Tag Archives: immigrant experience

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: 



Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, poetry, Polish Jewry

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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Ellis Island

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)


Hi, Dad.
Today I discovered the manifest
of the ship you sailed on
when you crossed the Atlantic alone
and arrived in New York, November 7, 1923.
The basic facts jump off the computer screen:
Age 18, single, male, brown hair,
$40 in your pocket and a
second class ticket in your hand.
Name of vessel – the “Polonia”
Ethnicity – Hebrew, Lithuanian
Port of Departure – Libau
But the pages before my eyes
say little how you felt
passing the Statue of Liberty,
said nothing of your dreams and fears.
Were you excited? Scared? Or both?
What words did you reserve
for your running thoughts then?
What words do you have for me now?


You never told me tales of your youth,
except to say how hard life was,
and how you had to go without.
You never told me lessons you learned,
or what private words your parents presented,
and if they gave you blessing to cross the sea.
You never told me at the end of your life
what conclusions you had drawn
or whether you’d be leaving the world at peace.
I suspect you didn’t.
I suspect you withheld large portions of your years
that were to remain completely unopened.
Perhaps if I had known you better,
and did not gather information
off a ship’s manifest, it might have
made a difference, then again, perhaps not.
I do wish your life hadn’t been
such a Cracker Jack’s surprise box,
as I hope the airing of this and other poems
won’t be such a revelation to my own children.

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 a new 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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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, poetry

From the Promenade

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My parents passed the Statue of Liberty,
refugees from the ravages of the second World War
searching for a piece of the American dream pie.
Child of immigrants, I stand now, some 60 years later
staring out at the same lady from the Promenade
in Brooklyn where earlier strangers to the shore
battled the British with meager resources.
Before me, across the busy East River,
lie the jagged teeth of the city skyline,
blocking the exposed cavity of 9/11.
Other immigrants, other times, same religion
came through the cavernous halls
of Castle Garden where they were
accepted or rejected for arbitrary reasons.
This harbor of my Jewish forefathers
seems less welcoming now, awash in the tide
of a resurgent radicalism loath to let in
anyone new and foreign and strange.
The port of New York sits warily
across the railing of the Promenade,
keeping its once wide open door cynically ajar.
Fortunate now, I see America in parts.
Then, would I have even been permitted in?

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 a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss. For more information about Mel’s work, visit his website: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Zaidie and Ferdele

by Carol Katz (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

I loved Ma’s father, Zaidie Gedalia. He and Bubby Bobtze lived on City Hall Street near Mount Royal Ave. This was Montreal in the 1940s, the era and area of Mordecai Richler, Baron Byng High School, and Wilensky’s juicy smoked meat sandwiches on rye, served with a generous portion of greasy, salty French fries. But the unique geography of Montreal is its high mountain in the middle of the city. I also remember the marble grey statue of Jacques Cartier, the bandstand, and Beaver Lake. Zaidie and I spent hours together each summer watching the katchkes (ducks) and walking in the woods. What I cherished most were the horse and buggy rides.

I lived with Ma, Daddy and my younger sister Rona on Park Avenue between Bernard and Saint Viateur Streets. Our tiny one-bedroom apartment was situated above Duskes’ Hardware Store. Ma and Daddy slept in the living room. Rona and I shared the one bedroom. Park Avenue in the 40s and 50s was primarily Jewish. I remember Ben’s Delicatessen across the street and Pascal’s Hardware Store at the corner. I took ballet and tap dance lessons at Rialto Hall, now a movie theatre. Since Park Avenue was a main thoroughfare, the rumble of the streetcars often disturbed my sleep.

Passover Seders at my grandparents’ home were the highlights of each year. The number nine streetcar on Park Avenue took us to Mount Royal Avenue. We walked four blocks on Mount Royal Avenue, passing the Y.M.H.A, and the Jewish Public Library. As soon as I arrived at Bubby’s and Zaidie’s, I jumped onto Zaidie’s lap and showered him with hugs and kisses. His white, wispy hair blew from side to side as he shook his head and his large, dark-framed glasses fell onto the bridge of his nose.

His face lit up when I bit into those sweet, soft, half-moon Passover candies.  He didn’t mind my sticky, sugary fingers on his cheeks. Then I went into the warm cozy kitchen to kiss my Bubby’s red cheeks and greasy hands. She was at the stove with its black, thick, iron-stove pipe reaching up to the ceiling. I still taste her succulent roast chicken and potato knishes, filled with onions and pepper.

At every Seder, I was chosen to recite the Four Questions from the Haggadah. I began with the first one: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” But, each year, I added a fifth and sixth question: “Zaidie, what was life like for you in the old country? Why did you leave?”

Zaidie’s answer was the same: “Meydele, (little girl) I already told you my story last year.”  I would laugh and pretend that I did not remember.

Then he began: “I was born in a shtetl (small Jewish town) called Kamenetz-Podolsk in the Ukraine, which was part of Russia. I worked in a shop that made iron for stoves. One day, I noticed a young woman who had entered the shop. I immediately knew that I was going marry her. I fell in love with her beauty and gracefulness. Sarah and I were married within six months.”

