working fifty years as a tinsmith, I and my dear family
decided that it was time for me to retire. In the year 1954
on the first of May I did so, becoming a retired businessman. And as I
have plenty of time on my hands now, I made up my mind to write my
life's history from the day I first remember myself to the present
day in 1959.
I do remember myself when I was three years old. We lived in
Warszawa on Wspoolne Street. At that tender age I met
with an accident and I still have a scar on the right side of
my head to show for it. My mother had a crockery store. She
took care of it as my father was working outside because there
wasn't enough profit in the store to support a family of four
children. My mother put me on a chair to play with a small
pair of scissors and I fell off the chair and cut my head with
it. That is my earliest recollection.
I was born on the 28th day of September 1885. At the time we
were living at 24 Marshalxosha (?) Not long after that accident we
moved to 20 Chlodna. There my sister Rose was born in
what year or month I do not remember exactly. My very first
brother, his name was _______, got killed by a truck at the
age of four. My second brother was born sometime during the
month of December in 1875. His name was Harry. My oldest
sister Sarah was born four years later in 1879. My second
sister Celia was born two years later in 1881. Later, I was
born in 1885. After me came my sister Rose. After Rose came
Helen, and after her came my youngest brother Simon, born in
When we moved to Chlodna Street, I became sick with typhoid
fever. I was laid up in a hospital room for seven weeks. After
leaving the hospital, my face was entirely disfigured. I
remember that my sisters cried when they lookEd at me. After a
few months of my dear mother's care, I became normal again.
But things were very bad, and my folks had a hard time feeding
us five children. So they decided to move out of my
grandfather's house in Ochota in order to save on rent.
My folks packed us all into a cart, children, furniture and
all. Off we went to Ochota, which was located on the outskirts
of Warszawa. We moved first into one of the grandparents'
houses as it was very bad at that time. There was a crisis occurring all over Poland, and my folks needed to get
some sort of free rent. However, my grandfather wasn't the
kind of man to give things away for nothing.
So every month when the time came to collect rent, the same
thing happened over and over again. He wanted us to move out
of his house. But we couldn't because four of us children got
eczema and it was very contagious. So we had to remain in my
grandparents' house under doctor's orders until all of us
children were well again. This took a few months. In the
meantime there were arguments and fights over the rent my
folks could not have paid. So when we finally did get ready to
move, my father broke all of the windows and doors in every
one of grandfather's houses. We then moved back to Warszawa.
This time our address was 66 Chrielna(?) I was then eight
years old and a few months later my sister Helen was born. She
was a beautiful red-haired baby with big blue eyes.
Since my father had now received a contract to repair all the
government roofs, we were eating regularly again. We didn't
live there very long as the place was very small for a family
of five children. My older brother was already learning a
trade and was living somewhere else. We moved once again, from this
house to one with three bedrooms on 26 Wilchna. Everything was
going along very nicely, and then my baby brother was born in
March of 1895. After living at this house a number of
years, we once again had to move elsewhere due to
We were the only Jewish family living in a building of
forty-five tenants. So we decided to move to 16 Swarde,
located in a populated area that was very much Jewish. After
living there a year or so, I turned thirteen. I attended
school until three o'clock, and after that I went to Hebrew
school. That's how it was until I was fifteen years old.
I remember when my brother Harry got married and worked at the
tinsmith trade for somebody else. Then he worked for himself
until a strike broke out in the trade. He couldn't sign up
with the union and had to leave Warszawa for America. By that
time, Max Thierman, the husband of my sister Sarah, had also
immigrated to America because he couldn't make a living in
Warszawa. He had already been in America for a year by
himself. It wasn't until a year and a half later that he could
send a ticket for his wife to come to America. So my brother
Harry landed in America and lived with my sister Sarah and her
husband. I was a young man of eighteen and also had become a
tinsmith's helper in Warszawa at the age of fifteen.
My father wanted me to become a jewelry worker. I learned the
trade in almost three years, though without any joy
whatsoever--only dinners and that wasn't such a wonderful
future for a young man like me. I wanted to make something of
myself, like others my own age. All the doors, however, were
closed for young Jewish boys in those days, so instead I had
to work as a jeweler for next to nothing. I began to look for
work as a tinsmith's helper where I had more luck. I was being
paid more money than I ever had before this.
I earned enough money to pay for my food and also to clothe
myself in a halfway-decent manner.
