THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY presents

 

Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

Michigan


 

MARION ZELMAN--PIDGEON, MICHIGAN
 

My parents and grandparents were born in Russia and migrated to the United States before World War I to escape the Jewish pogroms. I know very little about their lives in Europe.

My mother was brought to the United States by her parents when she was six years old. They lived in North Adams, Massachusetts, with many relatives and friends from Europe. My mother went to work at the age of nine in a cotton mill. She was unable to go to school beyond the third grade, but had private lessons as she grew older. For one not formally educated, she did remarkably well in reading and writing English.

My father came on his own when he was seventeen to get away from being drafted into the Russian Army. My father had no formal education in English. He was well educated in Hebrew and the Bible. He could read and write in Yiddish. He spoke Russian, Hebrew, German, Yiddish, and English. He wrote English as he spoke it.

My father landed in New York City in 1905 because of friends there. Most of his family had moved to Chicago, Illinois. In his youth, he had learned to do watch repairs but never worked at it in this country.

My father had a sister and her family living in Bay City, Michigan, so after much discussion and after my parents' marriage, they moved to Bay City. My father worked for his brother-in-law in a meat and grocery store. This lasted until I was about five; we then moved to Pidgeon, Michigan about fifty miles from Bay City.

Pidgeon was a small fishing village with about 200 families including surrounding farmers. There my father opened a general store. This included not only meat and groceries but dry goods, clothing, and hardware.

We had the only "general store" in the area. The town consisted of a drug store, barber shop, a small A & P, two saloons, a bank, the jail, and our general store. We were the only Jewish family there; most of the residents were of German descent.

In the winter, the customers charged whatever they needed in the store and the bills were paid in the fall when the crops came in. Business was so good that my parents had to have extra help. Then, in the 1930s, the ministers began to preach in the churches "not to buy anything from the Jews." Business began to fall off.

I have a younger brother and a sister. I'd had another brother who died the age of four, before we moved from Bay City.

In Pidgeon, we lived in a large apartment above the store and were very comfortable. My parents did not socialize with anyone in the town, probably because we were Orthodox and kept kosher. We received kosher meat from the butcher in Bay City. Every two weeks he would put a meat package on the Greyhound bus in Bay City and the driver would drop it off our store in Pidgeon. Then my mother would send a check for the meat.

I was friendly with a little girl two doors down from our store. Her mother didn't think too much of Jews, but her grandmother liked my parents. My mother was friendly with this woman. Until Hitler gained a foothold in Europe, we seemed to be very happy and made a good living.

We knew everyone in the town because of the store, but had very little to do with them socially. The women met once a week in each other's names and had quilting parties. Besides the making of the quilts, much gossip was generated. My mother was not a member of any of these groups. My friend and I spent many an uncomfortable afternoon sitting on the table legs under the quilt as the women stitched and gossiped.

I loved school, as this was the only social life I was permitted. When my classmates had birthday parties, I could only go if I took my brother and sister along. Probably to pay attention to my siblings instead of the party.

As we grew older and the girls began inviting boys to their birthday parties, I was no longer allowed to go to them. Then my parents began talking about moving to a town that had Jews. My father was a restless man, so, even though the store made a good living, we moved from one small town to another in search of the "pot of gold." Most places we stayed little more than a year.

When I was nine, my father decided to become a farmer and rented a farm of eighty acres; complete with cattle, horses, chickens, farm land, etc. We all worked that year on the farm. Even I helped milk the cows and hoe the garden. But due to the unfriendliness of the neighbors, my parents returned to another store in Pidgeon.  

A short time before we moved for the last time from Michigan, a large wooden cross was burned in front of our store. I think that was the final incident that helped my parents decide to leave.

While in Pidgeon, besides homework and reading, my father taught both my brother and myself Hebrew and Yiddish.

 

 


 

 

 

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