis was, believe it or not, twenty years older than him. That’s how long they had the families. I thought just the other day, maybe that’s why he was called Abraham Isaac, because of the fact that Abraham was so old when he had his son, Isaac. You know, they said he was a hundred years old. I don’t know why they named him Abraham Isaac, but that was his name. He remembered his mother, and he remembered his father, and when they died, his brother—who had children that were just as old as him, almost—raised him. His brother was like his second father. That was Uncle Louis. He was the manager of the plantation, so to speak.
Across the BorderMy father, when reached seventeen, he was already operating his own mill. In Russia, even though you weren’t given any civil rights, everybody was conscripted and drafted into the Russian Army. My father had just made up his mind—I think he just had a lot of guts, I guess, nerve—he said, “I’m not going to serve the country.” Of course, word trickled back about America and freedom, and by that time he had already had an older brother, Uncle Charles, and a [sister], Aunt Rebecca, who had immigrated to this country and settled in the New York area. He decided he was going to this country, to come to America. He went to Louis and Louis said, “You mean give all of this up?” And my father says, “Give up what? You know, all the mojiks got to do is turn on you and you’ve got nothing.” So he settled and sold his interest for five hundred rubles—that’s five hundred Russian dollars—to his brother. The way they would try to stop the young Jewish boys from deserting was to penalize and fine the family, and they could do it. What my father had to do was go ahead and enlist. Oddly enough, they had an enlistment age of eighteen, just like we had in this country, and he was only seventeen, so he went to where they inducted them, he says, “Well, I’m ready to go.” They said, “How old are you?” He said, “Eighteen.” They didn’t check the ages or anything like that. So they inducted him. It’s a real humorous story. They were watching him, and he said [that] when he got through basic, he was scheduled to go to a far outpost in Siberia, so he knew he had to get away. There was sort of a time schedule. You know, my father was the greatest storyteller, he’d tell me all these things. He’d tell us the story about how he got out of Russia, and maybe he glamorized it a little, too. He said that he wanted to get away—it was very subtle. They assigned him to be under the command of what we would call a corporal, and this fellow—Daddy said he had to get real friendly with him. He got some money from his brother—he was still stationed near his home—and he told the corporal, “I want to take you out for a big dinner.” Well, Russians were notoriously big drinkers, and he said it was amazing how much vodka he had to buy! This fellow finally passed out, and that was the night [my father] escaped. In those days they would get a horse and wagon—Jews were always leaving, and other people. He tells us hair-raising stories about where they got caught at the border, men, women and children. He was a young single fellow, and they were just about to cross over into Germany, and the Russian border guards caught them. Most of these people were poor, and Daddy’s family, because I guess of their influence, had learned about the great art of bribery and how to get what they wanted. That’s why Russia was going to collapse. Even the people who were Russian had no loyalty, because the Czar was an absolute tyrant and monarch, and they were kept in subjugation. So the [commander of the border patrol] says, “I’m going to take you back.” The people were wailing, and Daddy went around the wagon, he says, “Give me whatever contribution you can have.” He went and talked to the head officer (all of them on horseback) and said, “Look, we’re a bunch of poor people, [and if you take us back] you got to go ten miles back in the snow. Why not go get some drinks? What do you care about these—?” I guess he used some very choice words. “What in hell do you care about these poor bunch of people—you going to carry them back? For what?” So they took whatever there was, the thirty or forty or fifty rubles. If they took it, they would still have to carry them back. See, what they did was head for the nearest bar. That’s the way he got across the border.
A SaintMy grandmother, who was one of the younger in that family—there were a lot of children—was to be married. In those days in Europe it was considered very proper, and a very admirable thing to do, that a Jewish family who had means would marry their daughters to scholars who were poor as church mice—that was considered a mitzvah on both sides—so that’s how that marriage came about. He was a great scholar and a rabbi. His father was a rabbi in the place where they lived in Hungary, and that grandfather—that man who was to be my great-grandfather—was considered such a holy, fine, wonderful, admirable man, according to what my grandmother said, that he died in a very spectacular way. He was conducting the High Holy Day services. He was very old and wizened, and very sainted and looked up to by the Jews of that area, and he conducted all the services on the Day of Atonement. In the final blessing, when he was standing there blessing the congregation, he fell dead, would you believe that? On the pulpit. So that shows he was really a saint, right? What a story. That’s to show you how holy this derivation was, and, boy, how it washed out down our end! His son, who was my grandfather, was, of course, a rabbi and was a scholar and so on, and no way to make a living other than that. Well, the family fortunes immediately went down in the house. There were mortgages, and they weren’t able to pay, and they had to give up the place. The oldest son, who would be the one in charge of the farming, was not the smartest one, and he had signed a lot of notes for a lot of people, so he was the culprit. Anyway, the whole thing failed, and they all thought of coming to America. They came over—and my grandmother had children all along. She had seven children. My mother was the oldest. And my grandfather had congregations where they would permit him to speak in German, but with the understanding that he would be staying and would be able to speak in English by a certain time. The place where he stayed longest was Altoona, Pennsylvania. He was always a Reform rabbi—Reform, which I think is most unusual.
