How They Survived, Part II

Seamstresses on a picket line, NYC 1910

My father, Jacob Joseph Altman, was born in Brooklyn in 1912. His family moved to the United States before the change in immigration laws that prevented my mother from coming here.

Jacob’s father, Reuben, was from Kishinev, an Eastern European city that was founded in 1436 as a monastic village. It became part of the Russian empire early in the 19th Century. In 1889, when Reuben was born, the population had grown to around 106,000, of which 43% were Jewish. I only recently learned a little of that early history, since to Jews, the name Kishinev has become synonymous with the horrific pogroms of 1903 and 1905. Grandpa Reuben wouldn’t tell me about life in the old country—“Don’t ask!” he said gruffly—but my father filled me in.

Reuben survived one of those pogroms, as a young man, by swimming across the river on the western edge of the city. A few years later, on a visit to Odessa, he met a young woman named Yacha Weissbrot. He was tall and blond; Yacha was half a head shorter and plump, with long black braids. Yacha’s mother, Rachel, had been widowed. According to family legend, Rachel had a nice house with a large mirror in the front hall, which led Reuben to think the family was wealthy and spurred him to propose to Yacha. Later he discovered that there was no money but, to give him credit, he stayed with her.

Soon after returning to Kishinev, Reuben was drafted. In those days, each district was supposed to provide a certain number of its young men to the Tsar’s army for a 6-year term, plus 9 years in the reserves. The conscript might be shipped anywhere and might not see his family again for many years. Military rations were scant and certainly not kosher. Besides being taught his soldierly duties, he could expect to be beaten by the non-coms, who would also extort or simply steal from their subordinates.  If he were Jewish, he’d likely be subject to additional abuse.

What Reuben did instead was emigrate. He arrived at Ellis Island in 1910, found work in the garment district, and sent for his fiancée. In order to enter the country, you needed salable skills and family to look after you so you wouldn’t become a public charge. Yacha declared that she was a seamstress and was going to live with an uncle. She took an American name, Jennie.

In 1911 Estelle, their first child, was born. In 1912 the twins, Jacob and David, came into the world, and Jennie sent for help–her mother arrived shortly thereafter. Another girl, Charlotte, came along in 1915. The growing family lived in a small Brooklyn apartment and pulled out dresser drawers to use as cribs for the new babies.

Grandma Rachel died in the 1918 flu pandemic. They laid her body in a coffin across two chairs in the living room—who could afford a funeral home? Little Jacob was devastated. His grandma had spent more time caring for the twins than their mother did.

Jennie was pregnant again, but didn’t want to bear another child during the epidemic. Estelle, age 7, watched as her mother tried to induce a miscarriage by climbing onto the cabinet of her Singer sewing machine and jumping down, repeatedly—to no effect.* That child was Benjamin. In 1922 their last child, Roslyn, was born.

The family spoke Yiddish at home. Jacob didn’t learn English until entering elementary school. His childhood stories were of boyish mischief, and much more cheerful than my mother’s: running under the bellies of horses in the stables next door, while avoiding being kicked; stealing the raisins out of the challah bread Jennie had baked and left on the windowsill to cool, leaving only crumbs.

Jacob wanted to go to high school after completing the required eight years of elementary school, but Grandpa Reuben considered high school an unaffordable luxury. The children had to go to work as soon as they legally could. Jacob’s first job, in 1926, was as a delivery boy for a local market. I don’t know what other positions he held over the next three years.  Once the Great Depression hit, he had to take whatever jobs he could get— assistant in a doctor’s office, assistant to an auto mechanic, office boy. At night he went to the local gym, trying to build enough muscle to get a job lifting garbage cans for the sanitation department.

One of the firms he worked for went out of business and couldn’t pay his last week’s wages. Instead they gave him boxes of printed envelopes with penny stamps on them. That night Jennie stayed up late and steamed the stamps off. A penny was a penny.

Uncle Dave—my father’s twin—was courting Eva, a neighborhood girl who lived with her widowed mother. Grandpa Reuben told him to just have an affair with her, since she had no money. Dave replied, “I can’t do that! She’s a religious girl.” Soon after that, Dave got work as a ditch digger. One day, after the foreman called him a dirty Jew, he threw his shovel down and walked off. Grandpa was outraged. “You quit a JOB? Over THAT? Get out of my house—I’m not supporting you.” Dave went to Eva’s house and slept on the living room couch for a few days. Then he said, “We can’t go on like this. Let’s get married.” And so they did, and lived to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.

One evening Dave and his new wife, Eva, went out on a double date with Jacob and a young woman named Gussie, who would become my mother. “I couldn’t tell the twins apart,” Mom said. “So I waited. When Dave took Eva’s hand, I knew who I was with.”

My parents married in 1939. The Depression wasn’t over, but unemployment had decreased from 24.9% to 17.2%, and the drought that had turned the Great Plains into a dust bowl had ended. No sooner had those black clouds settled than others arose, this time over Europe: that same year, Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, and then Poland.

To be continued…

* Birth control devices and information about them were illegal in 1918. Nearly 50 years later, when I worked for the City, we were forbidden to give such information to women on welfare, lest it offend the highly influential Cardinal Spellman. And then, of course, the women were blamed for having children they couldn’t afford.

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