Tag Archives: immigrant experience

Lisa and Stanley

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Shortly after the end of World War Two, I received an excited call from my husband’s Aunt Frima. Her voice was shaking with urgency as she told me, “I have a niece in Russia who wants to contact me. I never even knew her.”

The contact was an example of serendipity.  A young Jewish soldier from Brooklyn was determined to reunite as many Jewish families as he could, as passionate to do this as was his mother in Brooklyn. Lisa told him she had an aunt in Philadelphia. She knew her last name but that was all. He sent his mother Lisa’s scant contact information, and his mother placed a notice in a Philadelphia newspaper that served the Jewish community. One of Aunt Frima’s daughters saw the notice and asked her mother, “Do you have a niece in Russia named Lisa? She’s looking for you.” That started the ball rolling

My husband’s Aunt Frima and his Uncle Ben had been in America as immigrants for many years. They had five American born daughters and lived  a normal middle class life. When I was married to their nephew, we became part of each others families. She was particularly fond of me because I could speak Yiddish with her. She and Uncle Ben came often to our home for holiday meals. Aunt Frima was kosher so she brought her own food.  Uncle Ben ate what she brought and also what I made.

Lisa, 32, was widowed and the mother of two small children. She was evacuated from Moscow when the German army invaded Russia. A day after the invasion in 1941, the Soviets established a makeshift evacuation program to move Soviet citizens from major cities and the probabilities of German bombings. Tashkent in Uzbekistan, 1734 miles from Moscow, was targeted as the site. Lisa and her two small children were among the evacuees. Tashkent had become a makeshift refugee center, and Lisa and her family settled in with primitive housekeeping facilities, hoping the city would escape German occupation, and she prayed for peace.

Stanley, a single, unattached male, was also evacuated from Moscow to Tashkent. Stanley was a loner, a quiet intellectual with an absorbing profession. He restrung fine violins with horse tail hair for violinists all over the world. The war halted his business and he, too, wondered what his life would be like after Tashkent. Lisa and Stanley met and a romance developed in the detritus of the camp. They both wanted to emigrate to the States.

As was necessary, Lisa needed a sponsor in America to facilitate immigration. Aunt Frima and Uncle Ben accepted that role, and, with the help of their daughters, the flurry of paper work and bureaucracy began. After about a year, Lisa, Stanley and her children  arrived in West Philadelphia on Aunt Frima’s doorstep. She called me to say, “They’re very tired now but come here tomorrow to meet them.” I did and found Lisa and Stanley sitting stiffly and stone faced on a blue velvet sofa. I could understand their apprehension of this new life. How long could they stay in this house? How would they support themselves? Had they left familiarity for the unknown? Lisa had assured her aunt that she and Stanley had been legitimately married in Tashkent, but Aunt Frima was skeptical. She insisted on taking them to a rabbi to witness an official Jewish wedding.

They were quickly integrated into the entire family and turned out to be warm, intelligent and helpful. Although extremely grateful for Aunt Frima’s willingness to sponsor and facilitate their repaired lives, Stanley and Lisa knew they must find ways to take charge of themselves. Stanley got a job selling hot dogs at the Philadelphia baseball park and Lisa worked in a hat factory.  Eventually, Stanley was able to return to his unique profession, and Lisa became a designer in the hat factory.  They prospered and eventually retired to Florida.

I was very fond of them, and we became friends as well as family.  They were so grateful to be given a new chance in America. And I was grateful to have them part of my life.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free-lance writer for national publications.

 

 

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On the Other Side

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

About a dozen relatives and good friends gathered at the Berlin train station that day in early May 1938 to see my mother, me, and our beloved Scottish Terrier, Pips, off on the first leg of our trip to America.

My favorite aunt, Tante Friedel, held her arms tightly around my eleven-year old neck, moaning “I will never see you again” as streams of tears ran down her cheeks. She was my father’s sister and supposedly I resembled her in many ways. It was said that I had inherited her left-handedness, her love of cooking, and her passion for making people feel comfortable. Now I wondered why she was so certain of our future.

Not everyone could hug us goodbye before the conductor blew his whistle, picked up Pips and handed him to a porter inside the coach, and then we boarded the train and started off on our journey, happy to leave Germany and its persecution of Jews as the danger to Jews was growing more intense every week.

