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Chunya's Perilous Journey
and His Subsequent Life in America

A Fascinating Autobiographical Account
of Emigration Around the Throes of the First World War --
from Poland through Asia, and then to the United States;
his Work, Communal Life and Societal Activities

 

Part 1 of 6: Chunya's Early Life (1898-1914) in Poland;
Before the German Army Advances to Warsaw in 1914.
 
 
 

I was born in 1898 in a village in Poland called Wyszomierz, [which was in] Lomza Gubernia, not far from a Jewish community named Szumowo. Wyszomierz is located between Zembrowa [Zambrow] and Ostrowa [Ostrow], a road on which many people traveled.

My father was a very hard-working man, a blacksmith, in a small area known as a shop or kushna. My oldest brother Zalman helped him at his work. As a young child and being too young to go to cheder, I liked to watch the bright flames as the fire burned in the blacksmith shop where always a peasant would come with his horse and wagon. There my father would shoe the horse and repair the wagons. Actually, he didn’t even earn enough to live on. After all, how much did a peasant pay for that work? Perhaps with a few potatoes.

On one bright morning my father came into the house with a letter in his hand, very excited and joyful. What had happened? He was going to America. His brother had sent him a paid ticket to America.

In a short a time as possible, my father closed his blacksmith shop and left for America. He sent letters and money back to us, and our living became easier.

I was already going to cheder, or to explain it better, the boys who were learning came to our house for cheder. In our village at that time there were about ten Jewish families, and whoever had a boy (son) divided the study time equally, several weeks in each one’s home. A rebbe (teacher) was hired for one semester at a time — from Pesach to Sukkos, and from Sukkos to Pesach. Usually he was an older man with a long beard. Since he would cough so often, he always carried a little pack of rock candy with him. When he held a piece in his mouth, this made him feel better.

As he taught us the alphabet, we also learned how to write. Within one year I learned to write letters from a book that contained many different forms of letters known in Yiddish as a brienel-shtetter. The following year, I was already writing letters to America. In our village there were several women whose husbands were also in America, so I wrote letters for them in the same style as the examples shown in the book, such as:

”My dear husband, I miss you so. When will you send for me?”

I had to help keep up the romance in the letters from the women to their husbands.

As I and all the other children became older, the same rebbe (teacher) didn’t seem good enough for us any longer. They now hired a young man who began to teach us a little Russian and Polish as well. He was already considered to be more modern. In the summertime, he conducted cheder in a barn — in the hay and the straw.

In the barn he fixed up a sort of a room with tables and benches, and there we held class and studied. Before the holiday of Shavuos, he taught us the prayers for this holiday (akdamus), with such a beautiful melody that the people from the area all came together to listen.

The barn was very close to the road, and one time we heard a peculiar noise that sounded like “tra-tra-tra.” We all ran out from the cheder and we watched as this thing came closer and closer. One person hollered, “This is an automobile (samochód) without horses.” This was the first time we had ever seen this. They rode slowly and then stopped. Officers got out of the auto. Others said a general was also with them, and still others said that it was the Czar’s family. They went over to the well, took a pail of water, and poured it into some part of the automobile and then drove away.

The following week, another automobile drove by again; not only one, but several. They did not stop here again. We ran out and they threw candy at us, and then we ran after the auto and picked up the candy.

During this time, my father brought my two brothers and two sisters to America. My mother, my older sister, a younger brother and I remained here, hoping that one day soon we would also go to America.

In our house lived a neighbor who was a shoemaker, and in the same place he had a store where he sold food products. His wife conducted this part of the business that consisted of bread, herring, salt, sugar, etc. In addition to that they also used their home as a kretchma, a place for travelers to stop and rest and have some food and drink.

Not far from our village were the German colonies. In the wintertime they brought the wooden logs to the river Boog. They would stop at the inn. Our neighbor and the housewife would make a meal for them — a pot of hardboiled eggs, herring, bread, and vodka to drink. I could hear them say, “It is good to eat at the Jews,” or, “Ach, es ist gut bei die Juden zu essen!” Aside from all of this, the minyan also took place in their home on Friday nights, Saturdays and holidays. On Saturday mornings before the services began, each one told of some news from around the world.