HOW SAMUEL MET
As I was already a young man of almost twenty years, my folks
began to talk about me as being a nice-looking young man. I
then began to associate with young ladies that were my type.
The more girls I knew, the more I was able to arrange company
for myself every now and then. This was until I met Leah. She
was a very nice girl, blonde with blue eyes, though she was
older than I was. She meant business. She wanted me to marry
her right away, but I knew that I wasn't ready to marry
anyone as I couldn't make a living yet. Also, I had to wait to
find out how I would make out with the Army. In the meantime,
I was able to persuade Leah that I couldn't marry yet because
of my uncertain status with the Army, etc.
One day while Leah and I were visiting her friends, I noticed
a girl walking up from a lower floor. She was talking in Polish. I
asked the girl who was living in the house whether this girl
was Jewish or Christian. When she told me that she was a
Jewish girl, I couldn't take my eyes off her. This was so much
so that my girlfriend Leah became very jealous and began to
argue with me about it. The girlfriend of Leah who we were
visiting at the time was living on the fourth floor; the girl
I was keeping my eyes on lived on the third floor.
One evening when we were at the
girlfriend's house, I ask the girlfriend where Felicja, the girl living on
the third floor, was. So my Leah got very mad and told me that she forbid me
to see her, that I should not even talk to her. So I became mad and walked
out of the house, ready to return home. On my way downstairs, I noticed that
the door on the third floor was open for some reason or another. The mother
of the Polish-speaking girl asked me how come I was going home so early, it
was only eight o'clock. So I gave her some excuse and she asked me into her
home. At that time, Felicja was combing her very long hair. She was very
glad to see me. Her mother made tea and we all sat down for tea and rolls.
That was THE day my whole life changed. This was in February 1904. While
spending the rest of the evening there, I had a chance to observe the girl
very closely. From that evening on, I saw her almost every evening and we
became attached to one another.
Although it was very hard for me to converse with her in Polish, and she
couldn't speak much Jewish (Yiddish), somehow or other we enjoyed each
other's company. She was a very beautiful girl with very beautiful eyes, and
she had a beautiful head of blonde hair. I began to act entirely different
than I had ever acted before. Even my folks noticed this and they kept asking me
what the reason was for this. I kept the reason to myself. The minute I'd
get home from work, I 'd clean myself up, put on the best I had to wear, and
I went to see this beautiful girl living on Semnia (?) Street. When I was in
her company, I was very nervous. I felt for the first time in my young life
that I was in love with someone who was very dear to me, and I also felt that
the girl loved me too.
That was going on until May 1, 1905. Then there was a demonstration in
Warszawa and one of Felicja's brothers was shot and killed in the
demonstration. I felt the pain just as much as the boy's family did. We all
mourned the loss of the boy--until one evening on the night of May 19, 1905
when I proposed to the girl and told her that I loved her. From where I
found the courage to say these words to her I don't know. They must have
come out of my heart. Of course she didn't say anything, but that was the
first time that I kissed her. This was the kiss that lasted and made us the
happiest couple in the world. Even to this day, fifty-four years later, we
are still in love.
But let us not jump too far ahead. At that time when I got home, I couldn't
sleep because I was only thinking of how I could make this girl very happy. I
had no real trade, no security. I had no future and no hopes to make
something of myself in this land of my birth. So I began to think of a
far-off land that I had heard about so many times in my youth--the land they
called America. Never in my life did I every know such worries, but that
night I really began to worry. With all my heart and mind I told this
lovable girl, this beautiful angel, that I loved her. Now I had the worry of
doing something about it. But how? A thousand times how? There was only one
solution, and that was for me to go to America, where I could start from
scratch and try to build a life for myself and my dear sweetheart, and a real
sweetheart she was.
OFF TO AMERICA
During the next number of days when I got together with
my dear Felicja, we talked about this matter over and over. By that time it
was also about time to present myself to the Army. However, I didn't want to
waste three years of my young life for no reason at all. So the next thing I
did was to write a letter to my sister and brother-in-law who had already
immigrated to America two years before. I hoped that they could help me get
out of Warszawa in order to avoid spending three years of my life in the
Army. After a few weeks my appeal was successful and they did send for me.
After receiving my ticket, I accumulated a few rubles and off to America I
I left Warszawa in the month of August 1906. You can only imagine how badly
I felt about leaving my folks--Father, Mother, my sisters and a brother, and
my dear sweetheart, especially because I loved her so dearly, more than
anything else in the world. I felt that I was leaving a part of me behind
when I said Bon Voyage to her as I was leaving on the train that would
eventually bring me to America. But I always had in my mind that whatever
torture I would have to go through in order to make something of myself for
my dear one, for my future life, it would be well worth it, and off I went.