After we reached the city of Bremen my mother, Pips, and I checked in for the night at a hotel before our ship departed the following day. The Bremerhof was a posh establishment where my mother had decided to spend our remaining few marks. We registered, ordered dinner, and went upstairs to our room. Shortly afterward, a steward arrived with a silver tray on which we found the dog’s dinner. Also on the tray was a printed card which stated: “Our non-Aryan guests are requested to abstain from visiting the Dining Room.” So we did without dinner that night and looked forward to experiencing the ship’s highly touted cuisine the following day.

We arrived in New York after a calm, relaxing ocean voyage on the “Europa,” Germany’s newest luxury liner. New York was hectic, crowded, and overwhelming. How nice it would be to board the train to Louisville, Kentucky, our final destination, where we would at last be reunited with my father. My poor father, who had survived the horrors of the concentration camp at Buchenwald, had been helped by relatives to find refuge in Louisville and awaited us there.

The Louisville & Nashville Railroad train was fully booked for the overnight trip from New York. We did not have the money for a private Pullman car, but had seats in coach. I sat on one side of the aisle, with Pips at my feet; my mother sat across from me in the remaining free seat. We did not notice the woman located nearby until she rose from her seat and walked back to where my mother sat and addressed my mother. 

My mother smiled, but it was obvious to me she did not understand what the stranger was saying to her.  So I took it upon myself to stand up, faced the woman, and asked her to repeat her remark to my mother.

“I asked her whether she noticed you were sitting next to a colored man and whether you had her permission to sit there.”

Puzzled by her question, I looked back to my seat, saw the quiet older man sitting there and repeated her question to my mother, who was obviously as surprised to hear the woman’s words as I had been. She smiled a sweet little smile, shook her head, and said “Naturally.” Around us, no one spoke or paid any attention to the woman whose face wore a disgusted expression as she returned to her seat.

After a night-long, back-rattling, sitting-up ride, we finally reached the wide countryside nearing the state of Kentucky. As the dawn came up, it was amazing to see such an enormously huge landscape. It seemed ever so much larger than any European piece of land we had crossed on our way from Berlin to Bremen. There were no buildings, only miles and miles of unpopulated land.

At last, our train rolled into the Louisville train station. There, in tears, my parents met each other again after many months of separation. Probably no one standing nearby had the faintest clue of the painful history and reunion they were witnessing in the grimy waiting room that day.

Even Pips recognized his old master; his tail did not stop wagging as my father petted him in a loving gesture of greeting.

A young black man stood near my father. “This is Mac, my driver,” my father said. Mac’s face lit up as we attempted to shake his hand. From my father’s letters from America we had learned he had started a new business that involved travel throughout the country and that he had hired a driver for his new career. We had known that my dad never drove while living in Europe. He  always had a chauffeur. But this was the first that we learned of Mac’s existence in my father’s life. 

The early humid May heat warmed up the Louisville train station. As we stood there talking, I noticed that my little dog had begun to pant. I asked my father whether we could get him some water since Pips was not used to the Kentucky temperatures. My father passed the message on to Mac who wanted to know from which fountain to draw the water. I had no idea what Mac meant until I saw him step toward two identical water coolers, one of which bore the sign “For Colored Only” and the second one labeled “For Whites Only.” When he returned from the “Colored” fountain bearing a cup of water, I had my introduction to segregated water fountains and restrooms.

Mac drove us home to our first American apartment that day. For my mother and me it was the start of a new life. Mac continued working for my father for many years. Sometimes I heard about unusual problems that arose when they traveled through the South. Most of the problems arose when my father had business in towns where he needed to stay  overnight. In some of the towns, black people could not find sleeping accommodations.

“What did you do then?” I asked my father years later when he had retired and no longer stayed out overnight.

“When Mac found no friends or relatives who could house him, I simply said, ‘Drive on, Mac. We will go to the next town where we will find a room for you.’”

My father didn’t want any harm to come to Mac. 

“I was incarcerated in Buchenwald because of my religion,” he would tell me. “How could I put him at risk for being black?”

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for children and young adults, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, Elie Wiesel,, and, most recently, Kurt Weil.