One person said that he had been in Ostrowa, where he had heard very bad news about beatings and killings of people in Russia. There were pogroms. They all became very frightened. One person related that during one night he had a vision of a stick of fire in the sky. Others said, “This is a bad omen, a sign of war or revolution.”

The following week this is what happened. Two gendarmes came riding in from the shtetl Szumowo. They took the mayor (starosta), or head of our village, and went with him from house to house, registering everyone’s name. They told us if a stranger should come to our village, we should immediately inform them.

A few weeks later, a cousin of mine from Ostrowa arrived here. Actually, he didn’t come from Ostrowa, but from Suvalk [Suwalki]. There he worked as a tailor. He was dressed in black pants and a black shirt. He also had green and red shirts with him. He told us that he had to hide out for a few weeks and that later he would return to Ostrowa. At the present time they were looking for him, as he was involved in revolutionary activities. My rebbe was a student and understood exactly what was taking place. So he had him change his clothing to help disguise him. He remained here one week and then returned to Ostrowa.

A while later we received a letter from our father, telling us to get ready. We would soon be leaving for America. He had already sent us (ship’s cards) tickets to travel. My mother started to make preparations to leave. Since there would be no kosher food available on the ship, she started to bake black breads, cut them into small pieces, and dip them in vinegar and sugar. This was then dried in the oven and was called sucharas. It could be kept this way for months, so our food (for the trip) was taken care of.

An agent from Szumowo came with his horse and wagon to bring us across the border. He drove us through several villages until we arrived at the border. The agent gave us a paper with our names written on it. At the border they checked us thoroughly, found everything in order, and then we were allowed to pass through. We drove into a German (shtetl) town called Yulova, where the railroad station was located, and from there all the trains left. We had to travel to Bremen, as our ship was to sail from there.

In Yulova, we were taken into a big house, which was a bathhouse. There were doctors there who examined each one of us. First we had to undress completely, men and women separately. Our clothes were put into a steam oven to be cleaned thoroughly. Later, each one of us had to find their own clothes in order to get dressed. The noise and the tumult were very great. Then we were called in to be inspected by the doctor. We were all cleared through except for my mother, who was held back because of her eyes. The doctor claimed that she had trachoma of the eyes, and with this condition one was not allowed to enter into America. The agent asked if anyone of us wanted to go without our mother. We could have gone, but we all said no. This meant that we had to go back to our home. Not wanting to return to our home, we went to Ostrowa where we had family. We stayed with our aunt until we were able to find a place of our own in which to live. My sister went with my mother and together they found living quarters. So now we already had a home.

The ship’s cards or tickets we sent back to our father in America. We wrote to him saying we would take mother to Bialystok, to a well-known eye doctor, a Doctor Pyrus. This we did. I went with my mother. She received treatment for several weeks but she didn’t improve any. We returned home. Mother’s eyes became worse and she began to lose her eyesight. Fortunately for us, my sister was already a grown girl. She did everything for us. She cooked, baked, and became the mother of the home.

My father sent money back to us in his letters and so life continued on. My younger brother Yitzchak went to Lomza to study at the Yeshiva. I began to learn to become a tailor, and for that I had to return to the little town of Szumowo. I was then about twelve years of age (c. 1906.)

There they gave me food, a place to sleep, and taught me to sew. In return I had to take care of the children and do much work in the house until I learned to sew a little. I remained there (a szman) for six months, and then I returned home to Ostrowa. Now I was considered a “tailor-boy.” During the intermediate days of the holiday of Sukkos, known as Chol Hamoed, I went to the market to find work. I already became a paid worker, but I cannot remember how much (money) I received. It could have been twenty-five rubles for (a szman), with food and a place to sleep, and the promise of shoes and clothing from the tailor. For this work I had to go to a small town named Goworowo. So it was, and I went (there) for the whole winter. I already knew how to work, so my employer took me with him to the villages to sew (peltzes) heavy coats. Before evening, we were brought back to the town (to a kretchme) where we were given something to eat. The peasant for whom we worked paid for our food. This is the way the early part of the winter went, and after that we worked in the tailor’s home. The tailor had a daughter, and young men came to their home to spend time. They sang songs — one of the songs was about the ship Titanic that sank at that time (ed: 1912). As a young boy, I loved the songs written by Abraham Reisen. At that time, I had no idea who he was — only that I heard the young people talk about books and writers (authors).