After traveling a half of the world, I did arrive in the land of
opportunity. And now my struggle began in a new land, not knowing the
language, the customs, not knowing from where to start, how to begin. After
a couple of days, I found a job in a tinsmith shop for six dollars a week.
LIVING IN AMERICA
After a few weeks in America, I began to pick up a few
words here and there. This was too slow for me, so in the evenings I went to
night school. I don't know whose fault it was, the teachers or me. In the
daytime I worked very hard--as a green young man they made me work very
hard. So in the evening, during night school, I fell asleep. After
this happened once or twice, the teacher told me that the next time I should
bring a pillow if I wanted to sleep. I got insulted and embarrassed as she
said this in front of the whole class, so I never went back to that school
again. I made up my mind that I would have to learn the language by myself.
Little by little I picked up a word here and there, and by myself I made
sentences out of it. In one year's time I could have a conversation in the
English language, at least enough to get by. I learned English a little from
the pictures and a little from reading the English papers looking for work.
I learned enough English so that nobody could sell me short in English. This
allowed me to look for better jobs that paid more money.
MEANWHILE BACK IN WARSZAWA...
In the meantime, I didn't forget my folks. I had always
written to them, telling them how I was progressing in this environment. I
also managed to send them a few dollars every now and then. I had also done
the same thing for my sweetheart, writing a letter to her every week,
letting her know how I was getting along in this new world of mine, and
sending her a few dollars when I could. I wasn't making much money, but it
was better than it was at the beginning. I had to dress and feed myself. I
tried to make myself presentable in not very expensive clothes. What I wore
was nice and clean. Every now and then I also used to send home some
pictures of me to show them that I was trying the best I knew how to build a
future for myself and what was going on. This was so until I began to
receive letters from my father that I either had to send home one-hundred
and fifty dollars or show up to present myself to the Russian army.
The police were threatening my father, telling him that they would take away
all of his household possessions in order to pay the money they demanded. I
received letter after letter asking me what I intended to do in this matter.
Finally I decided that, instead of trying to send that amount of money, it
would be better if I go back there myself and take my chances. If for one
reason or another they would let me go, I would still be able to return to
America and continue to make my future here. If, on the other hand, they
would take me in the Army, I would try to run away from them, as I felt that
I already knew my way around the world.
ESCAPE FROM THE RUSSIAN ARMY
So on November 8, 1909, I boarded the ship PHILADELPHIA
and was on my way back to Warszawa. After eleven days I was back with my
folks and my dear sweetheart. After being there for four weeks, I presented
myself to the police. After a short examination, they made me a solider to
be stationed somewhere near the Black Sea. The name of the city was
Now my real worries began. The police locked me up, not giving me any
chance to prepare myself for escape. It was on a Tuesday, and in two days
later I was supposed to be shipped to Sevastopol. So I had to think quickly
and decide in my mind what I needed to do. I had very little money to go
anywhere, but I had to make my first move first. So when the time came for
us recruits to be shipped out, there were almost a hundred of us. We were
lined up with real soldiers who were around with guns on their shoulders.
When the signal was given to march ahead, the order was to turn right. So I
took a chance and went left!!
They kept going full speed right and I went full speed left until I had
walked about a mile away from the recruits. I hired a carriage to take me to
my girlfriends' house, late at night during the month of December. I
remained there four full weeks until my girlfriend's brother Ed, who had
been freed the same year from the Army for having poor vision, was able to
help me. He took a passport out that was in his name and I used his name in
an attempt to travel back to America, or rather, to flee Warszawa. Luck was
with me so far. In a few days I found myself in Holland, waiting for a ship
to take me back to America. As I am now writing my story on paper, I am
reminded that this wasn't so easy.
FROM HOLLAND BACK TO AMERICA
I had no money at all when I arrived in Holland. Now I will try to tell you
how I got to Holland. I had just enough money to go to Berlin. That's all.
So I arrived in Berlin and I had to figure out how to continue my travel to
America. This wasn't as easy as some people might think. While I was
traveling from America to Poland, I had met a few fellows who had already
traveled back and forth to and from America. They told me that in Berlin
there was an organization that helped immigrants go anywhere they wanted.