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Pittsburgh 1918, 2018

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My father, an immigrant,
crossed the ocean,
went to live with his older brother,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant,
went to 5th Avenue High,
worked hard to understand
the strange English language,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant,
went to doven each Shabbos
in the local synagogue
a world away from the
sumptuous temples of Squirrel Hill,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant
knew anti-Semitism, later escaped Hitler,
was spared the horror of that morning,
in Pittsburgh.

What would he have said
were he born a century later
to witness murder so heinous?

Would he have cried out to the heavens
in mourning for his lost brethren,
knowing it could have been any Jew, anywhere?

Would he have recognized the
the darkening of the national identity
as human behavior descends into blind hate?

Would the ghost of my father have screamed
in the sanctuary with the fallen?

My father, an immigrant,
died in 1974, a devout believer.
His soul lingers with the eleven,
immigrants or not, who died,
in Pittsburgh.

He never questioned
the existence of evil in the world.
Would he have been surprised
that it came home to Pittsburgh
to shatter, until the next news cycle,
the spirit of man?

Coda:

And I, my father’s son,
fail to find the fitting words
necessary to speak of this tragedy.

The stop in my throat,
the tears in my eyes,
reduces me to silent outrage.

Others may be able to speak
more emotionally, more eloquently.
Instead, I will go out to my father’s grave,
put a stone on his tombstone,
and carry eleven other stones in my pocket
in remembrance of those Jews
who can no longer speak for themselves.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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The Ring

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

I will never forget Thursday, May 26, 1938, the day my mother, our beloved Scottish Terrier named Peeps, and I stood on the pier of the North German Lloyd shipping company in Bremerhaven, waiting to board the ocean liner SS Europa for our departure to the United States. The Europa was the largest ship built in Germany during the 1930s.

Prior to forever leaving German soil, we were required to undergo a final physical examination; Germany had to ensure that emigrants were not taking valuables out of the country. My mother carried only the maximum amount allowed: a ten-mark note, worth about $2.50 at the time. Being eleven years old, I was not permitted to leave with any funds. It was late afternoon when we were ordered into a tent that stood only a few feet away from where the Europa was moored. Those travelers who were not emigrating did not enter the tent nor endure its indignities. Inside, two elderly white-clad matrons with gray braids and large swastikas prominently pinned to their ample bosoms, ordered us to undress from the waist down. Then, as we were bent over two chairs, the attendants inspected our orifices for hidden treasures. Finding nothing, they instructed us to get dressed. As we prepared to exit, one of the grumpy ogres pointed to my mother’s left hand with its plain gold wedding band and commanded, “Hand it over!”

It took only a second for my mother to slip the ring from her finger. What she did after that, shocked not only me, but even more so, the matrons. Thinking, but not vocalizing, “If I can’t have it, neither will you. I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow you to take my wedding ring!”

My mother, with the band tightly clutched in her hand, sprinted toward the water’s edge a few steps away. She tossed the ring into the narrow strip of water separating the ship from the pier. Just as quickly, she zoomed back to scoop up Peeps and me from the tent, dragging us to the queueing spot where other passengers had begun boarding.

After reaching the top of the embarkation ladder, but before taking my first step into the huge vessel’s interior, I turned for a final glimpse backward. The looks of incredulity, frozen on the horrified faces of the two inspectors now standing on the pier outside the tent, were beyond description. Pulling Peeps’ white patent leather leash up the last step behind my mother, I was so overcome by what my mother had done that I slowed to what could have become a fatal stop.

The unbelievable daring and courage she showed by throwing her ring into the harbor still stunned me. We could have easily been caught and then, what would have happened to us? We might have been arrested and prevented from boarding because of her disobedience.

A few hours later, after stowing Peeps into the dog kennel on the top deck and finding our belongings in our cabin, my mother and I went above to witness the ship’s departure. It was getting dark and would soon be time for the Europa’s high-speed steam turbine engines to start up. Simultaneously, we heard the ship’s orchestra begin playing the tear-jerking, traditional German farewell folk song “Muss i denn, muss i denn zum Staedtele hinaus?” (Why must I leave this small town?)

Standing at the railing beside my mother, I saw she had tears running down her face.

“Mom,” I asked, “aren’t you glad we are finally getting out of here?”