“Your aunt Jenny was born in the first year of our marriage. Five years later your mother, Libby, came into this world. We spoke Yiddish and Russian. I read the Haggadah in Hebrew, which I learned in cheder” (Jewish elementary school).

“One morning, as I was about to leave for the iron shop, we heard a loud knock on the front door. I answered. A gun was pointing at my nose. Two burly, moustached Russian soldiers forced me backwards into the living room. Bubby was sitting on the couch, knitting a sweater. Jennie and Libby were in school. Bubby began to scream. I begged them to let us go. The younger one stared at us with piercing eyes and hesitated. Without warning they both walked out.”

We all knew the rest of the story—how Bubby Bobtze, Auntie Jenny and Ma came first, the long, tiring, ride on the ship, the seasickness, and the arrival in a strange country, not knowing the language. They stayed with Zaidie’s brother Berel on St. Urbain Street.

Zaidie found work as a scrap peddler soon after he arrived in Montreal. In the 1950s, horse-drawn wagons still plied the streets of Montreal. Zaidie owned a horse that he called “Ferdele” (small horse).  Ferdele had a light brown sheen with a silky, long black mane, a white, furry face and pink nose. The fur on her long white legs covered her hoofs. She gazed at me with such intelligence and understanding. Ferdele looked enormous beside Zaidie’s small stature and thin body. However, she neighed with pleasure whenever Gedalia stroked or fed her. I became attached to Ferdele. The stable was in back of his house on City Hall Street.

I begged Zaidie to let me accompany him on his selling jaunts. But his answer was always the same: “You are too young, maydele, and you are too small to reach the reins.” I put my wish aside and concentrated on my schoolwork.

But one day he changed his mind and called me. Zaidie had decided that 12 was old enough to hold the reins. I ran all the way to his house, my heart skipping a beat, my hands trembling and my legs weak. Hand in hand, we walked towards the stable. There was Ferdele, standing tall in all her majesty.

The wagon with its rickety wheels stumbled along slowly. Ferdele seemed to know when to adjust her pace. As we passed the houses, we shouted: “Bottles, Rags, Clothes.” People would come to us, pick some items and give us a few cents. I felt a sense of wonder at a world so different from the classroom.

Suddenly I wasn’t a poor school girl anymore. I was a princess riding in my gold coach with Zaidie the King. I held the reins in my royal hands and led Ferdele, our royal steed. On and on we journeyed down the avenue towards the palace. I began to relax the reins. Without warning, the wagon jerked, the wheels started grinding and the horse began to speed up. Before I knew it, we were in the air, soaring like a kite. I grabbed the reins and held on tight. Zaidie was laughing, saliva streaming down his long greyish-white beard blowing in the wind. His kipa (skullcap) slid off his head and whirled downward. Ferdele began climbing higher and higher, her black, silky mane drinking in the air. The whitish-grey clouds enveloped us in a soft, cotton blanket. My cheeks were flushed. I closed my eyes.

I heard a strange sound. I opened my eyes. Zaidie was shouting: “Bottles, Rags, Clothes.” A woman came out of her house and picked an old, long, flowery red skirt, a nickel in her hand.

Ferdele obeyed Zaidie’s commands most of the time. However, this horse had a stubborn streak in her. One day, as Zaidie sat in the wagon, pulling on the reins as he did every other day, Ferdele came to a sudden stop. Zaidie was jerked back in his seat. In an instant, glass bottles rolled out of the wagon, miraculously not smashing into smithereens when they hit the road. Dresses in all shapes and colours flew out of the wagon, helter-skelter. Cars honked. Drivers yelled. Some got out of their cars. People ran out of their houses and jumped into the pile of clothing, retrieving whatever they could. Two ladies were seen fighting over the high-necked, silky green dress.

But Zaidie remained calm, sitting in his seat, staring at the mess. After all he was King of the road. He was clothed in a red, velvet cape with white fur trimming, a golden, shiny sceptre in his hand. A silver crown, studded with diamonds, adorned his head.

Zaidie gazed at Ferdele. He was looking at a magnificent mare. Her white, furry face appeared majestic. Her brown sheen turned into white, silky fur, adorned with a long, silvery mane stretching across her back. Zaidie’s face shone like the crown on his head as Ferdele pranced gracefully on her golden, dainty feet along the red-carpeted road. She was no longer just a small horse from the shtetl. She was Zaidie’s royal princess. Without warning, Zaidie dropped his sceptre and climbed onto princess. They soared and soared, cape and mane flying in the wind.

The commotion on the street pierced Zaidie’s ears. His eyes looked down at his hands. With a quick tug on the reins, Ferdele began to move again.

“Bottles, Rags, Clothes.”

Carol Katz has worked as a teacher, librarian, archivist and administrative assistant, and her short stories, poems, articles, and book reviews have appeared in various anthologies and journals. Her most recent story, “Zaidie and Ferdele,” was published in Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume 2. Edited by Liz Pearl. Toronto: P.K. Press, 2010, and it’s reprinted here with permission of the author.

She lives in Montreal, Quebec, with her husband, Sol, a bibliophile, and has two wonderful children.  She can be reached at: katzcarol2@videotron.ca

For more information about Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, visit: http://at.yorku.ca/pk/ll.htm

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