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)