Wednesday, July 04, 2012

"Not Enough Herring"

An American Story

In honor of America's birthday, I'd like to share this story my father wrote about our family's journey to the land of freedom ...

In the Beginning There Was a Shortage of Herring
by Gerard Meister

There were no vintage years for Jews in Russia, but for Papa 1907 loomed ominously. Born in 1889, he was entering his eighteenth year and soon the Czar's military police would be knocking on the front door of the Maistrowavoy home in Kiev with a draft notice for that life-numbing, ten year conscription term in the Imperial Army plus fifteen years in the reserves. His older brother, Mischa, had been dragged away by such conscription gang in 1905 for the Russo-Japanese War and, although reportedly released from a Japanese prisoner of war camp, was still missing.
      Papa did not know which way to turn or where to run until he got a letter from Tanta Rochel, his mother's sister in Philadelphia, promising him a steamship ticket to America if he ever made it out of Russia. The fearlessness of youth crystallized his thinking in a heartbeat. Though it was already late March, the tenacious Russian winter had not yet loosened its grip on the land. But Papa knew that if he were to have any chance of foiling the Czar's plans for him, he would have to escape before spring whispered its presence to the hibernating Cossacks, awakening the resumption of their scythe like patrols.
      His decision to leave was easy compared to what came next. Papa's farewell to his family was the stuff poets dream of capturing but seldom do. His mother, Rachel, wept as she wrung her hands all the while nodding her head in recognition of the certainty that she would never again see her youngest boy. His father, Shepsyl, and grandfather, Yankel (my namesake) stood by awkwardly, in stoic silence. Men, even Jewish men, had not yet learned how to cry.
      By early afternoon, the sky darkened. Night came early in the Ukraine and Papa edged toward the door. The kerosene lanterns were dimmed to mask his silhouette into the shadows, while five brothers and sisters checked and rechecked the muffled, knapsacked figure. He was ready to go. The finality of the moment fell across the room like a heavy blanket, choking the goodbyes to hoarse whispers. All eyes were on the floor when Papa released the door latch and, without looking back, slipped into the night. An odyssey of six thousand miles and destined to last a life spanning sixty-six more years, began with its first furtive step.
      Often under cover of darkness and traveling mostly by back roads, Papa was guided by the thread of kinship and tradition connecting the shtetls with one another and without which he would have been alone in the oblivion that was gentile Russia. With stealth and determination he managed to elude all the patrols until he was deep in the Pale of Settlement, where there were many more Jews and fewer police. Papa's best guess was that somewhere around Korosten he was able to chance a train now and then, along with hitching an occasional ride with a Jewish wagon master.
      Some forty years later, I asked him how he managed to survive. What did he eat? Where had he slept during those cold spring nights? Papa explained that the network of shtetls resembled the Underground Railroad of America's slave-holding days. Though Jews were not slaves in Russia, neither were they really free. He never recalled spending a kopek on food or lodging in a Jewish settlement. The thirty or so rubles sewn into his underwear went for cabbage soup and bread when he was in the big cities and for the train fare to reach them.
      By early August, some five months after he slipped into the night in Kiev, he stood in an immigrant shelter office in Hamburg, Germany. The next series of events came in a rush: his Tanta was notified, the money cabled, passage out of Hamburg was booked and before the month ran out Papa set sail for America.
      Papa, who had never heard a word of English and was familiar only with the Hebrew and Cyrillic alphabets, landed in Ellis Island. Then nine or ten days later Papa was in the City of Brotherly Love with fifty cents left in his pocket and a tag pinned to his jacket: "Spector Family, S. Sheridan St., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. A." Years later when I asked him what was his first impression of the New World, what stuck in his mind? He said: "Hats. Every man on the dock—a thousand, maybe more—wearing the same straw summer hat." How they all could have found the same hat maker, he had wondered.
      We never quite figured out where he was sent from Ellis Island, but guessed he might have been shipped by ferry to Weehawken, New Jersey and then by train to Broad Street in Philadelphia. What we do know is that he somehow found himself on a station platform in the City of Brotherly Love, where a kindly conductor, seeing his tag and apparent bewilderment, walked him off the train, out of the terminal and pointed the way. After a short walk of less than two hours, Papa started to hear Yiddish being spoken all around him. Before long he was being hugged and kissed by his Aunt Rochel and Uncle Chaim and their brood of children
Finally, nearly six months after he left his parents, he sat down to his first home cooked meal: black bread, herring and potatoes. Papa wolfed down his helping and asked for another piece of herring, to which his uncle shamefacedly replied, "We haven't any more. There's not enough to go around."    
      Papa was astonished, "Not enough herring? This is the Golden Land? Why in Russia even the lowliest peasants have enough herring!" Uncle said that Philadelphia was not really the Golden Land. He and his family were barely surviving. New York was the Golden Land. New York had everything. The next morning, Tanta and Uncle blessed him with fifty cents more and a loaf of black bread before saying goodbye. Papa was on the road again.
