Friday, March 21, 2008

ABOUT ME: A mini bio (continued)--My mother's family

I am a first-generation American. Both my parents were born in the former Czarist Russian Empire and were brought to this country as children more than a century ago. I have always felt that my personal link to the immigrant experience has profoundly affected my love for America and my appreciation of our nation's very unique nature.

I never knew my grandfathers, but both my grandmothers lived long enough to have seen me grow from infancy until I was a married man with a child of my own. I am most familiar with the background of my mother's family because my maternal grandmother, a widow, lived with my parents when I was a boy. I was thus well exposed to tales of the "old country," since Grandma often discussed her harsh life before coming to this country with me.

She and her husband, Chaim (Herman) Rabinowitz, arrived in New York City with three small children in 1903 aboard the S.S. Nordam. The ship had sailed from Rotterdam in Holland. I never learned the details of what must have been a very arduous journey from the family's rural home in the Belorussian province of Minsk to the Dutch port.

The ship's manifest, which a cousin of mine retrieved from the immigration archives, shows that my grandfather arrived with $110. Only one of the 27 individuals on the same page of the manifest is shown to have landed in this country with more money. The manifest listed my grandfather's age as 34.

My mother, who died in 1989, was about five years old when the family arrived here. She had an older brother and two younger sisters, one of whom was born in the U.S. On the family's arrival, the immigration officials converted my mother's Russian Jewish first name, "Chashkeh," into Katherine. They bestowed the similarly non-Jewish name of Mary on my grandmother, whose Jewish name was "Merkeh," a Yiddish nickname for Miriam.

My mother's father died in 1907, only four years after the family landed here. My mother always said that she could not remember him. When he married Grandma, he moved to her home to work for his father-in-law, Moshe Aharon Tsivin, who was a miller. I don't know where my grandfather came from nor how he met my grandmother.

The mill was located outside a village my grandmother always called Puzhets. It was apparently the Yiddish name for Puchovici. The family lived among the local peasants, far removed from a Jewish community. Grandma had two sisters and five brothers. Because of their isolation, their father employed a live-in tutor to educate his children.

The education was aimed primarily at the sons, but my grandmother evidently sat in on their classes, for she was literate in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian. She was probably also familiar with the Polish and Lithuanian spoken by some of her peasant neighbors. Moreover, she was undoubtedly far more learned in the Bible than most East European Jewish women of her generation.

Sadly, however, she never learned to speak English, despite living in the U.S. for about a half-century. As a single mother of four children, she apparently had little opportunity to learn the language. And there was little pressure to learn English because she lived in neighborhoods where everyone with whom she came into contact spoke Yiddish.

According to family lore, my maternal grandfather came to this country to escape imprisonment. A Czarist Russian government quota specified how many Jews were allowed to live in the district in which his father-in-law's mill was located. My grandfather exceeded the authorized number.

A Jewish informer eventually notified the authorities about his presence, and he was put in jail. He was released only after his father-in-law bribed the appropriate Czarist bureaucrat, and he agreed to leave Puzhets--and, indeed, all of Russia. He apparently had no desire to return to his own home town.

Financed by his father-in-law, he brought his family to New York City, where they settled in East Harlem. He went to work for his wife's two older brothers, Sam and Ike Sivin, who were prosperous men's clothing manufacturers. (They had simplified the family surname by substituting an "S" for the "ts" sound.)

My grandfather died in Mt. Sinai Hospital nearly four years after arriving here. According to his death certificate, the cause of death was cardiac failure. The certificate also identifies his occupation as an "operator"--of a sewing machine, I assume.

After his death, my grandmother's brothers supported her and her children until the children were old enough to work. After graduating from high school, my mother went to work for her uncles as a bookkeeper and her brother as a traveling salesman. A younger sister took on my mother's job after I was born. Another sister, who had been an invalid, died in childhood.

Two decades later, when my parents were married, my father--who had also gone to work for the uncles--met a man who told him that he came from Puzhets, the Sivin family's home town. When my father told this to my grandmother and described the man, Grandma recognized him as the informer responsible for her late husband's imprisonment in Russia.

I do not know whether she ever sought revenge against the man. Perhaps the opportunity to find a new life in America was far more satisfying than the desire for revenge.

(to be continued)

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Anonymous gel (Emerald Eyes) said...

As I read your memoir, I feel like some unknown pieces of myself could be coming alive. Most pieces of my past I'll never know, thanks to that demon Hitler. So, like others I cling to those treasured fragments of my heritage and wish the holes could be filled in.

I'm also of Russian-Lithuanian Jewish heritage with a grandma who was known as Mary, although her Yiddish name was of a different variation. I look forward to reading more about your ancestory. Events and dates mentioned by you remind me of memories I need to record for my children, despite my information being far sketchier than yours.

Thank you for sharing this here. Your fine writing and timelines that parallel certain aspects of my lineage enhanced the memories I have of my great-grandparents and grandparents from the Old Country. I'm looking forward to your next installment.

BTW, I'm here via Norma's "lacking a verb poem." I saw your comment in the thread and clicked to visit here.

Gel { * * }

Saturday, March 22, 2008 4:12:00 AM  
Blogger Dorothy said...

I just marked this for later reading. I'm out the door to have dinner with my siblings. This looks wonderful can't wait to come home and absorb more.. I feel honored you read my primitive site.

My best, Dorothy from grammology...

Sunday, March 23, 2008 10:17:00 AM  
Blogger Peggy said...

Those ship manifests can tell so much! When my own grandmother (age 6) came through Ellis Island in 1903 with her family there were so many other passengers on the ship's manifest listed as Hebrew from Hungary, Russia and Romania. I can only imagine that they were on the ship to escape the pogroms. My grandmother's ship also sailed from Rotterdam!

My Grandmother incidentally never had even a tiny trace of a German accent ever.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008 12:46:00 AM  
Blogger joared said...

Another fascinating family story. You know so much more about your heritage than I do mine. Only recently learned aabout more family members including one who had a winery in France, went to England, the came to America around our Revolutionary years. On the other side of family one member did fight in the Revolutionary War, other family members split: 2 for the revolution, 2 for G.B. I should take time to research. No older family members left -- I'm the older family member now.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008 10:38:00 PM  

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