So when I was in Berlin I looked up this Jewish organization and went there
to get some financial help. They asked me all kinds of questions and they
stripped me from top to bottom to see whether I had some money, whether I
had been telling them the truth.
After finding out that I didn't have one cent on me, they did help me just
enough so I could get out of Berlin as far as the German-Holland border, to a
town called EMMERICH. It took me and many other immigrants about
twenty-four hours to reach Emmerich. All the others had the money or tickets
to go further, but not me. I again was in trouble now and had no idea how I
would get further from home, nearer to America.
When I arrived in Emmerich, I was turned over to another
Jewish organization. I told them my story, that I was a deserter from the
Russian Army, that I must get to America. I explained that I was there
before and I had (first) papers to show them. After hours of consideration,
the elders of the organization finally decided to send me to the city of
ROTTERDAM and from there to I should find my way back to America. So they fixed me up
with lunch, cigarettes, and a ticket to Rotterdam. Off I went, getting
nearer to my destination. After twelve hours of traveling, I arrived in
Rotterdam and the Hotel Nasm*, hungry, tired, and again without one cent
in my pocket.
The first thing I asked of the people at the hotel was for something to eat.
And they did as I was half-starved. After I finished eating it was twelve
o'clock at night, so they gave me a place to sleep. In the morning they
would take me to the main office so I could explain my situation before them and
they would decide what to do with me. I was so tired that I didn't care for
the moment what they might do with me, as long as I could sleep for about
twenty-four hours. But it didn't turn out that way. At about ten o'clock in
the morning, I heard a knock at my door. They wanted me in the main office.
I was half-asleep as I dressed myself. They gave me breakfast--milk, cheese,
eggs, bread and butter, and plenty of herring. After breakfast, I went into
the office. There in the office I was given the 'third degree.' They asked
me all kinds of questions over and over again. Finally, someone asked me
whether I had any relatives in America. I told them I had a brother and
sister in America who would be more than happy to help me come to America.
I also told them that I had gone through their office--to America--three
years before. They looked this up and found out that I was telling them the truth.
So they cabled my brother Harry in America that I was waiting there for them
to help me. In the meantime, they told me that I could stay in the Hotel Nasm
until I heard from them. They gave me fourteen days. In case they didn't
hear from them, they would have to turn me over to the police to be sent
back to where I came from. This was not very good news for me. I waited and
waited and everybody knows that when you wait for something, the hours and
the days are years long.
But all I could do was wait and hope for the best. When I had arrived in
Rotterdam it was Wednesday night. And on that Friday night the same week, a
ship left from there for America. So I was left all by myself in the hotel.
You can imagine how downhearted I felt, being left alone in a place where
only a day before, there were hundreds of people, all with hopes of going to
America. The same Friday night after the ship left the port, I went up to my
room and began to think. My life passed before my eyes. My past. My
childhood from the day I first remembered myself until the day I found
myself alone in the hotel, away from my folks, my friends, from my dearest
one in the whole world.
I was also thinking of my future and what would
happen to me if my family and the organization said they won't help me and
because I couldn't buy a ticket. And that is how I fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning,
there were already new immigrants. More and more of them were arriving every
hour with every train from all over Europe. All kinds of people, young and
old, many with very small children. At times I forgot myself, my own
predicament. I took a great deal of interest in learning the reasons why so
many people were running away from their birth places, willing to travel to
far-off America and start life over again.
The answer was always the same. Persecution. In their old places, they
couldn't do anything. No living. No education. No freedom whatsoever. So
they were ready to sacrifice a few years of their lives in order to start
fresh in a free land where there is freedom for everybody. They asked me all
kinds of questions, whether this was really so. When I told them that it was
so, they were very sorry for me because I left America for the reason I did
and had to go through so much agony and torture to get back there. Of course
I couldn't make them understand that I had to do it, that so far I had been
very lucky, that I am on my way back to America. Before you knew it, there
were hundreds of new immigrants ready to go to America. It was already
Friday morning, and at eleven o'clock that night the ship NORDAM was
scheduled to leave for America.
But I had to sign a paper that when I got to America and started to work, I
would send them the money which amounted to eleven dollars for eleven days.
I agreed to pay it--what else could I do? And off to America I went. You can
imagine how happy I was, as were all the immigrants on the ship. We left
Friday night, and the minute the ship left port, we all had a party.
Everybody brought out the best they had in food and drink and this kept on
until early morning. We all went to sleep and when we woke up we were in the
middle of the ocean. No more land in sight. After nine days of traveling
over rough seas, I finally noticed the Statue of Liberty. When I saw the
Lady with the Lamp in her right hand, I started to cry. It took a while
before the others could quiet me down.