Horse CollarsThey had this department store, the Zalkin family. I understand it was like a general store—horse collars and clothes and whatever. They lived upstairs from the store and evidently made a good living because my grandmother wanted to go back where she could have everything. In Charleston she didn’t have everything. She was not happy with the way the streets were and the people were. Now, you’ve got to remember at the turn of the century Charleston had weathered the Civil War and the streets were muddy and made of cobblestones. Mosquitoes were plentiful, flies were plentiful, and coming from a colder climate she was not happy with the humidity and heat of Charleston. She stayed here a couple of years is all, and went right back to Vilna. Took the daughters and went back and the boys stayed with my grandfather. This is not the only family that I’ve heard of like this. There were quite a few that the men stayed and the families went back. Or they sent the kids over here and the wives and older children stayed.
The Diamond MinesMy grandmother had told me this story. It’s a wonderful story. Her mother’s father, her family, was a prominent family in this shtetl. Her father was a rabbi. My grandfather came from a poorer family and didn’t have the status they did, so he left Russia, went to South America, worked in the diamond mines for a couple of years to get enough and save enough money so he could go back and be a person of means so he could marry my grandmother, which he did. And then as soon as they got married they left for America.
Book of a Thousand SongsWhen my mother came to this country, she used to say, “Liebeinke, I came with a book of a thousand songs. And I kept that very safe.” She says, “I came with a perinya and pillows, but that songbook was the most precious to me.” When I was a little girl, she taught me many songs. One was from the opera, Goldfaden’s opera, Shulamith, and I still know the words from that song.
Out of RussiaThey were limited by what the Russians allowed them—where to live and were they would go. The only time my father had any latitude of moving was when he was in the army. His stay in the army was very oppressive duty. The winters were long and horrible and his promotion was very limited. So he developed a tremendous desire, a passion not only to get out of the army but to get the hell out of Russia. In fact, he bribed his way out of the army and made it to this country. And with very hard work and ambition he became successful, in a limited sense, as a merchant, but his major undertaking was that he became a purchaser of a large amount of real estate and timber property and bought a business in Charleston and moved the family to Charleston. I remember at age seven—I was a twin—when my brother and I would come home from school at the ages six, seven, and eight, and my mother, in 1918, 1917, would get letters from her mother and from her remaining sister in Vilna. It would be written on notebook paper in ink and the tears were coming out of her eyes. They were begging for relief. In those days, if you could raise a hundred dollars in 1918 or 1919 in Charleston, you would send it out of the country for relief—Jewish relief money sent to the family. We would send the clothing that we would collect—all the years that we had family remaining there, we’d send it to this Jewish agency in New York. They had devised methods of delivering it.
The EarringWhen they left Russia, in those days, they knew that there were cousins of somebody somewhere. All they had was the name of a city. My father was an orphan in Russia, and he always told me that he wore an earring in his ear so that other Jewish families in the shtetl would know that he was an orphan—and sort of looked out for him.
FruitAU: You never saw what—a banana? Until you got on the boat? HU: No, until I got to New York. But we had fruits, cherries, blueberries, strawberries, pears, apples. We didn’t have any citrus. So the only time I ever got an orange was when I was sick. This is when I lived over in Kobrin, Poland. I’d get an orange or cluster of grapes only when I was sick.
Two PotatoesDR: What was the occupation of the family? HU: Poor! AU: I’ve heard Harriet use the expression sometime that people didn’t have two potatoes. HU: My mother used to say that her parents were so poor, and that they had a lot of children, that they didn’t even have an onion to flavor the water—and to me, that’s poor.
Fate of a SynagogueDR: What month of the year did you arrive in America? HU: It was November, around Thanksgiving, so it was cold. AU: 1937 DR: November, 1937. You were lucky. 1937. AU: I’ve got news for you—none of her family [made it]. Her brother went back, found the house, but nobody’s there. She’s got pictures of her little cousins and friends. They didn’t even wait, the Germans, when they came into Kobrin, to send them off to the camps. They took them all outside town and that was it. HU: They killed everybody. AU: And where her father is buried, they paved over the Jewish cemetery and made an airplane runway. HU: Our synagogue became a factory. AU: A brewery.
Story from: Cohen, Dorothy ("Dutch") Idalin Gelson |
Story from: Cohen, Dorothy ("Dutch") Idalin Gelson |
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Story from: Levinson, Libby Friedman |
Story from: Levinson, Libby Friedman |
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Story from: Heller, Max Moses |
Story from: Heller, Max Moses |
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Story from: Mazursky, Morris David |
Story from: Mazursky, Morris David |
Story from: Mazursky, Morris David |
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Story from: Ullman, Harriet Birnbaum |
Story from: Ullman, Harriet Birnbaum | Ullman, Albert Jacob |
Story from: Ullman, Harriet Birnbaum | Ullman, Albert Jacob |