by Harry Lazarus (Tenafly, NJ)
(interviewed by Bruce Black)
When I was growing up, I used to love listening to my grandfather, Harry Lazarus, z”l, retell stories about his childhood in Zharnov, a small village near Lodz and not far from Warsaw, and how he made his way to America. He was a baker with bright blue eyes above a thick nose, a warm smile, and broad shoulders, and he spoke with the thick Eastern European Yiddish accent of his youth. Before his death a number of years ago, I recorded one of our story-telling sessions in his apartment in Tenafly, NJ. In this segment he describes his early years.
BB: So, Grandpa, tell me about growing up in Zharnov.
HL: Well, when I was seven years old, I was a very lively boy. I used to run around in winter without skates–just with my boots–on the ice. I ran up and down the river and everything, and I used to go outside and I used to stay by the fire, and then I used to come home.
And my mother used to work in the bakery. She worked very hard, and I used to help her as much as I could. I used to run to buy everything, to help whatever I could. In the morning before I went to the Hebrew school, I used to carry out the rolls, the orders, to restaurants, and then I used to go to Hebrew school half-a-day, and then I used to go half-a-day in the Russian school, the Russian-Polish school.
And everything was going all right but I was never satisfied with what we had in the house. I always liked to take something more. In the summer the druggist man had a whole wall with grapes, and I went in there and took bunches of grapes. And I had another boy, a partner, and we went out and we had grapes for a whole day. We had grapes!
And it was the same thing with everything. I went in the teacher’s garden and I went over to pick up some cucumbers. I needed cucumbers? But I went there to pick them and I spoiled so much stuff by going in, and that boy was supposed to watch so that we could get away. But the teacher caught me, and he gave me a slap in the face, and took me in to my father and complained.
My father saw that he made me a red cheek and said, “Why did you hit him so much?” And he hollered at the teacher.
But, anyhow, that’s what I used to do in Zharnov.
BB: Anything else you want to say about your childhood?
HL: Then girls and boys weren’t allowed to walk together. Girls used to walk separate and boys used to walk separate. It was a very religious town.
So, I used to take down these stickers from the trees and I used to throw them on the girls. The more wild I was, the more girls I had that loved me.
I went in Hebrew school–there weren’t many students, I wouldn’t say much, about twenty-five boys in the school–and the rabbi’s daughter fell in love with me.
One time we had to give him our papers, and after that we had to write the whole thing over and over. I didn’t like his writing, so I didn’t want to give him the paper. Then he took me and he hit me with his strap. He gave me some slap! Not just me, you know, a few other boys–they didn’t like his writing either, so they didn’t give him the papers. But he knew that I am the leader, so he strapped me. He hit me very much. And when I came back home, my brother, Izzy, went to the rabbi and told him, “If you’re going to hit him, I’m going to hit your head off, if you’re going to hit him so. You made him black and blue marks from the strap.”
BB: Why didn’t his daughter try to save you from the beatings?
HL: Oh, she was crying. She called her mother over, and they pulled me away. Her father wanted to kill me, you know, he was so mad because I didn’t give him the paper.
And that was my life. I was growing up. When I was twelve years old, I knew how to read Russian and Polish and Jewish, and an uncle of mine came from a big city.
BB: Which city did he come from?
HL: He came from Lodz. He made a theater, and he put together a show in Zharnov. He took one of the finest buildings and he made a show and he put me in the show. And everything was nice, everything was good.
But when I was about thirteen years old, my mother passed away. She was sick, and my brother Izzy wanted to be a doctor. He was in a hospital, an intern, in a big city, and we sent him a telegram to come back. And he came home, and she died in his hands, my mother.
When she died, my brother Izzy decided to get married so he could take care of us. I was twelve or thirteen years old, my sister Yetta was about nine years old, and my sister Tilly was six years old. He figured he would get married and would take care of us.
He was full of life. He made himself a little room where we had three mills and where we made oil for the farmers before Easter. He made there a room for himself to live there, a very poor room.
My father didn’t like that life. He liked to have another wife again, and he started to have arguments with my brother Izzy.
My brother Izzy said, “Nu, I’ve had enough.” He wrote away a letter to Meyer, our step-brother in New York, and Meyer sent him a boat card. At that time, a boat card was about twenty-five dollars to go with the boat to come here. I don’t remember if he sent him the money or if he sent him a card, a boat card, but Izzy went away to America.
He came to America, and, well, he couldn’t be a doctor in America. So, he went and learned how to be a dress operator. And at the same time he used to go in a place to help out in a barbershop–he knew how to give a haircut and a shave and he used to make a little money, you know?
Then, when he had enough money, he sent for his wife, Lutzie. She was pregnant when he left her, and she had the baby, Morris, in Europe. She had the baby there and then he took over his wife, and he took over Yetta, and he took over Tilly. He brought them over here. And he tried to keep them alive with the money that he made.
BB: Why didn’t he bring you and Manny over?
HL: Me and Manny? He didn’t take us over. We remained there, but he took over Tilly and Yetta.
BB: How did Izzy meet Lutzie?
HL: She was in my mother’s family, and he was in Lodz and got acquainted with her in Lodz. And he went around with her and everything, and then he married her because of my mother passing away. He married her, and then she got pregnant, and he thought he’s going to lead the business and everything and that’s what’s going to be, but my father didn’t like it.
So, he went away to America, and he brought over Lutzie with Morris, Tilly, and Yetta, and he had a poor life here.
And I was in Zharnov with Manny, and he worked with a tailor and he got a few cents and we used to share together, you know?
BB: And your father? Did he remarry?
HL: My father was in love, and he married again, a nice woman. He married, and he put her right away in the bakery, and I knew already how to work in the bakery, too. Everything was going fine, but a year later he passed away, and he left me an order that we shouldn’t leave my uncle in, but my uncle didn’t care. He came and he threw everyone out.
He threw out Lutzie… she was in Zharnov, too, you know? I was thirteen years old, I used to bring her a piece of candy and a little soda or something because I knew that she was pregnant. She never forgot this, what I used to do as a young boy.
When he came, Lutzie had to go back to her town, and she had the baby, and then Izzy took them over to America.
I remained there in Zharnov, and I had to make a living for myself.
For Pesach I went in another bakery and I worked by the matzahs. They made matzahs for Pesach. So I worked by the oven to shovel in the matzahs and bring them out, and I had to be very careful. When you put in the matzah, the raw matzah mustn’t touch the baked matzah. The rabbi would come, you know, and he’d look if I worked the right way. And I worked the right way. Whatever I made–two dollars or three dollars a week–I made a little living. That wasn’t so bad.
BB: And then what happened?
HL: Then the war broke out…
Next: The Austrian army chases the Russian army out of Zharnov and conscripts the village youth to dig trenches.