“My dear child,” she replied, “I am and we have every reason for being grateful. But you must remember that I have lived through much better times than ours and it is these I am remembering at this moment. The good and happy times. And now I am looking forward to being in the new country and being reunited with your father.”

My mother’s first request after reaching the United States and settling in Louisville was for my father to buy her a new wedding ring. After all, she needed to show she was a married woman. I cherish her replacement ring, and after almost eighty years, I still proudly remember the incredible moment of defiance when my mother tossed her original wedding band into the water to prevent it from falling into Nazi hands.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

Editor’s Note: Ellen Norman Stern shared a different version of this story, “Ring of Defiance,” with The Jewish Writing Project in 2012. We’ve included a link here to show how a writer’s memories can fuel different stories, and how our retelling of these stories can differ from draft to draft over the years, depending on what we find most worth telling at the time: (https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/ring-of-defiance/).

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Ibex, Sheep, and SWAT Gear

by Saraya Ziv (Jerusalem, Israel)

The son of my lawyer, Dina, is getting married tonight and she has just about obligated me by contract to show my face for the ceremony. The wedding is across the street from Jerusalem’s large central market where a pigua, a terrorist attack, hit this morning. In my evening bag I carry pepper spray which I do not know how to use and which looks as menacing as a canister of breath freshener. I have two sharp pencils. I have the dull pin of an old brooch. I have no chance if a pigua hits tonight.

One route to this wedding is through the town of Beitar. The bus winds past a stretch of trees which reminds me of a parkway on Long Island. When we travel through concrete tunnels erected to postpone bullets blowing off my skull, I remember I’m not headed towards my brother’s Oyster Bay colonial. At a checkpoint, a civilian has another in a bear hug; they’re both giggling. Our driver opens his window and says something that sobers them. On a thin meridian, shoulder to shoulder, soldiers stand guard.

We pass between razor wire fences into Beitar. A life size diorama of ibex, sheep, and deer graze at a giant welcome sign. One large billboard encourages – enjoy Shabbat, from the minute it comes to the minute it leaves. Another warns – you’re bad talking others?  I don’t want to hear it! The only one to jump when two figures in SWAT gear and masks board our bus at the front door and exit at the back is me.

I reverse the trip in the dark. My bus is stuck behind a truck that says FedEx International. I imagine the truck plowing the Atlantic, crossing Europe, and landing in front of us, all on a single tank of gas. The driver is tuned in to a radio station he selected in New Jersey. His radio reports that the Garden State Parkway is backed up for miles, the new Miss America can drive a tractor, and nothing about pigua in the soft Judaean Hills.

On the hill to my village we halt at a roadblock. Two soldiers, one a woman with a French braid and a sub-machine gun, examine the trunk of a car. A loud crack terrifies me. It’s the limb of a tree, victim of a recent conflagration.

Saraya Ziv attended SUNY Buffalo, worked as a Business Analyst on Wall Street, and left the United States one April morning in 2015 on a one way ticket to Tel Aviv. She was born and lived in New York City all her life, but now lives a short drive to Jerusalem. You can find more of her work at her website, Mask for Winter (http://www.maskforwinter.com/) where this piece first appeared.

Note: This story appeared under a different title, “Beitar,” on the Mask for Winter in 2017, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission. 

 

 

 

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Sing and Tell of My Grandfather

By Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

During National Poetry Month, WNYC invited Pulitzer Prize winning poet Sharon Olds to share a writing prompt on its poetry site. Thanks to the prompt, I ended up writing “Sing and Tell of My Grandfather,” a poem that I hadn’t even known I was thinking about writing.

The assignment from Olds was to write a short poem (16 lines or fewer) using (among others) the words acid, anise seed, butter, cherish, grisly, margarine, mother, pearl, sing, and tell. Here’s the poem that I found waiting for me:

Sing and tell of my grandfather
a baker who learned how to use butter—
not margarine—to add flavor to the cakes
and Danish pastries and bread and rolls
that came out of his oven in Zharnow, hot
and steamy and sweet, not grisly anemic rolls
but thick and fluffy, with drops of sugar, like pearls,
and anise seed, like slivers of jade, the kind of rolls
his mother said would bring him wealth and long life
and happiness if he left home. “If you stay,” she said,
“you’ll live with the taste of acid in your mouth, if they
let you live at all.” So, he sailed for America and became
a baker and bought his own bakery and raised a family,
two daughters, thank God, one of whom became my mother,
and lived a life the ones left behind could only dream of.

