How They Survived-Part I

Jews in an Eastern European Shtetl

In this spring of convergent disasters—a global pandemic and collapsing economy—it may be useful to remember how our forebears survived the calamities of their time.

My mother, Gitl Dina Bojankosky, was born in 1914 in Nowy Dwor, a town 24 miles from Warsaw. I couldn’t find the census figures for that year but in 1921 there were 7,800 total residents, of which half were Jewish.

Mom had nothing good to say about her childhood in Poland. Her earliest memory was of an incident that took place one cold winter when she was a toddler. Grandma Leah had just given birth to a second child. Grandpa Samuel, a dealer in kosher meats, was out of town when the pogrom began. Leah snatched up Gitl and the baby, ran into the woods and hid all night in the snow. By morning the violence had ended—and her newborn had frozen to death. Later, when Gitl was old enough to attend school, gentile kids threw stones at her and called her “Christ killer.” A murderer in the area went free because the only witnesses in the case were Jews, and since they couldn’t swear on the New Testament, their word was not acceptable in court.

Even in good times, my family—and most of the other residents of the Jewish shtetl—weren’t well off. My mother’s Uncle Ben said that he had two wooden spoons, one for meat dishes and one for dairy; to tell them apart, a nail had been driven through the handle of the dairy spoon. “Every time I ate with it, it scratched me.”

Then came World War I. Much of the heavy fighting between Russia and Germany took place in Poland. Great Uncle Ben said that at one time he and his business partner lay trapped in the underbrush for two days while opposing armies fired at each other over their heads. Farmers all over Poland didn’t dare go out in the fields to plant or harvest for fear of being caught in the crossfire. Retreating units looted what they could and burned the rest, leaving parts of the country uninhabitable. The result was widespread hunger.

When the war ended, the victorious allies set up a soup kitchen in Nowy Dwor. Leah felt ashamed to beg, so she sent 4-year-old Gitl out with a bucket, to stand in line. But other neighbors—also Jewish; meanness knows no ethnic boundaries—advised the soldiers not to give her any. “Her family is rich,” they said. It seems that my grandfather had found some colored tiles and cemented them to the common wood stove that served both for cooking and heating in every home. Apparently this attempt at beautification marked the family as wealthy. Gitl had to go home with an empty bucket. “The soup had meat in it,” she said sadly, forty years later. “I can smell it to this day.”

Grandpa Samuel managed to get his family out of Poland in 1921. They intended to go to New York, but in that same year, the U.S. passed an act limiting the number of immigrants from certain countries, “mainly in response to the large influx of Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe, thus successfully restricting their immigration and that of other “undesirables…” My grandparents and their three children went to Cuba instead. (A fourth child was born in Havana.) There they were poor, but not persecuted. The children were given Spanish names along with their Hebrew ones. Gitl became Carmen.

Samuel found work in a button factory under conditions so harsh that he still had nightmares about it in his eighties. As soon as the children finished elementary school, they too were sent to the factories. Nutritious food wasn’t always easy to come by. Once, when Gitl/Carmen was sick, Leah took her to the doctor. “Give her vegetables,” he said. “What are they?” she asked, and when he listed a few, she asked how to cook them. Despite the poverty, my mother had some good memories of those years. She learned the cha-cha, meringue, and rumba, and attended teen socials at both the Jewish and Communist centers. “I just loved to dance. I didn’t care about the politics,” she assured me.

That assurance, coming shortly after the McCarthy era, was no doubt intended to protect me but failed to convince. This was the mother who taught me never to cross a picket line, the mother who joined the Workmen’s Circle, with its pro-labor and pro-socialist agenda. If she did sympathize with the Communist Party, though, she ultimately became disillusioned. One of the boys she danced with in Havana was, as she put it, “an idealist. He went to Russia to help with the revolution and was murdered by Stalin” during one of the dictator’s anti-Semitic purges.

In 1930, during the Great Depression, 16-year-old Carmen boarded a little boat, along with her younger brother and perhaps a couple dozen other desperate immigrants, and crossed the open ocean to Florida. From there she made her way to New York City, where she found work sewing in a garment factory. That first winter was terrible, as she wasn’t used to the climate and couldn’t afford to buy a warm coat.

Grandpa Samuel came on another boat. Unfortunately, a member of Samuel’s synagogue turned him in for the bounty money, and he was deported. Carmen and her brother were lucky—nobody betrayed them.

In, I think, 1939, my mother met my father and they married. My father was a citizen, but in order for Carmen to obtain citizenship, he had to send her back to Cuba and sponsor her as an immigrant. Now she was given yet another, American, name—Gussie.

I’ll continue her story, and my father’s, in the next post.

Before signing off, I’d like to share a few thoughts on the current immigration issue. First, if you’re not Native American, if your ancestors came here and stole Native American land, or if they came in subsequent waves before the 1921 laws, you have no right to vilify the next groups who want a chance at a decent life. I especially don’t want to hear about “illegal aliens,” as though people like my mother are some species of nonhuman invaders.

I’m not sympathetic to those who came after 1921 and complain that they waited for years and jumped through all the legal hoops, and why shouldn’t others have to suffer as they did? It is much more comfortable to bide your time if you have money and connections—not so easy if you’re desperate to escape famine, war, or persecution.

Finally, and this is perhaps the issue that encompasses the others, why is capital free to go anywhere on the globe, while labor is confined by national boundaries?

3 Responses to How They Survived-Part I

  1. Mary Sunshine April 18, 2020 at 9:45 pm #

    Thank you for this.

  2. Corrinne Farner April 19, 2020 at 2:11 am #

    Such powerful writing. Straightforward, personal and educational. Thank you.

  3. Esther Newton April 19, 2020 at 8:59 am #

    Enjoyed, if that is the right word, reading this remembrance. Never knew all that about your parents Martha, and you write about it vividly and matter-0f-factly. Keep on writing. I am too distracted to concentrate, but I can still read good prose.

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