Papa drew the luck of fine weather for the long walk from Philadelphia to New York. Sunny days perfect for hiking, balmy nights bedded down in sweet smelling hay fields. Papa always joked that he gained weight by the time he got to New York, well, West New York, New Jersey; where, after ninety miles and a week on foot, Papa still had to cross the Hudson River. Because there were no bridges or tunnels in 1907, he had to break into the second and last of his fifty-cent pieces to book ferry passage at two cents a ticket, which got him a second look at the Statue of Liberty and a second chance to grab that magic ring called New York.
       "That you made it back to New York safely with no problems," I said to him forty years later, "boggles the mind. No English, no money, not even a canteen of water." Papa explained that it wasn't hard at all. He practiced how to say NEW YORK before he left Philadelphia, and knew what the word looked like from his two days in Ellis Island. "And never forget," he said, "that I was not in hiding. Everyone in America seemed to be waving and smiling all the time. In Russia the peasants had nothing to smile about and the Jews were afraid to look up. Here I was not afraid to wave and smile back. it made a world of difference." Apparently so.
      Landing on the West Side of Manhattan (probably Christopher Street), he started walking away from the docks, heading east, hoping to hear some Yiddish. He hadn't walked for more than ten minutes when he turned the corner of West Broadway and his heart skipped a beat. Half seated on a Johnny pump was a gentle giant of a man he recognized from Kiev named Lazar Sodolsky. Lazar jumped up to greet Papa, nearly suffocating him with a bear hug. Papa no longer felt alone, which did a lot to lighten his heavy heart. Lazar told Papa that having been in New York for over a week, he was not a complete greenhorn anymore. He was still looking for work, which was why he was hanging around West Broadway, a street with many small Jewish factories (called "shops") where everyone spoke Yiddish.                                                                                     
      Suddenly, not six feet away from them in a hallway leading to one of those shops, two men started arguing loudly and in Yiddish about a problem with a delivery that had to be made. One man said it was too hot, the horse would never make it all the way to Brooklyn. The ramp on that new bridge (the Williamsburg) was too steep; a team of horses might make it, one horse, never.
The other man, clearly the boss, was red in the face. "I'm not shipping golden tombstones" (a Yiddish idiom), he said, "I'm shipping paper boxes, du yold du (you fool you)." Then, quietly but firmly, with an extra beat in between each word, he said, "Listen, I'm not going to lose this account because of you. Understand?"
The measured cadence of the boss's ultimatum had a telling effect on the teamster. His case was lost and he knew it. He broke off eye contact, turned both palms upwards and tried, "Well, maybe, we could tie the load on our big pushcart, and you, me and a helper would be able to push it to Brooklyn." Thus said, time seemed to stop, neither man knew what to do next.
      Papa did. He jumped into the doorway and in his most formal, educated Yiddish declared, "Worthy gentlemen, it is not fitting for people of your stature to carry on so, particularly when my friend and I are experienced teamsters from the Motherland." (In Russia, Papa had been a full time student.)
This quick-witted outburst bought Papa a split second of stunned attention from the adversaries, who stared quizzically at his 110-pound frame. Then Papa dramatically moved aside so the boss and his teamster would get the full impact of the enormous Lazar standing in the doorway blotting out the sun. (I finally met Lazar in 1944. As prepared as I was, I was awestruck by his massive frame. He reminded me of a circus Clydesdale up on its hind legs.)
My dad & his parents
      In two minutes Papa closed the deal: six bucks if they got the load safely to Brooklyn and the pushcart back to the shop. The cart was duly trotted out, the boxes loaded and tied down. Papa and Lazar, who were so excited they could hardly bear to stand still, spit on their hands and were off. Papa remembers the delivery being almost too easy—Lazar didn't even break a sweat.
      So when they returned earlier than expected, the boss said, "You boys are just who I need in my shop. I'd like you to come to work for three dollars a week plus extra pay for any deliveries." Now Papa understood why the streets of New York were paved with gold. (Had he been able to remain in Russia by bribing his way out of the draft, he would have been apprenticed to a tailor, which meant working two or three years without any salary, only room and board. And no apprentice in Russia was ever accused of gaining weight.) Naturally, they both came to work the next morning. Papa stayed a few nights with Lazar sleeping on the floor until he got a room of his own.
As fate would have it Mama, who preceded Papa to America by a few weeks, had also begun to work in that same paper box shop a couple of days earlier. Keeping their date with destiny, they met, fell in love, and were soon married, beginning their wedded voyage of fifty-three years. And sometimes they didn't have enough herring to go around either.


Ginger said...

Loved it!!!!!!! So excellent! Thank you for sharing this wonderful tale with the world. :D

Edie Ramer said...

What a wonderful story! You made your grandfather's adventure come alive.

On the day my grandfather was supposed to be conscripted, he was on a ship bound for America, using a false name. I don't know much more than that, but now I'm going to ask more questions.

Ellen said...

Ginger- thanks for reading it. So glad you liked it!

Edie - this was written by my dad, and I'm so glad it moved you to learn more about your own family's journey!

Lydia Fazio Theys said...

Not many "amazing" stories--per the internet--really live up to the name, but this one does. I can't even imagine what it must have been like. I guess it's a sign of the times that when we reached Pennsylvania, I held my breath and waitied for the angry neighbors or the threatening gang. I wonder how this story would strike an immigrant to today's America.