My paternal grandfather Abraham immigrated by himself to America in 1905, leaving behind my grandmother Nettie to fend for herself with their firstborn infant, my Aunt Ella, in a small village called Rutki near Lomza, Poland. Once my grandfather settled in NYC, he worked in the garment industry as an embroiderer – the trade he learned in the old country. He returned to Poland in late 1911, already a U.S. citizen – Jacob (my Uncle Jack) was born in 1912 and when Abraham left again for America later that year, he was unaware that my grandmother was pregnant with Dorothy (my Aunt Dottie), who was born in 1913. When World War I broke out, he was separated once again from his family, this time for even longer. He returned to Poland in 1919, moved the family temporarily to Lomza, and worked towards the goal of immigration for his family. Abraham, Nettie, and the three children stepped foot on Ellis Island on April 9, 1921, after sailing from Southampton on the Aquitania. My dad Sam was the only member of his immediate family to be born in America, in September 1923.
My poor grandmother was left to fend for herself for six years the first time my grandfather was in America, and at least eight years the second time – that is 14 years in which she was essentially widowed. No wonder the poor woman was chronically depressed – of course my dad attributes this to immigrating to America and leaving some of her family behind in Poland – and certainly, part of her identity was left behind. Those who stayed were lost to history – and the Holocaust years later. By the time my dad was born, she was already depressed, so that is the way he remembers his dear mother. I personally think she was depressed for two other reasons – those terribly long separations from Abraham took a toll, and finding herself in a traditional housewife role in America. This way of life would have been quite unfamiliar to her, given her life in Poland as head of the household.
Nettie was a self-assured, strong woman who managed to take care of three children and fend for herself quite sufficiently in a small rural village. During this time, shtetls in Poland were subject to pogroms, in which Jewish people were forced to flee villages and in some cases, murdered. My grandmother was one scrappy lady to hold down the fort so to speak, and with three little children no less. Nettie owned a little grocery shop in her village and during the Great War, she sold and bartered contraband whiskey for staples to feed her three children. Where she obtained it, no one knows, but the point is she figured out a way to make ends meet during a terrible time. My dad has repeatedly told us that the best thing that happened during the war, was that a German soldier took up residence with my grandmother and her three children. My dad claims that he was very kind to them – offering some protection, playing with the children, and bringing them food, which was being rationed. Apparently he really made an impression on Ella, since she was the only one really old enough to tell my dad about their experiences during this time – I don’t think my grandmother liked talking about it.
My grandmother was 39 years old when my dad was born and she already looked quite different from her appearance a few years earlier. The transformation that took place from her passport photo in 1920 to a decade later was even more remarkable. That passport photo is the only one I can find of my grandmother in Poland – perhaps one of my first cousins has a photo. The depression must have taken a toll on my grandmother’s physical health. She gained a good deal of weight and looked old even in her 40s, suffering a heart attack at the age of 45. In the photo of my dad and her in the Catskills, she looks old enough to be his grandmother – a woman in her 60s rather than just shy of 50.
Life was not easy in America – my dad grew up dirt poor in what is now one of the worst and most dangerous ghettos in any city – at 661 Osborn Street in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. He had to sleep on a fold-out cot in the dining room until his siblings left and he finally had a bedroom. Their home was always open to those who needed a roof over their head – relatives came to visit or live with them quite often.
Since there was a huge age gap between my dad and his other siblings, he often spent summers alone with his mother while his dad worked at the Howard Clothes factory as a tailor – piecing together sleeves and collars on men’s jackets and dress shirts. My dad and Nettie would stay at different farms in the Catskills for a month or two every summer, and on an occasional weekend, Abraham and my dad’s siblings would visit. Ella was 18 years older than my dad, so she was more like a mother to him than a sister. Since my grandmother was very depressed, Ella took on this role quite a bit.
My grandmother was not a healthy woman – in addition to depression and the heart attack, she developed Parkinson’s disease. Three years after being diagnosed with the disease, she died on September 13, 1951 at the age of 67, just two days after my dad’s 28th birthday. My dad and mom had just started dating in January 1951, so my mom met Nettie just once in the summer of 1951. She was already in the hospital and near death, but well enough to tell my mom she needed to grow some meat on her bones. Nettie is buried in Montefiore Cemetery next to Abraham, who remarried a woman named Sarah rather quickly after her death. He died suddenly on April 21, 1955 at the age of 71 – my dad said he was feeling ill in the weeks prior and likely died of a heart attack or stroke. My dad knows very little about this other woman Sarah, other than that he believes the marriage was arranged, she barely spoke English, and his dad moved in with her, rather than her moving into the Osborn Street house. Sarah was at my parents’ wedding on May 17, 1953, but after Abraham died, there was no further contact.
I have often pondered where I inherited the desire to barter and sell goods. This started in childhood when I enjoyed good old-fashioned “horse trading” – selling creepy crawlers, baseball cards, and other little trinkets at school … and bartering with friends for treasures they had that I wanted! I have been hitting garages sales, flea markets, and rummage sales for four decades – and selling stuff for many years. I worked in the retail jewelry business briefly in the early 1980s, and have been selling on eBay since the early days in 1997. I believe I inherited this talent from the grandmother I never knew, since nobody else on either side of my family was a merchant. It is sad that I never knew my paternal grandparents. I often wonder what Nettie would have achieved if she had lived in a different day and age.