I had to tell them the meaning of the Statue of Liberty. When at last the
boat stopped and were were getting off the boat, I was the first one. A
friend on board gave me twenty-five dollars American money so I could show
them that I had
the fare to go home. The inspectors asked me whether I had any money. I
showed them that I had the fare to go to the house that would now be my
with my sister Sarah in Harlem at 101st Street near First Avenue.
When I arrived there my sister opened the door for me and told me to come in.
Again I started to cry with happiness because I was lucky to go through such a
torture from the day I left America for Poland on November 8th and was back
in America on February 17, 1910 (Editor's note: Ellis Island records
show Sam, aka Schmul, left Rotterdam aboard the Statendam on February 6,
1909, not the Nordam, with a single dollar in his pocket, arriving at Ellis
Island on February 17, 1909.) For seventy-one days I had traveled over
eight-thousand miles and suffered a lifetime in such a short space of time.
Now that I was back in America, I had to start planning my future life and
decide how I was to bring my dear one over to America.
Now I am thinking back to my sister's house, when I was having my first
supper with my brother-in-law Max, my brother Harry and his wife, as I am
writing these lines. Max, Harry and his wife are gone now but not forgotten.
When we had supper together, they criticized me, asking me why I made that
crazy move and returned to Warszawa in the first place. I told them that I
did suffer hell on earth before I could come back here, that I would not
want to repeat it again though it was an education, and that it is something
that I would remember for the rest of my life. Then, after resting a couple
of days, I went to look for a job and joined the union in order to
make more money. I had to accomplish some things for my future.
In the meantime, my sweetheart's brother--the older one--was a deserter from
the Japanese-Russian war. I had to do something for him. As his parents had
done so much for me, keeping me for four weeks in their home, taking a
chance, hoping not get caught, not to get in trouble because of me. So the
first thing I would do would be to send for him to come to America. So two
months later I sent him a ticket, and on the 27th of March 1910 he came to
America. I was making sixteen dollars a week then, and so together we made a
plan to bring over his younger brother Edward and the sisters of my girl.
But things didn't work out the way we planned. The brother got sick and
passed away. By that time I had already sent a second-class ticket for my
girl, and the way it was now, she couldn't leave so quickly after that
terrible loss. So she turned the ticket over to my sister Rose, so she could
now come to America. And when she did, the doctors wouldn't let her in on
account of her having trachoma, so she had to go back on the same ship.
Some months passed after this double ordeal. I again sent my girl a
second-class ticket, and on the 18th of September 1911, I was the happiest
young man, embracing my girl on American soil. Then, on the 4th of November,
we got married, some six years after I said to her that I loved her. It is
so easy to put down on paper these memories of six years back. But how much
heartache, how much pain one must endure to tell the story as it really was.
We rented three nice rooms with all the improvements and my brother-in-law
moved in with us. We were very happy together in this new world, this new
environment, but again it wasn't lasting. But that is another story...
Sam Grabsky was the fifth child and third son of Louis
Michael Bernstein Grabsky and Leah Grabsky. His grandfather's original
surname was BERNSTEIN. He became an orphan and was taken in by a family
named Grabsky who ran a farm in the suburbs of Warszawa. They raised cows
and sold milk wholesale in fifty-gallon urns and retail by jugs of pints of
milk to the Jewish Quarter. They also fabricated weighing scales and that is
how his grandfather got into the sheet metal business. Louis Michael may
have been adopted by the family, though later he married Leah Grabsky, the
daughter, and thereafter took on the name Grabsky.
* Editor's Note:
The Hotel Nasm in Rotterdam that Sam refers to was owned by the Holland
America Line, first founded in 1873 as the "Netherlands-America Steamship
Company," i.e. NASM. Twenty-five years after its founding, the fleet was
comprised of six cargo and passenger ships. Its first ocean liner was named
the Rotterdam, its first voyage to America was on October 15, 1872,
thirty-eight years before Sam's voyage. This shipping line was one of the
principal transporters of European immigrants till some time after the turn
of the twentieth century, carrying 850,000 immigrants to the country they
would call their new home. Most likely, during the time this story takes
place in 1909, this hotel was located at the port of Rotterdam, providing
temporary housing for those who were to embark on a transatlantic voyage
aboard one of their ships, in this case the Statendam.