After my six-month stay, I came home to Ostrowa. I now knew the tailor trade, so I remained here (in Ostrowa) and worked. I worked from morning to Mincha (afternoon) service davening. My boss took me with him to the (Bet Medrash) house of prayer, and after the prayers (davening), we went back to work. One time, while in the Bet Medrash, a tumult and discussions started. The workers complained that they were working too hard and too many hours. In Warsaw and in the surrounding towns they were organizing unions. They predicted that a revolutionary would come to Ostrowa to organize a union also. In the meantime, no one had come yet. I myself was already working fewer hours.

The Jewish newspaper called “The Moment” (“Der Moment”) arrived once a week. I was not pleased or satisfied with just one paper. I wanted to read more. I was told about a library where I could obtain books to read by paying five kopecks a month. I immediately went there  —it was upstairs in an attic, a large room with shelves filled with books.

The first book I took was a short-story book called the “Yeshiva Bokhur,” a story about a young, dark-looking, studious Yeshiva boy. Later I read Tannenbaum’s book of traveling stories. This book was very helpful to me later on. One time when I arrived at the library, the boy in charge of the books told me that I had to sign up or register in the organization Bikur Cholim for visiting the sick. This is a very worthy and necessary organization. They immediately sent me to visit and stay with a sick friend (chaulr) for an entire night. I did everything I was told to do because I felt this was right and good. The next time I was in the library, a friend, a young man who had another weekly newspaper sent to him from Petersburg, offered it to me to read after he had read it himself. And so each week I had this newspaper to read also. I believe the name of this paper was “Der Tsayt,” or “The Time.” This paper I read and learned much from.

At the tailors where I worked, we sewed clothes for the civilians and for the army. There was a store on Kimrover Street. Next door to the tailor shop was a hardware store, owned by one of the most respected men in the community. At one time, one of his sons arrived here from Warsaw. He was dressed in a black suit, black hat, and carried a cane in his hand. People said that he was a revolutionary. His father did not like to hear that, but after all, he was his father, so what could he say?!!

He came into the shop where I worked and we noticed that he was coughing a great deal and was not well. In a few short weeks he passed away. A large group of friends, or comrades, came to attend his funeral. All work ceased, the shops closed, and we too went to his funeral. They sang many sad songs and gave speeches at the gravesite in Russian, Polish and Yiddish. It was said that he was one of the greatest workers for justice, and that today’s society needed to be changed. Months later, these same friends, or “chaverim” as they were called, came again. They erected a monument to his memory, sang sad songs, revolutionary hymns, held talks, and left in a hurry. They didn’t want the police to question and arrest them.

In 1914, just a few weeks before Purim, we received a letter from my father, that he was returning back home. Since we were not able to go to America, he was coming back to us. He arrived back home and we were all joyful and filled with tears at the same time. We saw our father leave home when we were all small children, and now we were fully-grown. In the second week after his arrival, I went with him to the little town of Szumowo where we lived at one time, and where I learned to be a tailor. My father wanted to see everyone. On our way home, my father said that there was no reason for me to remain. I should go to America, because in America a person who sews with a needle and does tailoring can earn ten times as much as here. “I will write to the children in America and ask them to send a ticket for you. But before you go to America, you should go to a large city and work for a while, either in Warsaw or Bialystok.” All this conversation took place on our way home.

Everyday my father went to the Beth Medrash (house of worship) to daven (pray), and everyone welcomed him with open arms. He was an excellent Torah reader. My father could read and write well in Yiddish, Polish and Russian. He told us that he had served eight years in the Russian Army where he had assisted a doctor. He helped give vaccinations, and when we were small he had even vaccinated us children.

Very soon after this I left for Bialystok to work. I can even remember the name of the person I worked for, a Mr. Willinchick. Many people worked for him. I earned very well. I dressed like an American — with a hat and a walking stick or cane in my hand. This was fashionable at that time. A few months had passed, and I wrote home to my family that I was ready to go to America. This was in early August in 1914.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

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