If you’d like to read more poems written in response to this prompt, visit the WNYC site: http://www.wnyc.org/story/happy-national-poetry-month-heres-assignment-3/

Bruce Black is the founder and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. His work has appeared in Blue Lyra Review, Elephant Journal, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Reform Judaism, The Reconstructionist, The Jewish Week, and The Jewish Exponent, as well as in OmYoga Magazine, Yogi Times, Mindbodygreen, Yogamint, and The Sarasota Herald-Tribune. For information about his book, Writing Yoga, visit: 

http://www.rodmellpress.com/writingyoga.html

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Rescuing The Past

By Sheldon P Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

At a recent tag sale, I happened upon an item that just didn’t seem to belong there.

The sale took place at a small, non-descript house that stood out in sharp contrast to every other home on the street. Flakes of peeling paint littered the walkway and elongated weeds stood at solemn attention in the narrow front yard. A bold white and red sign proclaiming “Tag Sale Today was affixed to the porch and, within no time at all, brought forth a gush of interested opportunists in search of a good buy. I happened to be in the area and decided to stop and take a peek.

A wobbly screen door let out a high-pitched screech as I entered the premises. Once inside, I found myself transported back in time. There had been little if any updating over the years. What had been purchased sixty or seventy years ago now lay scattered about in every direction waiting to be pushed, poked and squeezed by a multitude of inquisitive fingers.

Initially, there was very little that caught my eye, but, upon entering the kitchen, I couldn’t help but notice a black and white photograph that seemed to be out of place. It lay partially covered by some old books and faded documents that had been carelessly tossed onto an old wooden table. In a dented tarnished metal frame was the picture of a solemn man dressed in what was likely his Sabbath attire. His distinctive cap and long unruly beard identified him as an observant Jew who, more than likely, had resided somewhere in Eastern Europe generations earlier. His sad eyes and resolute face immediately caught my attention. It was a face that could have served as the ideal cover for a book containing stories of a difficult existence in a far off place filled with conflict, tumult and hardship. The man in the photograph was silent but I could sense his strength and determination, and his desire to free himself from the past.

After picking up the picture, I asked the middle-aged fellow who was in charge of the sale if he knew the identity of the man in the photograph. “I think it was my wife’s grandfather,” he answered indifferently. “You see, this house belonged to her father, and, after his death, we decided it was time to empty the place of his belongings before we put the house on the market. My wife is fairly certain that the man with the beard was her father’s father. The photo was taken way back when in the old country. We have no use for it so if you want it, I’ll throw in the picture if you decide to buy anything else.”

Rather than have it end up in the trash, I bought a small-framed etching that I really had no use for and left with the picture pressed firmly to my side.

After getting into the car to head home, I glanced over at the front passenger seat where the picture lay and got to thinking about how little family photographs and mementos mean to some people. After all, this was more than likely her grandfather, the one person who was a critical link in a long chain of family members who played a role in her being here. There was not the slightest reservation about disposing of the only photograph that she possessed of her grandfather. It also got me to thinking about all of the other personal or religious items belonging to departed loved ones that so often appear at tag sales.

Elderly parents or grandparents may have kept personal mementos and prized religious items hidden in a drawer or cabinet and would, with the utmost respect and adoration, take them in hand during holidays, family events and special occasions. After loved ones pass on, children suddenly abandon old photographs, prayer books, prayer shawls, and other ceremonial items, and grandchildren feel no attachment to what are viewed as meaningless outdated relics.

The picture got me to thinking about how easy it is for some of us to jettison our history, our culture and, yes, our own identities. The man in the photograph was on a mission. It’s as though he came here to remind me that, like it or not, we can never escape from the past.

We must never forget who we are.

To this day, I don’t know his name but he resides in a new frame that hangs on the wall as you enter my home.

“Who’s the man with the beard?” a number of visitors have asked while pointing to the picture on the wall.

“I have no idea,” I reply, “but he belongs here, he just belongs here.”

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

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