How They Survived-Part III

Dad’s micrometer, Mom’s darning egg

WWII ration stamps

I sifted through a shoebox of faded papers and odd keepsakes, and the memories drifted up. The first item in the box: Grandpa Samuel’s Cuban naturalization certificate, dated November 19, 1928.

As I wrote in a previous post, my mother was born in Poland in 1914, and her family immigrated to Cuba in 1921. In 1930 she and a small group of other indocumentados boarded a small boat that took them across 100 miles of ocean to Florida. It was a risky journey through rough waters. What gave a 16-year-old girl the impetus to undertake it?

During the 1920s Cuba had become a favorite playground for robber barons like the Biltmores, corrupt politicians like NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker, and so-called bohemians. They came for gambling, horse racing, golfing, country-clubbing, and prostitution. My mother, Carmen, saw only rich American tourists and thought that everyone in the U.S. was wealthy. Still, she wasn’t in a hurry to leave. The family had become citizens.

Printed in big letters at the top of Grandpa Samuel’s naturalization document is the name of the Cuban president, Gerardo Machado. Machado had started out as a popular leader but became increasingly dictatorial. When the Depression brought the island’s sugar-based economy to its knees, people all across the political spectrum—from Communists to conservative veterans—began to revolt.

Machado responded by having his secret police murder political opponents. By 1933, the conflict had grown almost to the point of all-out war. At FDR’s behest the U.S. ambassador intervened, arranging for Machado to go into what must have been a comfortable exile in Florida—and bringing in a regime controlled by Fulgencio Batista, who later turned to be every bit as nasty as his predecessor.

Carmen and her kid brother, Irving, had already fled Cuba in 1930. Not long after Batista’s government was installed, Grandpa Samuel, still in Havana, had to go to a state office for some paperwork related to his citizenship. The bureaucrats said they couldn’t find any of his records. Samuel made several trips before realizing that what they wanted was a bribe. Once he showed up with the necessary cash, the documents reappeared.

Next in the box: a micrometer, with the name Jacob Altman scratched into the handle. In 1939 Carmen married my father Jacob and became a U.S. citizen with a new name, Gussie. The young couple struggled financially, as did most Americans. The official unemployment rate was 17.2%. Then WWII broke out. Jacob was called up but was deferred at various times because of poor eyesight, his marital status, and Gussie’s pregnancies. His experience as an auto mechanic’s assistant proved useful: The government put him to work manufacturing ammunition, which is where he used the micrometer. Gussie no longer worked in the garment industry, but sat in front of the local movie palace and sold war bonds.

By 1944 the unemployment rate had dropped to 1.2%. The conventional wisdom is that the war lifted the country out of the Depression. Economist Robert Higgs disputes this, and I agree with him. “During the war the government pulled the equivalent of 22 percent of the prewar labor force into the armed forces,” he writes. Bingo! Put unemployed people to work as soldiers, and your unemployment rate goes down.

However, these new soldiers found that military “jobs” were distinctly worse than their civilian jobs might have been. The pay was scant, the food was wretched, and you couldn’t quit or join a union and go on strike. The conditions were so harsh as to often result in death, maiming, or lifelong psychological damage.

Conditions at home weren’t rosy, either, during the war. Most of the new civilian jobs that became available were in manufacturing. In that sector the work week increased from 38.1 hours in 1940 to 45.2 hours in 1944, and the rate of disabling injuries per hour increased 30%.

Next item in my shoebox: Half dozen partially used ration booklets. During the war, many basic consumer goods, including meat, butter, cooking oil, coal, and firewood, were rationed. You had to stand in long lines for them or pay a stiff premium on the black market. Some products, such as automobiles and nylon stockings, weren’t produced at all. You could purchase a used car at elevated prices, but the tires and gasoline would be rationed.

Each ration book shows on its cover the name and address of the person they were issued to: the baby (me), my father, my mother, Grandpa Samuel, and my mother’s youngest sister Pesa. Oddly, the addresses are the same, that of the apartment in Brooklyn where my family lived. During the war years, housing was scarce. The population was increasing by 1.1% per year (as compared to .68% during the Depression), but no one was building or even repairing the existing housing stock. Were all these people, and Grandma Leah as well, crammed into that one-bedroom apartment? I don’t know.

Inside the booklets are a few pages of unused stamps, tiny and fragile. Some say “coffee” or “sugar,” or depict fruit or a stalk of wheat. Others have patriotic pictures: an aircraft carrier, a tank, a howitzer, Lady Liberty’s torch.

Next in the box is a Cuban passport, issued to Leah Bojankowski. Visa stamps show that Grandma Leah came to the U.S. in 1943, while Mom was pregnant with me, and stayed for six months. A later stamp says she was admitted as a permanent resident in 1947.

The most recent documents in the box are a set of union dues booklets. One booklet was issued by the Jewish Wurst Makers Benevolent Society, showing that Samuel became a member in November 1947 and paid dues every month until February 1954. It is printed in Yiddish and English, and opens with a statement of principles: “We, Jewish Wurst Makers, are an oppressed class, and we were more so oppressed by the bosses than any other worker in the same trade. We therefore decided to unite…” Years later Mom told me that one of the union officers absconded with the pension funds that Grandpa Samuel and all his union brothers had paid into.

Samuel also became a member of an AFL affiliate, Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America. There are dues booklets for this union dated from 1951 to 1966. Samuel would have been 66 when he joined, and was still paying when he was 81, perhaps to be eligible for a pension with that organization. He certainly wasn’t working in a sausage factory at that age.

The last item in the bottom of the box is my mother’s darning egg, dark polished wood, about the size and shape of a goose egg. It seems very likely that this country is headed into another Great Depression. The current administration has proposed to “help” business by eliminating the payroll tax which funds Social Security. Today I’m looking at a pair of socks with holes in the heels, and thinking that instead of throwing them out, I’d better learn how to use that egg.

One Response to How They Survived-Part III

  1. Roberto Camp May 19, 2020 at 7:43 pm #

    What a wonderful story.

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